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Nishikawa Sukenobu (西川祐信)


HashimotoNishikawa Sukenobu (西川祐信 1671-1751) was trained in Tosa (studying possibly with Tosa Mitsusuke, 1675-1710), Rinpa, Kanô (training with Kanô Einô, 1631-97), and ukiyo-e painting, enabling him to attain notable success as a painter. Many of his paintings display ability in multiple styles within the same composition. A kimono, for example, might include a design with a tree in Kanô style and birds in the Rinpa manner, while the woman wearing the robe would be drawn in the standard ukiyo-e fashion. These styles also appear in his ehon (woodblock-printed books: 繪本).

Sukenobu produced few, if any, single-sheet prints (ichimai-e: 一枚絵), but his production of book illustrations was formidable. Sukenobu's first signed works appeared in 1708, although it is generally accepted that he produced unsigned designs for books from at least 1699 in illustrated fiction known as ukiyo-zôshi ("notes of the floating world": 浮世草子) and in yakusha hyôbanki (actor critiques: 役者評判記).

The scholar Jack Hillier wrote, "The picture books of Nishikawa Sukenobu, which largely contributed to [a] profound transformation in the 'Floating World' style, were as common in Edo as they were in Osaka and Kyoto, where they were usually first published ... Sukenobu was an accomplished painter ... but he was, above all, a prolific designer of picture books and, because of their beauty and their wide influence, he must be considered as one of the greatest figures in the history of the Japanese book."*

Sukenobu's published books number more than 100 and possibly close to 200, with thousands of illustrations on the themes of young women, scenes from everyday life, special contemporary events, and historical tales and legends. He also produced hinagata bon (kimono design books: 雛形本) and a drawing treatise, Gahô saishikihô (Methods of drawing and coloring: 画法彩色法) from 1738/42. The overall quality of his ehon is very high, with an unquenchable taste for the leitmotif of bijinga (prints of beautiful women: 美人画). Sukenobu's virtuosity in presenting different types of charmingly realized and graceful beauties is unsurpassed, and his widespread influence upon later artists, both in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region) and Edo (most notably Harunobu), remains undisputed and significant in the history of ukiyo-e. Moreover, Sukenobu's shunga ("spring pictures" or erotica: 春画), introduced at least by 1711, display a gentleness and appealing beauty in a genre that, until then, was known more for the powerful images produced by Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣 1618-94) and his followers.

The image shown above right illustrates one page from Sukenobu's three-volume Jokyô bunshô kagami (Mirror of women’s love letters: 女教文章鑑), published in 1742. The author of the text was Hayashi Ranjo (林蘭女). The book was was based on a 1728 three-volume edition titled Onna manyô keiko zôshi (Epistolary manual for women: 女万葉稽古草紙) published by Yamaguchi Mohei (Kyoto) & Otgawa Hikokuro (Edo). The images include double-page illustrations, single-page facing text pages, and half-page with texts below. In the present example, a young woman dresses the hair of her seated companion who is gazing into a mirror. The scene includes a partial view of a garden, a common trope in ukiyo-e prints and paintings.

Sukenobu: Ehon tokiwagusa (Picture book of evergreens: 繪本常盤草), hand-colored design, 1731
Courtesan accompanied by a male servant, child-assistant, and brothel madam

Single-sheet designs were rarely published in Kamigata before the 1790s, unlike Edo, which had a thriving publishing industry for such works by the first decade of the 1700s. However, ehon were plentiful in Kamigata throughout the eighteenth century. Sukenobu's ehon portraits reveal a formidable talent that could easily have translated into the ichimai-e format. However, it is likely that publishing traditions and market forces limited the opportunities for selling single-sheet prints in Kamigata during Sukenobu's working period.

Sukenobu: Ehon Asakayama (Picture Book: Mount Asaka: 絵本浅香山), two facing pages, 1739

HashimotoThe double-page design shown immediately above comes from Sukenobu's Ehon Asakayama (Picture Book: Mount Asaka: 絵本浅香山), a one-volume sumizuri-e (carbon black prints) published in 1739 by Kikuya Kihei in Kyoto. There were apparently at least two editions of this work, the earlier one with 24 prints, the later one having the same colophon but with an added preface and six additional images inserted at the beginning. The book comprises single-page and double-page portraits (each page approximately 10" x 7") of women that are considered among the many appealing Sukenobu's bijinga. Asakayama may be translated, poetically, as the "Mountain of dawn perfume," a name evoking the intoxicating "perfume" of the female beauties contained within the covers of the book.

Occasionally, pages were removed from picture books and were then were then colored by hand, sometimes with the intention to pass them off as single-sheet works. It is not known for certain what the standard arrangement might have been for hand-coloring sumizuri-e. Many examples were rather crudely done and suggest that publishers contracted with amateur colorists at low rates of compensation. Many were also colored by collectors. However, a few surviving examples were expertly colored, which suggests that publishers also employed skilled artisans, perhaps from their own publishing studio, to embellish the more expensively produced editions. The question arises as to whether hand coloring added to or subtracted from the effect of the print design. This is a topic still debated among connoisseurs.

See, for example, the two-page, hand-colored image shown above from Sukenobu's three-volume Ehon tokiwagusa (Picture book of evergreens: 繪本常盤草) of 1731, which has superbly applied hand colors. Considered one of Sukenobu's masterpieces, his style in this ehon presents more slender beauties than his previous incarnations of graceful women. These books offer an array of feminine types from all clases of society, including famous women of the past, both fictional and factual. In the example shown here, a high-ranking courtesan is accompanied by a male servant, her kamuro (child-assistant: 禿), and her yarite (female supervisor in a brothel: 遣手).

Although best known for his ehon, Sukenobu's paintings offer proof of his skill in larger formats. Many of the beauties portrayed in his paintings take on poses similar to those found in his ehon. Contemporaries of Sukenobu expressed high praise for his paintings, considering his work among the finest in all of ukiyo-e. His portrait of a elegantly attired courtesan adjusting a clock possesses the sort of charm and allure for which Sukenobu is justly admired (see image at right). Her round face is rendered with a gentle comeliness that made his bijinga so distinctive and cast such widespread influence in the world of ukiyo-e. © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, T. and Hatayama, M.: Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 1992, pp. 83-85
  • Hillier, J.: The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, Chapter 12 (Sukenobu), pp. 158-173; • NB, p. 158.
  • Katz, J.: Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, pp. 103-105.
  • Preston, J.: Nishikawa Sukenobu: the engagement of popular art in socio-political discourse (PhD thesis). School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2012, pp. 453-457.
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