Picturing the Floating World: Ukiyo-e in Context

Julie Nelson Davis

A 40-minute Zoom presentation followed by 30 minutes of Q&A held on Wednesday, 8 July 2020, 4–5:10 p.m. ET, via Zoom. 

Ukiyo-e, the “pictures of the floating world,” are regarded today as masterpieces, with these prints and books among the most iconic (and expensive) in Japanese art. Yet it is often said that ukiyo-e was not appreciated in its home country in its own time, rather that it was when prints and books arrived in France accidentally—as packing material for ceramics—that they were given due credit. In this talk, Julie Nelson Davis debunked the myth of ukiyo-e having been used for packing and wrapping, demonstrating that ukiyo-e was thoroughly appreciated as a field of artistic production, worthy of connoisseurship, and even of canonization in its own time. Putting these images back into their dynamic context, Davis described how consumers, critics, and makers produced and sold, valued and collected, discussed and recorded ukiyo-e. In this talk Davis recovered this multilayered world of pictures, showing how some were made for a commercial market, backed by savvy entrepreneurs seeking out new ways to make a profit, while others were produced for private coteries and high-ranking individuals seeking cultural capital. In doing so, Davis showed how ukiyo-e was a genre under construction in its own time. 

Follow the conversation on social media using hashtags #RBSOnline and #DavisFloatingWorld.

This webinar was presented live in July 2020. The session was recorded, and you are invited to watch the recording of the event below via our RBS YouTube channel.


Header image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival (Asakusa tanbo Torinomachi mōde), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1857; published by Uoya Eikichi. Color woodblock print, Ōban tate-e 14 3/4 x 10 3/16 in. (37.4 x 25.9 cm). Mary A. Ainsworth Bequest, 1950.1445, Allen Memorial Art Museum.