spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信)


Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信 active c. 1760 - died 1770) is celebrated for his ethereal female figures, winsome in demeanor and fragile of substance. His idealized beauties, many of them courtesans, were very popular in his day, and his style of depicting women dominated bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画) from the early 1760s until his death in 1770 while influencing a number of other important print artists. The image shown below is one of his enduring masterpieces. A young beauty visiting a shrine at night must contend with a blustery wind and driving rain, her colorful garments and paper lantern billowing up toward the right. She is one of the countless waif-like visions for which the artist is famous.

Suzuki Harunobu: Ôsen (お仙), waitress at the Kagiya (かぎや) teahouse
Visit at night to the Kasamori Inari Shrine (笠森稲荷神社)
Woodcut, chûban, c. 1765-67 (280 x 205 mm)

Harunobu's beauty is assumed to be Ôsen (お仙) of the Kagiya (かぎや) teahouse in the precinct of Kasamori Inari Jinja (笠森稲荷神社) at Yanaka (谷中) in Edo. She can be identified by the family crest on her lantern. Until her marriage in 1771 at age 19, Ôsen was a waitress at the Kagiya located before the Torii entrance to the shrine. She was a celebrated attraction at the teahouse and the subject of several designs by Harunobu. Towels with her picture, woodblock prints, illustrated books, and even Ôsen dolls were sold. After the kabuki actor Nakajima Mihoemon II (三保右衛門 1724-82) mentioned her in a play, her popularity soared to even greater heights. Ôsen, together with Ôfuji (お藤) of the toothpick shop Hon'yanagi (本柳) and Ôyoshi (お芳) of the teahouse Tsutaya (蔦屋), were called the "Three Beauties" (San bijin: 三美人). The trio appears in the 1769 single-volume, woodblock-printed illustrated book (ehon: 絵本) called Ame-uri Dohei den, Kasamori Ôsen tsuketari (売飴土平伝 笠森阿仙附) by Ôta Nanpo (大田南畝 1749-1823), which was illustrated by Harunobu.

There is additional cultural and historical resonance in this image. Harunobu's print has been interpreted as a mitate ("view and compare," or analogue: 見立絵). Mitate-e were designs offering imaginative, simultaneous, and multiple layers of meaning that coexisted rather than blended (for more, see mitate). Here, the scene refers to the (能) play Aridôshi (蟻通) in which the Heian-period courtier and poet Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之, 872-945) remains on horseback as he passes by a shrine. The heavens open up and a downpour ensues. When his horse collapses, he is confronted by an elderly shrine guard holding an umbrella and a torch (just as Ôsen carries her umbrella and a lantern), who tells Tsurayuki that the shrine god has punished him for his impious failure to dismount from his horse. Not realizing that he had ridden by the shrine, Tsurayuki recites a poem of apology to the god in accordance with the old man's advice. As soon as he is finished, the horse rises up fully recovered. Then the old man tells Tsurayuki that he is the incarnation of the Aritoshi Shrine god and disappears into the darkness.

Harunobu is closely associated with the introduction of the earliest nishiki-e (full-color woodblock or "brocade" prints: 錦絵), although recent reearch suggests he might not have been the first to use a full-color palette in single-sheet printmaking. Regardless, Harunobu and his printers superceded the prior standard for two or three colors by using five to eight color blocks, and in some uncommon instances, as many as ten.

Harunobu was, above all, a designer of female figures in paintings, prints, and ehon. Beyond these works, however, he produced a small number of landscapes incorporating elements of the Kanô school (狩野派 and perhaps a bit of Tosa school 土佐派 as well). There are also some fine kachôga (bird and flower prints: 花鳥画) done in a decorative manner recalling Ming paintings and ehon, many of these sources imported through the port of Nagasaki. Among the Japanese influences, the Kyoto master Nishikawa Sukenobu stands out as essentially important to Harunobu, as he derived much inspiration from various Sukenobu ehon and was not adverse to copying, line-for-line, certain designs before enhancing them with full-color, single-sheet "upgrades."

Suzuki Harunobu kamezoHarunobu is said to have been a student of Nishimura Shigenaga (西村重長 c. 1697–1756). His early work shows the influence of Ishikawa Toyonobu (石川豊信 1711–1785), Torii Kiyomitsu (鳥居清満 1735–1785), and Torii Kiyotsune (鳥居清経 act. c. 1757–1779) and is not especially distinguished. Many of these designs involve Chinese classical subjects and stories. A fairly large group (at least 36 known examples from 1763-64) depicts, in vertical hosoban format, views linked with Ômi hakkei (Eight views of Lake Ômi: 近江八景) featuring figures in landscapes with associated poems, whose earliest states used light colors for the keyblock lines and were called mizu-e ("water pictures": 水絵). Another important genre for Haunobu was the egoyomi (picture calendar: 絵暦) for the years 1765-66. Distributed privately, they often bore the numerals for the long and sometimes also the short months, and when needed, intercalary months, worked into his bijinga and other designs.

Not often mentioned are Harunobu's forays into yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵). Possibly the earliest of these is a portrait of Ichimura Kamezô I (市村亀蔵) as Tachibanaya Hikosô [Gensô] in the premiere of the jidaimono (history play: 時代物) involving the Date Clan titled Ume momiji Date no ôkido (梅紅葉伊達大關) at the Ichimura Theater, Edo, in 11/1760. The scholar Asano Shûgô has written that it is possible Harunobu had a close relationship with the Ichimura-za, and it also seems that he produced a large number of yakusha-e that were popular and sold well. In fact, Harunobu's surviving works in this genre span five years, 1760-64, and constitute the largest percentage of designs from this period. It wasn't until about 1765 that he ceased making yakusha-e, which the Ukiyo-e ruikô (History of floating world prints: 浮世絵類考) attempted to explain by attributing a disparaging remark to Harunobu when he purportedly announced that he "abstained from portraying kabuki actors... I am a Yamato master. Why then, I shall cease drawing the forms of lowly stage folk!"

In Harunobu's hosoban-format print, Kamezô is performing as a watabôshi uri (seller of cotton hats: 綿帽子賣), who is actually (according to Hiller; see ref. below) Taira no Takashige in disguise. His merchandise is carried in the large box (labeled Segawa watabôshi, 瀬川わたぼし) set down beside him, with the actor's poetry name Kakitsu (家橘) written above it. The "Segawa watabôshi" refers to a hat worn by Segawa Kikunojô I (1693-1749) for a New Year's performance at the Nakamura-za in 1/1734, which quickly became the latest fashion craze in Edo. The poem reads Hana nagara / tsumoru hikage ya / kiku no wata (The cotton of the chrysanthemum while in its bloom is piled up to the sun). This is a benizuri-e (two-color print: 紅摺絵) in the hosoban format using only red and green, thus preceding Harunobu's adoption of the nishiki-e palette. The publisher's mark reads Dai (大) and Suzuki (). Harunobu's drawing of Kamezô owes much to Kiyomitsu and Kiyotsune, as it is reminiscent of their late Torii style in which the once robust and energetic early Torii manner from the first half of the eighteenth century has given way to a gentler and less agitated expression.

Suzuki Harunobu: Nurioke no bosetsu (Evening snow on the floss shaper: 塗桶の暮雪)
Woodcut, chûban, 1766 (283 x 206 mm)
Series: Ômi hakkei (Eight views of Lake Ômi: 近江八景)

The methods required to produce pigments compatible with woodblock color printing and the techniques needed to print several colors with correct registration were the results of developments between the 1620s and the 1740s. Recent evidence now suggests that Katsukawa Shunshô (1726-1792) designed full-color prints in the second month of 1764, which would have preceded by more than a year Harunobu's earliest known examples from the summer of 1765. Nevertheless, Harunobu's genius extended well beyond the mere application of color to his designs. The year 1765 was indeed a watershed year with the appearance of Harunobu's earliest full-color prints, and by the following year one of the glorious sets of ukiyo-e prints appeared in a privately issued edition, his Zashiki hakkei (Eight parlor views: 坐敷八景). In these prints we can observe the sophistication and wit that makes Harunobu's art stand out from the rest of his contemporaries.

Zashiki hakkei features one of Harunobu's favorite pictorial genres, namely, the aforementioned mitate. The eight views in this series were playful remakes of Ômi hakkei (Eight views of Lake Ômi: 近江八景), traditional scenes to the southwest of Lake Biwa in the province of Ômi, said to have been so designated by the former regent Konoe in 1500. The Japanese views were inspired by the Chinese Xiâoxiâng Bâjing (The Eight Views of Xiaoxiang: 潇湘八景; also known as "Eight views on the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers") in Hunan province.

The example shown above, Nurioke no bosetsu (Evening snow on the floss shaper: 塗桶の暮雪) parodies the scene known as Hira no bosetsu (Lingering snow on Mount Hira: 比良の暮雪). Nurioke (塗桶) were lacquered, dome-shaped covers for small heaters. The use of substantial karazuri ("Empty printing" or "empty rubbing": 空摺) marks this design as one of the most successful early examples from Harunobu's oeuvre to employ blind-printing to great effect. The impression shown immediately above is the second (lifetime) edition after the addition of embossed diamond pattern on the wall and without the artist's signature, which was nearly universal for this state.

Suzuki Harunobu mitate urashima
Suzuki Harunobu: Urashima Tarô (浦島太郎)
Woodcut, chûban, c. 1767-68 (273 x 210 mm)

The final print illustrated above, was published circa 1767-68. It brings us to one of Harunobu's fanciful visualizations of a folk story or fairytale. Urashima Tarô (浦島太郎), a young fisherman, catches a long-tailed kame (turtle: 亀), symbol of longevity. He decides to return it to the sea. The following day, a maiden (Otohime) appears in a boat and asks for help reaching home. The journey is long, but finally they reach the Dragon King's Palace under the sea. The beauty (an incarnation of the magic turtle) invites Urashima to marry her, which he does. They live happily together for three years, but he decides to go back to his village. She gives him a precious box with instructions not to open it. He then discovers that he has been gone for 700 years. Distraught, he opens the box, whereupon a violet cloud is released, transforming him into an old man and causing him to die instantly. His spirit, however, flies off in the form of a tsuru (crane 鶴), another symbol of longevity, to join his bride in eternal life.

Typical of Harunobu's portrayal of male youth is Urashima's delicacy and effeminate demeanor. The tale is one of the so-called otogi-zôshi ("Tales told by a companion": 御伽草子), a group of about 350 Japanese prose narratives written primarily during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), known in the form of illustrated short stories. It so happens, however, that the portrayal of Urashima riding a turtle is a much more recent bit of iconography, dating only to the early 18th century. The poem reads Unabara ya / kaze osamareru / nami no ue ni / omou mo toshi / miyo no yukusue (The expanse of ocean! / and the wind lies calm over / its rippling wavelets: / just to think of it is vast / as the future of our age!).

Haunobu's oeuvre exerted a strong influence on other artists working in the 1770s, primarily during the early stages of their careers. These included Isoda Koryûsai, Kitao Shigemasa, Ippitsûsai Bunchô, and Katsukawa Shunshô. © 2001-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Asano, S.: "The actor prints of Suzuki Harunobu: A focus on the newly published kyôgen ezukushi and fan prints," in: Tadashi Kobayashi (author / supervisor), et al.: Seishun no ukiyo-e-shi Suzuki Harunobu — Edo no kararisuto tôjo (Suzuki Harunobu ukiyo-e master of the springtime of youth: Entry on stage of the Edo colorist). Chiba City Museum of Art: 2002, pp. 299-301.
  • Clark, Tim and Ueda, O.: The Actor’s Image: Print makers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 94.
  • Clark, Tim, "Mitate e: Some thoughts, and a summary of recent writings," in: Impressions, 19, 1997, pp. 7-27.
  • Fiorillo, John: "Refashioning the Legends of Komachi in Mitate-e," in: Andon, Society for Japanese Arts, 1999, no. 63; 17-30.
  • Gentles, Margaret: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints, vol. II. Art Institute of Chicago, 1965.
  • Hiller, J.: Suzuki Harunobu. A Selection of His Color Prints and Illustrated Books. Philadelphia Museum of Arts, 1970.
  • Waterhouse, David: "The Birth of the Full-colour Print: Suzuki Harunobu and His Age, Early 1760s to Early 1780s," in: Amy Reigle Newland (ed.), The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005, pp. 93-116.
  • Waterhouse, David: Harunobu and His Age: The Development of Colour Printing in Japan. London: British Museum, 1964.
  • Waterhouse, David: Images of Eighteenth Century Japan: Ukiyo-e Prints from the Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1975, pp. 122-123.
  • Waterhouse, David: The Harunobu Decade: A Catalogue of Woodcuts by Suzuki Harunobu and his followers in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2013, vol., 1 (text 502pp), vol. 2 (714 illus.).
  • Tadashi Kobayashi (author / supervisor), et al.: Seishun no ukiyo-e-shi Suzuki Harunobu — Edo no kararisuto tôjo (Suzuki Harunobu ukiyo-e master of the springtime of youth: Entry on stage of the Edo colorist). Chiba City Museum of Art: 2002.
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.