Harunobu’s Formative Years and Early Works
The Horeki era (1751-64), before Harunobu made his debut, was the age of the simple red and green color-printed “Benizuri-e.” As if inspired by the feeling of warmth of this pinkish tinge, the subject matter too of Ukiyo-e became ever sweeter: young lovers, innocent children, ordinary yet beloved scenes of every-day living... Harunobu’s sensibilities were nurtured during this age, and determined the directions his style and choice of theme would take.
As an introduction to the exhibition, a display of Beni-e and Benizuri-e by those forerunning artists and Harunobu’s guides, such as Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764), Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-85), Torii Kiyohiro (dates unknown), alongside some rare early-period works by Harunobu, will show how his style was shaped.

Suzuki Harunobu, Parody of the Three Evening Poems: Teika, Jakuren, and Saigyô, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19703


Ishikawa Toyonobu, Young Couple Burning Maple Leaves to Heat Sake, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19676

Section 1
The Fashion for Calendar Exchange Parties and the Birth of Nishiki-e
Nishiki-e were the result of a trend for gatherings to present privately commissioned Surimono-type prints: E-goyomi – illustrated calendars – between connoisseurs from among samurai and wealthy merchants at the beginning of the Meiwa Period (1764-72). In the lunar calendar there are long months of 30 days and short months of 29 days, the order of which changed each year, and Surimono prints showing the long and short months incorporated into pictures with an amusing design were called E-goyomi. Without thought of making any profit, these connoisseurs sought more and more beautiful and colorful calendars, so as a result color-printing technology developed rapidly. The fashion was over within a year or two, but publishers, once they had glimpsed the beauty of the high quality multi-colored-printed picture calendars, sought the woodblocks, removed clients’ names and any calendrical text, and turned them into consumer items. They were given the name “Azuma Nishiki-e,” having the meaning of pictures (e) as beautiful as the brocade (nishiki) upon which Edo (azuma – Eastern Capital) prided itself.

left:Suzuki Harunobu, Young Woman in a Summer Shower, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19430


right:Suzuki Harunobu, Parody of Son Kang, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19438

Section 2
The Joy of “Reading” Pictures
Many of Harunobu’s Nishiki-e depicting manners and customs of the day conceal famous scenes from classical tales and traditions, giving the viewer the enjoyment of “reading” the picture. This group of works designed to provide a decoding challenge, and amusement, based on the superimposing of the present upon the classics, is called by the terms “Mitate-e” or “Yatsushi-e.”
The Mitate-e parodies of Harunobu contain hardly any wording that indicates the original classical theme. Even contemporary viewers would have needed a reasonable education in order to decipher and enjoy the art. They were more likely designed to entertain well-read individuals who could crack the puzzle without the help of words.
鈴木春信《見立玉虫 屋島の合戦》

Suzuki Harunobu, Parody of Court Lady Tamamushi at the Battle of Yashima, Bequest of Miss Ellen Starkey Bates, 28.195


Suzuki Harunobu, Courtesan and Customer at the Ibarakiya (Parody of Watanabe no Tsuna and the Demon Ibaraki Dôji), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19494

Section 3
Lovers in Edo
Many of Harunobu’s works illustrate affection between young men and women. These are the group of works most distinctive and representative of Harunobu: pretty girls wearing patterned long sleeves in elegant poses, and adolescents still with their forelocks who can only be 15 or 16 years of age. There are no expressions of physical difference between man and woman - both slender figures, void of any realistic verve or eroticism, conveying an image of innocent and pure first love.
Over 150 years after the start of the Edo Shogunate, the people of Edo had no memories of warfare and knew nothing but their own peace. Rather than the masculine and powerful, they cherished the delicate, elegant style of Harunobu’s portraits of beauties.

Suzuki Harunobu, Young Man and Woman under a Peach Tree, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19448, 11.19506

鈴木春信《寄菊 夜菊を折り取る男女》

Suzuki Harunobu, Associated with Chrysanthemums: Couple Picking, Nellie Parney Carter Collection—Bequest of Nellie Parney Carter, 34.345 

Section 4
Holding Dear the Every-day
Scenes from calm daily life, mothers lavishing children with their love, children playing without quarrels; Harunobu often took the every-day in Edo people’s lives as subject. The every-day that could be seen anywhere was made into an art theme; the art was then purchased widely by people and this gives a clear sense of the special characteristics of Ukiyo-e.
Born in sight of Edo Castle at the Shogun’s knee, the newborn’s first bath taken in water running from a pipe, meals of refined white rice, and pampered for every need… “Edokko” (true natives of Edo), the consumers of the artwork, were proud of the fortunes of the city, and through Harunobu’s sympathetic eyes would over again savor the happiness of everyday living there in his Nishiki-e.
鈴木春信《五常 智》

Suzuki Harunobu, Wisdom, from the series The Five Virtues, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19456


Suzuki Harunobu, Boys Performing a Lion Dance, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19494

Section 5
Depicting the Edo of the Day
At the outset, Harunobu’s Nishiki-e were produced with a relatively wealthy and educated class of consumer in mind. From Meiwa 5 (1768), however, Harunobu made a deliberate choice of subject that would directly influence current trends, and would take Nishiki-e to the masses.
In particular, real young women rated highly for their beauty, such as Osen of the Kagiya teahouse in Kasamori Inari-shrine in Yanaka, and Ofuji of the Motoyanagiya in Sensôji-temple in Asakusa began to feature as the main focus of numerous works.
Another characteristic of Harunobu’s artwork from this era was the inclusion of famous places in Edo within his portraits of beauties. An Edo landmark depicted in the background increased the sense of actuality, and stimulated feelings of belonging in this proud city. Harunobu focused on responding to the interests of the people, and taking the Edo of the day as subject: factors important in indicating directions in the development of later Nishiki-e.
鈴木春信《風流江戸八景 駒形秋月》

Suzuki Harunobu, Autumn Moon at Komagata, from the series Eight Fashionable Views of Edo, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19500

鈴木春信《浮世美人寄花 卯花 笠森の婦人》

Suzuki Harunobu, Deutzia Flowers: The Young Woman of Kasamori, from the series Beauties of the Floating World Associated with Flowers, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19515

Harunobu’s Legacy
Harunobu died suddenly in the 6th month of Meiwa 7 (1770). Those Ukiyo-e artists who, from around Meiwa 6-7 (1769-70), had followed Harunobu in illustrative style in Nishiki-e continued to serve consumers who still wanted “Harunobu’s portraits of beauties,” and that style remained largely unchanged after his death. Isoda Koryûsai (1735-?) who first went under the name Haruhiro, Shiba Kôkan (1747-1818) who had the artist name Suzuki Harushige and later confessed to producing forgeries signed Harunobu, Katsukawa Shunshô (1743-92) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) all imitated Harunobu’s style in Nishiki-e, even if eventually establishing their own styles and going on to shape their age as artists. Even 20 years after Harunobu’s death, Kitagawa Utamaro (?-1806), active during the Kansei Period (1787-1801), showed a mark of respect for Harunobu in his own work, and expressed pride in those who maintained his memory.
Lastly, we must acknowledge the great legacy of Harunobu upon the history of Ukiyo-e, be it also through the work of Ukiyo-e artists eager to emulate his work for some time after.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Ofuji and Okita, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.14282


Torii Kiyotsune, In Memory of Harunobu, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.20128

礒田湖龍斎《やつし源氏 御幸》

Isoda Koryûsai, Miyuki, from the series Genji in Modern Guise, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19547


Suzuki Harushige (Shiba Kôkan), Couple Cooling Off on a Garden Bench, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.19524

  • Photographs © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston