Image of Japanese print Drying clothes


Edo in Colour

Prints from Japan’s Metropolis


As a relatively young city, Edo found pride in the historical place of its setting. Fuji’s white peak and the verses of poets of centuries past were woven into popular prints just as readily as fast-moving fashions and the novelty of imported linear perspective. At the same time, peace supported a growing culture of travel. Images that celebrated Edo’s bustling landmarks made fitting souvenirs and gazetteers promised vistas of sites beyond its limits. By 1830, imported Prussian blue was added to the printmakers’ palette. As artists exploited its potential, a new print genre developed—landscape—and prints’ horizons expanded.

Back to Edo in Colour

Drying clothes
Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, c. 1790
CBL J 2538

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  • Image of Japanese print New Year’s dream

    New Year’s dream
    From Prosperous flowers of the elegant twelve months
    Isoda Koryūsai
    Japan, c. 1773
    CBL J 2459
    A young couple share the same dream—a vision of themselves walking in front of Mt Fuji, a hawk and a crop of aubergines. During the Edo period, this trio of sacred mountain, bird of prey and glossy vegetable were identified as a lucky combination for the first dream of the New Year. Exactly why these three is uncertain, but they are often encountered in prints and poetry.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Kaminarimon gate at Kannon temple, Asakusa

    Kaminarimon gate at Kannon temple, Asakusa
    Tamagawa Shūchō
    Japan, c. 1795
    CBL J 2656
    Fires were an all-too frequent occurrence in Edo. In 1772 the famous Kaminarimon gate of Asakusa’s Sensōji Kannon temple was destroyed in the devastating Meiwa blaze. Adopting the European technique of linear perspective, this ‘floating picture’ (uki-e) may have been issued to mark completion of the Kaminarimon’s reconstruction in 1795. With a history predating Edo, Sensōji temple occupied a special place in the cityscape.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Cherry blossom viewing at Asukayama

    Cherry blossom viewing at Asukayama
    Katsukawa Shunchō
    Japan, 1785–89
    CBL J 2823
    Cherry blossom viewing became a fixture of Japan’s imperial court calendar in 813 AD. Embodying beauty, love and life, the flowers of these trees offered a backdrop for poetry and courtship. In Edo’s urban setting, numerous sites claimed fame for their cherry blossoms. In 1737, the hill at Asukayama was made available for public recreation by shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune. Each spring, crowds flocked to revel under its pink blossom clouds.

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  • Image of Japanese print Newly published perspective view: Enjoying cool evening at Edo’s Ryōgoku bridge

    Newly published perspective view: Enjoying cool evening at Edo’s Ryōgoku bridge
    Kitagawa Utamaro II
    Japan, 1806–18
    CBL J 2522
    The first Ryōgoku river-opening fireworks display was held on Edo’s Sumida river in 1733 with the approval of shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune. It quickly became a calendar highlight, opening the river for the summer’s entertainments. Each year, the wealthy leased pleasure boats to watch from the water, while vast crowds gathered on the immense Ryōgoku bridge and jostled to get snacks in the stalls that lined the riverside. In the spectacle and excitement, the city drew together in wonder.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Shichirigahama beach, Sagami province

    Shichirigahama beach, Sagami province
    From 36 views of Mount Fuji
    Katsushika Hokusai
    Japan, 1831
    CBL J 2745
    None of the prints in Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘36 views of Mt Fuji’ are formally dated. It is suggested that colour holds the key to the publication sequence. According to this analysis, Hokusai introduced additional colours as the series progressed, echoing the day’s changing light and the resulting perception of colour. The first prints, as here, use only the muted blues of twilight. In those that followed, accent colours suggest the sun’s first rays, until the full colour spectrum captures the world in bright sunshine.

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  • Image of Japanese printed book 100 views of Mount Fuji

    100 views of Mount Fuji
    Katsushika Hokusai
    CBL J 1614.2
    In ‘100 views of Mount Fuji’, Katsushika Hokusai captures Fuji’s spirituality, its beauty, even its playfulness. Here, Hokusai layers the past with the present. On the left sits 8th-century courtier-poet Yamabe no Akahito, author of the earliest poem describing Fuji. During Akahito’s lifetime, Fuji was considered remote, being far from the capital at Nara. To the right, Hokusai gives the poet a glimpse of contemporary Fuji—salt gatherers busy on the shore.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Kirifuri waterfall near Mount Kurokami, Shimotsuke

    Kirifuri waterfall near Mount Kurokami, Shimotsuke
    From the series Tour of waterfalls in various provinces
    Katsushika Hokusai
    Japan, c. 1833
    CBL J 2760
    The peace of the Edo period, its ordered roads and managed highways, all supported a growing interest in travel for recreation and pilgrimage. By the early 19th century, Japan was gripped by a travel boom. As travellers found ways around the shogunate’s systems of barriers and permits, they ventured cross country. This widespread interest (experienced in reality and through the printed page), primed the market for the success of the landscape print genre.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Plum garden at Kameido

    Plum garden at Kameido
    From 100 famous views of Edo
    Utagawa Hiroshige
    Japan, 1857
    CBL J 2693
    Utagawa Hiroshige’s ‘Plum garden at Kameido’ is among the most famous depictions of Edo. In its first printing, the sky is entirely pink. The blue band at the top of this impression reveals it to be of a subsequent (though still captivating) printing. The diversity and number of prints surviving from Hiroshige’s ‘100 famous views’ series are witness to its enduring popularity. What was a source of pride for locals became the perfect souvenir for visitors to the city.

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  • Image of Japanese print Asakusa ricefields and Torinomachi festival

    Asakusa ricefields and Torinomachi festival
    From 100 famous views of Edo
    Utagawa Hiroshige
    Japan, 1857
    CBL J 2695
    In the upper storey of a Yoshiwara brothel, a cat watches crowds return from the Torinomachi festival. This winter festival was one of Edo’s liveliest and the revellers wave bamboo rakes bought to ‘rake in’ fortune. As a neighbour of the shrine, the Yoshiwara brothel district was especially busy. But Hiroshige’s scene is conspicuously still. The used washbasin suggests a client just departed. The lucky rake hairpins were perhaps a souvenir gift. For now, a moment’s rest is enjoyed, and the cat continues its vigil.

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