Historical Context

The Making of a Japanese Print: Harunobu's "Heron Maid"

The "Heron Maid" was created by Suzuki Harunobu in the Japanese Edo Period through woodblock printing. It represents the characteristics of artworks during this time through its focus on the landscape and the contemporary fashion in Japan.  

Two Beauties By the Water's Edge

Two Beauties By the Water's Edge is another artwork created by Suzuki Harunobu in the Japanese Edo period through woodblock printing. Polychromatic woodblock prints, nevertheless, rose to prominence through Harunobu's illustrations. 

The Making of a Japanese Print, not only illustrates the stages of the printing process through its folded panels, but it also references the culture of the Edo period by encompassing Harunobu’s “Heron Maid.” The book evokes a sense of appreciation for the art that flourished during this era, which portrayed artists as creative individuals representing the diverse tastes of the chonin

The Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art published articles in 2003 and 2004 called “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style” and the “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style,” which explored the rich history of Japanese art and the woodblock prints that flourished during the Edo period (1615–1868). The Edo period was a time of internal peace under the control of a strict military government—the Tokugawa Shogunate. As wealthy patrons commissioned the works of artists, they prospered from the booming economy, which elevated their social status alongside merchants in Japan. Artists drew their inspiration from an emerging culture that celebrated women, kabuki actors, and visitors. Traditionally, Japanese paintings were directed towards the wealthy and ruling classesknown as the chonin,but right after the invention of woodblock printing, these paintings began to reflect the everyday lives of ordinary people (ngv.vic.gov.au). The word ukiyo, therefore, epitomizes a “hedonistic culture that glorified life in the ‘floating world’ [which] was particularly well expressed in the production of woodblock prints…captivating images of seductive courtesans, exciting kabuki actors, and famous romantic vistas” (“Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style”). Characteristics of these paintings included a seasonal theme, focusing on landscapes and the contemporary fashion of Japan. Harunobu’s “Heron Maid” portrayed in The Making of a Japanese Print conveys these features as embossing illuminates the polka-dot patterns on the woman’s kimono, the contrasting colors of the umbrella, and the texture of the snow. Polychrome prints, therefore, achieved their prominence from Harunobu’s (1725–1770) designs, “which came to be known as nishiki-e or ‘brocade pictures’ because of their brilliant colors” (Chiba 2). 

Before 1765, printmakers worked in monochrome and filled in the colors of their drawings by hand; however, according to the article “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style,” the introduction of new technology made it possible to “produce single-sheet prints in a whole range of colors.” The printing process required labor from four specialists—a designer, engraver, printer, and publisher. The artist prepared designs to the publisher’s preference, who determined the theme of the work and simultaneously played the role of a bookseller by commissioning it. The artist also transferred the design onto a sheet of thin, transparent paper. The engraver then pasted this paper on the woodblock and carved it in the shape of the image using a chisel, which raised the colored areas on the surface for relief printing. The ink was applied, and the rubbing of the round pad—also known as a baren—over the back of the paper against the woodblock constituted a print. Hence, these woodblocks provided an ideal surface for carving intricate designs and holding in ink, which led to the development of polychrome prints.