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Popularization of Geisha Images through Woodblock Prints

A Geisha Performing as Toraya Toramaru

A Geisha Performing as Toraya Toramaru (Toraya Toramaru) from An Almanac of Geisha Imitating Famous Actors (Furyu Geisha Miburi Sugata-e). By Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). Ink and colors on paper. Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.100.

Woodblock-printed images of courtesans (licensed prostitutes) began to appear around the late 1600s. Known as “depictions of beautiful women” (bijin-ga), these images, used to illustrate popular books, were printed in black outlines and some were quickly hand colored.

In the 1760s, when a multiple-color printing technique was developed, it was applied to the depiction of geisha, who were beginning to emerge both as a social phenomenon and as a subject for art. Mass-produced images of courtesans and geisha helped to popularize the licensed "pleasure quarters" and the women who worked there. Previously, only paintings of the women had been available, and these paintings were collected exclusively by rich merchants. But woodblock printing made possible an average edition of two hundred color impressions from a single design; prints were therefore much less expensive than paintings and could be collected and appreciated by people with average incomes.

For a long time, makers of courtesan and geisha prints worked only with the traditional themes and formats of bijin-ga. Artists specializing in this genre of painting also designed prints, taking advantage of both mediums. The development of multiple-color printing not only freed artists from many technical limitations but also offered new opportunities for expression. A strong design quality could be achieved by creating areas of contrasting flat colors—further defined by fine black lines—giving the images a fresh, dynamic quality. As formats, sizes, and shapes began to be standardized—allowing for more efficient storage— the new medium became advantageous to collectors, who might now have the space to amass a large number of prints.