Keisai Eisen

Title: Untitled

Artist: Keisai Eisen

Culture or country: Japan

Date: Edo Period (1615-1868)

Materials: woodblock print, aizuri-e print

Location: Madison Art Collection

Pronunciation Guide

  • Keisai Eisen (渓齋英泉)
    • Kay-sAi Ei-Sen
  • Ukiyo-e (History of prints of the floating world 浮世絵類考)
    • Uki-Yo-E
  • ôkubi-e (“large-head pictures”)
    • Oku-bi-E
  • bijinga (pictures of beautiful women)
    • bi-Jin-ga
  • chōnin
    • Ch-O-Nin
  • surimono (private commissions)
    • Su-rE-mO-no


  • There is the publisher’s seal (A), a censor seal (B), an unidentified note (C), and the signature of the artist (D).
  • The publisher’s seal is located to the left of the censor seal at the bottom right-hand corner of the print. It looks like the publisher’s seal belongs to Sōshūya Yohei (1).
    • Sōshūya Yohei published Ukiyo-e works along with images of actors and beautiful women. He used a seal that looks similar to the one on this print between the years 1816-1851. He was known to have published work for Keisai Eisen (1).
  • The single round censor seal is located on the right-hand side of the artwork near the bottom of the frame. This seal reads “kiwame” which means “approved”, it is a character found in many censor seals between the years of 1790-1805 (2).
    • Censor seals were used in the years 1790-1876 (3).
  • The artist’s signature is located above the publisher’s seal and the censor seal at the middle bottom of the right-hand side of the print. Artist’s signatures were known to change throughout their careers as they studied under different mentors and furthered their careers.
    • Artist Keisai Eisen (渓齋英泉) (1790-1848) was also known as Ikeda Yoshinobu (池田義信) and common name Zenjirô (善次郎), was known by an array of art names: Keisai (渓齋), Kokushunrô (國春楼); Koizumi (小泉), Ippitsuan Kakô (一筆庵可候), Fusen Ichiin (楓川市隠), Mumei’Io (无名翁), Insai Hakusui (淫齋白水), Inransai (淫乱齋). He might also have used the names Hokutei (北亭) and Hokkatei (北花亭) (4).
    • For example, Keisai Eisen went by Zenjirô at the beginning of his career because it was his childhood name, and it was his father, a recognized calligrapher, and poet who taught Eisen the beginnings of his artistic practices. Keisai Eisen was highly literate and created literary works under the name Ippitsuan. He identified as an Edoite and his writings focused on the living for sensory pleasures at the moment (5).

(from left to right)

On the left is the publisher’s seal (A) and on the right is the censor seal (B), located at the bottom right-hand corner of the print. An unidentified note (C). The Keisai Eisen’s signature (D) is located in the bottom middle half on the righthand side of the work.

(from left to right)

The publisher seal of Sōshūya Yohei (1). Reference to Keisai Eisen’s signature (2).

Visual Analysis

This woodblock print was created in an aizuri-e print style and is most likely a restrike of an original work. The subject matter shows a woman interacting with children who are fishing on a riverbank. At the center of the composition of the “Untitled” print shows a woman, dressed in a leaf-patterned kimono which is tied with a deep blue, white, and lighter blue, dot patterned obi, and she wears platform sandals on her feet. Her hair is tied up in a bun that is held in place by a ribbon accompanied by a set of chopsticks and a comb tucked neatly into her hair. She holds a child on her back, his feet tucked under her arms for support as he glances downward.

The child on the woman’s back is also dressed in a kimono decorated with white squares, there is one tuff of hair on his head, though his whole face is not visible as he is peaking over the woman’s shoulder. Three more plump children fill the middle and foreground of the work. The child to the left of the woman wears a flower-patterned cloth, he had three tuffs of hair and a short ponytail hairstyle. He looks at the turtle he holds in his hand on the left with his mouth open in a grin, his stance is open footed.

A naked child crawls on the ground in front of the woman and another child holding a turtle, no clothes cover his body as he makes his way to the left of the work, he has the same hairstyle as the boy holding the turtle. The child to the very left of the composition is reaching for a fish on the ground which had fallen off the net on the left-hand side of the frame. In the foreground of the work, a younger boy with two tufts of hair on either side of his head and shaved on top wears a linear star-patterned kimono with a black lining is open as he sits in a circular bin, preparing to float into the river. All of the children are barefooted.

The scenery of the work looks like it is on the bank of a river, which takes up the bottom of the work in the foreground. Grass on the bank of the river overlaps with the water at the bottom right-hand corner of the composition. The middle section of the ground of the composition shows not a flat surface but a semi-curved land, the patterns on the ground suggest grass, as they are smaller strokes which are more linear and are shorter, combined with patterns that resemble clumps of grass. The background of the work is blank, though shrubbery like tall, leafy, bushes line the ground behind the figures which give a sense of depth. The top of the work has wispy leaves on branches of a tree hanging down.

Historical Context

The Edo Period (1615-1868) in Japan was a relatively peaceful time. The country was controlled by a conservative military government which encouraged stability and had an interest in Confucian ideals. The society was split into four classes known as a Tokugawa regime, it consisted of warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The Tokugawa shogunate wanted to control public behavior and set aside places in cities designated for the people, these were places where all the social classes could interact, where money and style dominated in brothels, teahouses, and theaters. During this period merchants and artisans or chōnin gained economic strength by profiting from growing cities and commerce but found they were socially confined. Spurred by the attitude and value of living in the moment and chasing pleasure, there was a growing interest in pleasure houses and entertainment spaces lead to the growth of art in Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. The creation of woodblock prints meant that for the first time, a general population of people were able to possess captivating images of beautiful women, popular and exciting actors, and of romantic landscapes (6).

Ukiyo-e was the final evolution of the Japanese genre of painting which focused on enjoyable activities in landscape settings, up-close shots, and paid special attention to contemporary fashions and styles. Artists depicted subjects of pleasure quarters and actresses in indoor activities. Ukiyo-e came to refer to the sensual and hedonistic pleasures of people who embraced them all for their fluid nature (7).

Artist Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) was one of the artists and writers who helped expand the knowledge of the Ukiyo-e Rukiô (History of prints of the floating world). He was a man of many interests; he ran a brothel called Wakatakeya in Nezu in 1830 though it burned to the ground, he had a business selling face powders and tried writing kabuki plays and other fiction writings. Though he was best known for his drawings of women or bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) His finest works of women with large heads that are drawn in his signature style are considered to be masterpieces of the Bunsei Period for their realism and sensuality. Eisen produced a number of print series of beautiful women, some erotica drawings, landscape sets, and private commissions or surimono (8). He was known for his images of courtesans depicted in a lush and full style. His courtesans were usually dressed in kimonos though sometimes they were naked, depending on the commissioner (7).

Another work created by Keisai Eisen titled, “Fish Catch” (1830-1844) has the subject matter similar to the “Untitled” print. Though this nishiki-e woodblock print is printed with many colors in comparison to the aizuri-e print. It is most likely that the “Untitled” piece and “Fish Catch” are from the same period of creation in Keisai Eisen’s career as well as the same series.

“Fish Catch” by Keisai Eisen, c. 1803-1844. Woodcut Ukiyo-e print.

Original Function

This woodblock print is believed to be created during the Edo Period (1615-1868) likely around 1830. This print is an orphaned part of a triptych (10). Around 1818, Keisai Eisen created triptychs with similar subject matter depicting a mother and her children playing by a riverside. The works were meant to be realistic depictions of a mother and child in everyday life (10).

During the Edo Period nearly all urban Japanese members of society needed to be literate in order to make a living, this need for literacy led to a revolution in the production of printed books to a single sheet of a woodblock print.

The printed images were not only advertisements, collector’s pieces, and pop culture posters, but also ways of gaining information, staying in tune with the current events, and being able to possess artworks for cheap.

There were six main themes of woodblock prints for images, pictures of beautiful women and actors, depictions of warriors, landscapes and nature, birds and flowers, and private commissions known as surimono (11).

The Bunsei Period (文政時代 1818-1830) spanned from April 1818 through December 1830. This era was created when Emperor Ninko was enthroned (9).

Important Ideas

  • This print is Aizuri-e which is a type of woodblock print, which were originally printed from shades of indigo blue which were popular during the late Edo period from the late 1820s to the 1840s. The idea to print in shades of blue came from the German invention of Prussian blue, a synthetical color pigment created in the early 18th century by a German named Johann Konrad Dippel (1673-1734) (13). This pigment allowed for a more shade of blues and was less prone to fading. This Prussian blue was imported into Japan around 1790 and the color was at first very expensive. When the cost of the color came down and was available to use Ukiyo-e printmakers started using this in the late Edo period in prints in the 1820s. Japanese called the blue Berurin-ai or Beru-ai because the color was manufactured in Berlin (13).
    • In 1841, the Tokugawa Shogunate banned the use of extravagant colors in woodblock prints. It has been speculated that aizuri-e prints became popular because of this ban, though they were also popular before the ban (14).
  • The art of a woodblock print, as seen in Ukiyo-e, is created through a collaboration between four individuals, a publisher who coordinated the efforts of the specialized artisans and marketed the artworks, the artist who designed the artwork and did the preliminary sketches, the carver who put the design into woodblock or a series of them, and a printer who would apply pigments to the woodblocks and print the design on paper (15).
  • Over the history of Ukiyo-e the shogunate made several attempts to gain control of the print market by requesting guilds to acts as censors or applying and changing different censors as a form of control (16). Ukiyo-e publishers grew until the 1830s when the Tenpō famine created hardship for citizens, meaning print sales went down and businesses closed. In 1841 all guilds were abolished and at the beginning of 1842 it was banned to create prints of actors and beauties, only allowing for the focus on loyalty and filial piety. By the end of 1842, a new restriction was created to limit the number of blocks of color allowed in a work and the price per sheet. Though these restrictions did not stop the market from growing steadily as production rose by 1845 with the subject matter of prints being focused on beauties, warriors, landscapes, and sumo wrestlers (16). By the end of the 1840s there were more publishers actively producing prints than could be regulated by a guild. 
  • There are similar works by Keisai Eisen though the other parts of this particular triptych printed in aizuri-e have not been found. It is believed that this print is “orphaned sheet from a triptych and is likely a later restrike of a full-colour design” (17).

Works Cited

  1. “Japanese Prints: A Million Questions, Two Million Mysteries.” Publishers N thru S. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  2. Nanushi Censor Seals. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  3. Chiappa, J Noel. Date Seals in Japanese Prints, July 31, 2012.
  4. Fiorillo, John. “Keisai Eisen (渓齋英泉) 1790-1848.” Viewing Japanese Prints: Keisai Eisen (渓齋英). Accessed October 26, 2020.
  5. Wanczura, Dieter. “Eisen Ikeda – 1790-1848.” artelino, October 2, 2020.
  6. Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004).
  7. “The Evolution of Ukiyo-e and Woodblock Prints (Article).” Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  8. Fiorillo, John. “Keisai Eisen (渓齋英泉) 1790-1848.” Viewing Japanese Prints: Keisai Eisen (渓齋英). Accessed October 26, 2020.
  9. Hammer, Joshua. Yokohama Burning: the Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire That Helped Forge the Way to World War II. New York: Free Press, 2006.
  10. Kumon Museum of Children’s Ukiyo-e. Accessed October 25, 2020.
  11. “Ukiyo-e by Category .” Accessed October 26, 2020.
  12. “渓斎英泉 童子遊戯図 浮世絵 木版画 733.” ヤフオク!, July 23, 2020.
  13. Wanczura, Dieter. “What Are Aizuri-e?” Artelino, October 2, 2020.
  14. Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System. “Aizuri 藍摺.” 渥美財団. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  15. “The Floating World of Ukiyo-E Overview.” Overview – The Floating World of Ukiyo-e | Exhibitions – Library of Congress, July 27, 2001.
  16. Marks, Andreas. “Chapter 2: Publisher’s Seals.” Essay. In Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints a Compendium, 10–31. Leiden; Boston: Hotei Publishing, 2011.
  17. Upon correspondence with Ms. Virginia Soenksen’s resource Ms. Rhiannon Paget, curator of Asian Art at the Ringling Museum 10.17.2020.