Top of page

Collection Fine Prints: Japanese, pre-1915

About this Collection

The Library's Prints and Photographs Division houses more than 2,500 woodblock prints and drawings by Japanese artists of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries including Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Sadahide, and Yoshiiku. The Library of Congress appreciates the financial support provided by Nicihibunken (International Research Center for Japanese Studies, an Inter-University Research Institute Corporation) to scan 1,100 of the Ukiyo-e prints.

A modern version of the Tale of Genji in snow scenes. Toyokuni Utagawa, artist, 1853.

Subjects frequently depicted in the prints include:

The Library acquired its Japanese woodblock print holdings from a host of different donors and collectors including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, President William Howard Taft, Crosby Stuart Noyes, and Emily Crane Chadbourne.

Many schools, traditions, and genres are represented, notably surimono, privately distributed prints combining pictures and poetry, and prints from the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars. However, the primary strengths of the collection are the Japanese art forms known as Ukiyo-e and Yokohama-e.

Print Traditions

Ukiyo-e | Yokohama-e from the Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods

Ukiyo-e ("Pictures of the floating (or sorrowful) world")

The Japanese art of Ukiyo-e developed in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) during the Tokugawa or Edo Period (1600-1868), a relatively peaceful 250 years during which the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan and made Edo the shogunal seat of power.

Senju great bridge. Hiroshige Ando, artist, 1856.

The licensed pleasure quarter of Edo, known as the Yoshiwara, famed for its government-sanctioned brothels, kabuki theater, fashionable restaurants, and street entertainment, was a principal inspiration for many Ukiyo-e artists. Various forms of entertainment, particularly kabuki theater and the pleasure quarters, lured monied patrons who were eager in turn to acquire the vivid images of celebrated actors and beautiful courtesans. Over time, travel became a popular form of leisure and the pleasures of the natural environment, interesting landmarks, and the adventures encountered en route also became favorite Ukiyo-e themes. Subjects from Japanese myth, legend, literature, history, and daily life were also popular.

Crosby Stuart Noyes, an owner and editor-in-chief of the former Washington Evening Star, assembled what is now the Library's most extensive collection of Ukiyo-e, including about 1,300 prints, drawings, and illustrated books. More than 100 works from the Library's full collection of about 2500 Ukiyo-e prints are currently online. The Library of Congress exhibition The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance featured many of the prints, and the exhibition website includes additional information about collection themes and specific works.

Yokohama-e ("Pictures of Yokohama")

American naval officer Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) led an expedition to Japan between 1852 and 1854 that was instrumental in opening Japan to the Western world after more than 200 years of national seclusion (a policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate). New trade agreements beginning in the 1850s resulted in an unprecedented flow of travelers and goods between Japan and the West.

Picture of Western traders at Yokohama transporting merchandise and westerners. Sadahide Utagawa, artist, 1861.

For Japanese artists, the port city of Yokohama became an incubator for a new category of images that straddled convention and novelty. Building on methods of production and marketing established by Ukiyo-e artists and publishers, Edo print publishers began to send artists to Yokohama to sketch foreigners in situ. Bewhiskered men and crinoline-clad women were shown striding through the city, clambering on and off ships, riding horses, enjoying local entertainments, and interacting with an endless array of objects from goblets to locomotives.

In addition to eye-witness accounts, Yokohama-e often borrowed imagery from secondary sources, such as wood engravings in Western journals and newspapers. Yokohama-e artists also took frequent advantage of bright aniline dyes to heighten the visual intensity of their images.

Emily Crane Chadbourne donated most of the Yokohama prints currently in the Library's collection, and the entire Chadbourne Collection (about 180 prints) is online.