Suzuki Harunobu (ca. 1725-1770) was one of the six great masters of the Japanese wood-block print and was responsible for inventing the fully developed color print called nishiki-e, or brocade painting.
Born in Edo (modern Tokyo), Harunobu was one of the large group of artists whose work was devoted to the portrayal of scenes from contemporary life, especially the Kabuki theater and the courtesans of Yoshiwara, the amusement district of Edo. Tradition has it that Harunobu was a pupil of the famous Kyoto printmaker Sukenobu, but it is clear that he must also have studied the printmakers of the Torii school as well as Toyonobu and Chinese figure painters of the Ming period.
Harunobu's early works are of little distinction, generally following the conventional style of the day. At the age of 40 Harunobu emerged as the master of the color print. The event which established his reputation took place in 1765, when a group of amateur poets decided to print a deluxe edition of an illustrated calendar which they wished to distribute among their friends. Due to the genius of Harunobu and the excellence of the engraving and printing, which for the first time used multiple colors, this work at once became the rage of Edo. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the color prints, the artist embarked upon a period of great activity during which he produced no less than 600 prints in 6 years, but his brilliant career was cut short when he died at the age of 45.
The prints of Harunobu, which many Ukiyo-e collectors regard as the best ever made, are outstanding both for the beauty of their design and the superb quality of their execution, in which the finest natural colors and the best-quality cherry wood were used. Harunobu's subjects were graceful and slender young girls, some of whom were courtesans, though he was more apt to portray beauties from the streets and shops of Edo. Another group of his prints dealt with erotic subjects, which were treated with the refinement and sophistication for which he was famous. His vision of life is a very poetic one in which 18th-century Edo is transformed into a world of charm and elegance, with willowy beauties in colorful kimonos meeting their lovers, viewing nature, or simply pursuing the daily activities of their domestic life.
Although Harunobu was merely one of hundreds of Ukiyo-e artists who made prints dealing with these subjects, he is outstanding for the lyrical quality of his images and the delicate beauty of his colors and designs. Reducing the forms to flat, clearly defined, decorative patterns of color and showing a technical mastery rarely achieved in the history of Ukiyo-e, Harunobu produced some of the masterpieces of this art, works which were much admired in his own life and aroused the enthusiasm of artists like Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas when the prints were introduced to Paris in the late 19th century.
Studies of Harunobu include Yoné Noguchi, Harunobu (1940); Ichitaro Kondo, Suzuki Harunobu, English adaptation by Kaoru Ogimi (1956); and Lubor Hajek, Harunobu (trans. 1958). □