Emerson Gallery

History of Exhibitions


Inside the Floating World: Japanese Prints from the Lenoir C. Wright Collection

September 23, 2004 - January 2, 2005

Black-naped Oriole on a Rose, mid-1830s
Hirodshige (1797-1858)
hosoban, 15 x 5 1/2

The victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 ended more than a century of civil war among Japan's samurai clans and ushered in 250 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity. As the new shogun (military ruler), Ieyasu established his capital in Edo, a small village far removed from Japan's traditional centers of artistic production. By the early 1700s, Edo had grown into a bustling metropolis of more than one million inhabitants. Its vibrant urban culture became the inspiration for a new form of artistic expression known as ukiyo-e, floating world pictures.

The floating world referred to the escapist lifestyle and ephemeral pleasures offered in Edo's kabuki theaters and the Yoshiwara, a licensed brothel district on the northern outskirts of the city. With star actors and glamorous courtesans as their piimary subjects, ukiyo-e artists conveyed the intricate nuances of the floating world to an appreciative and diverse clientele. Being especially attuned to popular pastimes and pursuits, they also exploited the public's love of travel and its fascination with samurai history. By the early ninteenth century, the repertoire of floating world images included landscapes and warrior prints. as well as illustrated books and prints for children.

Ukiyo-e artists preferred the woodblock print medium because it was flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of artistic expression. Whether they were cheaply produced black and white images or luxurious full-color designs using exotic pigments and precious mineral, the woodblock medium also facilitated mass production. Keeping pace with the latest developments in popular culture was never a problem; astute publishers, with access to workshops of engravers and printers, could turn an artist's sketch into a full-color print in a matter of days. Successful designs were issued in several editions to meet popular demand. These prints carried Edo's urban culture and the floating world's unique sensibilities far beyond their origins in the entertainment districts.

This exhibition provides an opportunity to experience the intricacies of the floating world and the artistry of the woodblock print tradition. Over sixty prints organized to represent the major genres, themes, and subjects explored by print artists from the early eighteenth through the late ninteenth centuries provide a unique glimpse of life and art inside the floating world and popular Japanese culture of the time.

The exhibition was organized by The Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensborothis exhibition featured over 100 woodblock prints. Accompanied by an exhibition catalogue distributed by the University of Washington Press. Its presentation at Hamilton College is made possible through the generosity of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Dean of the Faculty and the Department of Art History.