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100 BEAUTIES: SUZUKI HARUNOBU

One hundred of the most beautiful and most compelling woodblock prints of bijin or ‘beautiful women’ from Suzuki Harunobu, master printmaker of 18th century Edo - today’s Tokyo - together with essays on Harunobu’s life and times, his artistic techniques and of course his ‘beauties’

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

Despite the significance of Harunobu's artistic legacy, we know little about his personal life. He was almost certainly born in Edo in 1725, where he studied in the tradition of the Torii School of painting that had been brought to Edo from Kyoto by the ukiyo-e master Torii Kiyonobu in 1687.

At that time, during the second half of the 17th century, the earliest ukiyo-e were produced in monochrome, printed in Indian ink and sometimes hand-painted afterwards. By the time Harunobu was a young man, printing technology had advanced somewhat with the introduction of benizuri-e or ‘rose-coloured pictures', which were generally produced in shades of pink and green, permitting the use of two, three and sometimes even four colours which might also be hand-painted after printing. Harunobu is known to have studied in the art of benizuri-e, producing prints for Kabuki theatres as well as such popular themes as courtesans, sumo wrestlers, landscapes and shunga – though the latter were notionally forbidden by the Tokugawa administration.

During this period Harunobu is considered to have been influenced by a number of different schools in addition to the Torii, including Kamawata and Kano Schools, though experts suggest the single strongest influence on the artists as a young man was the Kyoto printmaker Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) who may perhaps have been Harunobu's direct teacher. He is also known to have been influenced by 16th century Chinese genre painting, notably the work of the celebrated Ming Dynasty artists Qiu Ying (c.1494-1552) and Tang Yin (1470-1524). Like the latter, Harunobu was a talented calligrapher and poet as well as a painter, and he seems to have been well-schooled in Japanese literature and poetry.

All this suggests that Harunobu came from a well-to-do family, though we have no records of this. Certainly his social connections helped him in his developing career, and he is known to have associated with a group of samurai literati who both bought his work and encouraged him to try out new techniques...

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