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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  Artists Biographies

Harunobu Suzuki 1724-1770

Suzuki Harunobu is foremost among the Ukiyo-e artists. He was an innovator who began a new era for Japanese woodblock prints by becoming the first major artist to produce full colour prints or Nishiki-e (literally brocade prints) in 1765, leaving out the former modes of several colouring prints. Harunobu also played a part in bringing about a new scheme for colour composition by using many special techniques. He selected a wide variety of subjects, from classical poems to contemporary beauties, depicting them with his own style and form

Born in 1724 with his real name, Hozumi, very little is known about Harunobu’s life.  The Ukiyo-e Ruiko (a compilation of Ukiyo-e artists’ biography)’ notes that Harunobu was a pupil of Nishikawa, Sukenobu (1671-1750) in Kyoto, and moved to Edo (current day Tokyo) around 1759, however, the works made while he resided in Kyoto have never been found. His early works include Kabuki actors and genre prints in Benizuri-e (a print on black lines with a few applied colours) appeared around 1760 but they did not yet have the distinctive style of Harunobu. In 1765, the discovery of polychrome prints was the key for Harunobu to take advantage for developing his works and making Nishiki-e popular. The special method was to use ‘Kento’ registration mark on wood to register a paper in order to print multiple colours with accurate edge. ‘Kento’ was introduced much earlier by Uemura Kichiemon on fan print in 1744, which was beginning of Benizuri-e era and had developed over the years by artists and artisans. Harunobu’s works were often seen in Benizuri-e and later in Nishiki-e.

Harunobu is best known for his Bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) by using real female models in Edo city. Some are popular teahouse waitresses and some are courtesans in the licensed quarter. Others are women such as wives or daughters of samurai, merchants, farmers and fishermen. Combining his interest of Chinese and Japanese poetry with the female figures, he delivered poetic imagery. Harunobu also liked to play with motifs from Chinese history, religion and folklore and portrayed scenes of children at play in domestic setting in different time of a day. He used a solid single colour background, created by a technique called tsubishi, which was effective for creating moods, time, seasons and climates. He was the first to introduce scenes in snow and at night.

It was around this time that
Egoyomi (calendar prints) became increasingly popular among the literati. The production of calendars for private artistic groups can be connected with the opening of a new observatory in the Ushigome district of Edo in the latter part of 1764, and the establishment there of a new office for examining calendars. Hiraga Gennai (1729-79), scholar, philosopher, satirist, dramatist and a champion of enlightenment even founded a club for the collection of these calendars. Harunobu was fortunately not only a contemporary of Gennai, but also a neighbour. Thus, he was very closely in touch with these artistic clubs, producing for them Nishiki-e. They were exchanged as gifts and everybody strived to make the richest and most beautiful Egoyomi- both in design, colours and printing materials used since, as art connoisseurs, the prints for them had to be carried out with a care and finish which only these intellectuals were capable of appreciating or affording. As a result, he could use the more expensive and better quality cherry wood blocks and more expensive colours with thicker application, and could use as many blocks as he liked for a single print; a turning point for Ukiyo-e. 

During his active period (1767-1770), Harunobu produced between 600 and 800 works on woodblock print, 11 paintings and numerous book illustrations. Though after a sudden illness, Harunobu died at the age of 45, his style was continued and copied for so long after his death. The artists such as Shigemasa, Shunsho, Koryusai, Kiyonaga and Shiba Kokan were all influenced by the master, followed by the next generation of artists. The golden era of Ukiyo-e commenced and ended with the works of Harunobu.


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