Japanese paintings and prints are aesthetic, complex, and expressive works of art.  The school of art best known in the West is the Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints of the demimonde, the world of the kabuki theater and the brothel district.  Ukiyo-e means pictures of the Floating World, and it is defined as variations on the theme of life as a transient experience.  It was developed in the Edo period (1615-1868) of Japanese history.  Almost all of the Western Impressionist painters, including Manet, Monet, Degas, Mary Cassatt, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, were influenced by this genre of Japanese art. 

Waggon-wheel on the beach at Takanawa from one hundred views of Edo, (1857)

In the 19th century the most famous Japanese artist was Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), painter and printmaker who changed everyday landscapes into intimate, lyrical scenes.  The strange angles and shapes through which he viewed landscape influenced Impressionist artists.  

His career falls roughly into three periods. From 1811 to about 1830 he made prints of traditional subject matter such as young women and actors.  For the next 15 years he was known as a landscape artist, reaching a peak of success and achievement in 1833 when his masterpiece Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido was published.  He maintained this high level of craftmanship in other travel series such as Celebrated Places in Japan and Sixty-nine Stations on the Kiso Highway. The work he did during the last years of his life (which was the third period) is sometimes of lesser quality.  The artist seems to have hurriedly met the demands of popularity.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1823-31
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), was a Japanese painter and wood engraver.  He is considered another outstanding figures of the Ukiyo-e, school of printmaking besides Hiroshige. Hokusai is generally more appreciated by the Westerners than Japanese. His prints were enthusiastically collected by Impressionists. Hokusai's classic wood-block prints, silkscreens, and landscape paintings were produced between 1830 and 1840. The free curved lines which were characteristic of his artistic style gave the utmost freedom and grace to his art. His best-known works included the 13-volume sketchbook Hokusai Manga (begun 1814) and the series of block prints Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1826-33).

Women Making and Selling Prints, 18th c.

Another Ukiyo-e artist who also had a profound impact on the Impressionists was Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). His subject matter was mainly about court ladies and women of the amusement district of Edo.  With emphasis on flat planes and strong linear outlines, Utamaro portrayed the ideals of feminine charm in all their aspects. He is best known for the grace and elegance of his designs, for his delicate handling of character and mood, and for his skillful execution of the woodblock technique.  His famous prints included A Mother Bathing Her Son and Women Making and Selling Print.