Bijin-ga (美人画), or “pictures of beautiful women”, were a popular genre of Japanese woodblock prints that emerged in the 17th century and reached their peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These prints depicted women in a variety of settings, from elegant court scenes to everyday activities such as bathing or reading. Bijin-ga prints were highly valued for their beauty and elegance, and they were widely collected both in Japan and abroad.
The popularity of bijin-ga prints was due in part to their reflection of traditional Japanese values and aesthetics, which placed a high value on beauty and refinement. The prints often featured idealized images of women who embodied these values, with delicate features, graceful poses, and luxurious clothing and accessories. Bijin-ga prints were also often imbued with symbolic and allegorical meaning, such as the association of certain flowers or colors with specific qualities or emotions.
One of the most famous bijin-ga artists was Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), whose elegant and sensual depictions of women were highly prized during his lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. Utamaro’s prints were characterized by a masterful use of line, color, and composition, as well as a keen eye for detail and texture.
Other notable bijin-ga artists include Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770), who is credited with pioneering the genre, and Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), who was renowned for his depictions of women in fashionable attire. These artists and many others contributed to the development of bijin-ga as a major genre of Japanese art, and their work continues to be celebrated for its beauty, technical excellence, and cultural significance.
In the 20th century, the bijin-ga genre of Japanese woodblock prints continued to thrive, with many artists creating new and innovative works that reflected contemporary themes and styles.
One such artist was Ito Shinsui (1898-1972), who is widely regarded as one of the greatest bijin-ga artists of the modern era. Shinsui’s prints were characterized by their delicate lines, soft colors, and intimate depictions of women in everyday settings. Another notable artist of the 20th century was Yamakawa Shuho (1898-1944), who was known for his bold and dynamic prints of beautiful women engaged in activities such as dancing and playing music.
The 20th century also brought new life to the traditional Japanese art form of bijin-ga. Many artists, inspired by the work of their predecessors, sought to push the boundaries of the genre and create new and innovative works. One such artist was Hashiguchi Goyo (1880-1921), who is considered one of the greatest bijin-ga artists of the 20th century. Goyo’s prints were characterized by their subtle coloration, intricate patterns, and stunning use of mica, a type of mineral that added a shimmering effect to the prints. Bijin-ga also carried over into the late 20th century through the illustrative works of Nakajima Kiyoshi.
Forrer, Matthi. “The Female Image: 20th Century Prints of Japanese Beauties.” Hotei Publishing, 2000.