Bird Print History


Published by the Reader Collection, Ontario,  Canada, 2014  ISBN 978-0-9937035-1-5

Reader Collection > Guides > History of Japanese Art: Bird Prints


Chapter 2 – Ukiyo-e Bird Prints


Notable Artists


Some ukiyo-e artists produced more bird prints than others. An artist who designed at least ten bird prints is considered notable in this book. Nine ukiyo-e artists (17%) are notable based on this criterion. The work of each artist is briefly described below to acknowledge their greater contribution to ukiyo-e bird printmaking and to help illustrate the diversity of approaches used by ukiyo-e artists.





(1) Hiroshige Utagawa


Hiroshige designed more than six hundred bird prints, mostly during the 1830s and 1840sa. His output was greater than all other ukiyo-e bird printmakers combined. As a result, he is the best known ukiyo-e bird printmaker today. Print 28 illustrates six features of his bird prints. First, a bird with colorful plumage was typically paired with equally attractive flowers. Second, the species chosen for depiction usually had symbolic associations. In this case both the bird and flowerb are symbols of summer. Third, birds and flowers were normally shown in full color. Fourth, the colors chosen were accurate enough to allow viewers to identify the species depicted and make the intended symbolic association. Fifth, a poem about the bird and (or) flower was often added to communicate Hiroshige’s feelings about the species he depicted. Sixth, additional bands of colorc were sometimes added across the top and bottom of the print to further increase the print’s visual appeal.


a   See Bogel et al. (1988) for more examples of Hiroshige’s bird prints and additional information about his life.

b   The flower is China rose (Rosa chinensis). Nomenclature for plants follows Wiersema (2013).

c   Hiroshige’s use of color bands at the top and bottom of a print may be based on the similar practice of placing colorful material across the top and bottom of a painted  picture when it was mounted on a hanging scroll.




28   Blue-and-white flycatcher (Cyanoptila cyanomelana)

by Hiroshige Utagawa, 115 mm x 340 mm, woodblock print




(2) Koryūsai Isoda


Koryūsai published more than eighty bird printsa during the late 1700s and he was the most important bird print artist of his time. He took full advantage of the then recent advance in printing technology which made multiple color printing possible. In print 29 he combined a black crow with a white egret, red camellia flower, green leaves, grey sky and white snow. Both the crow and camellia flower are symbols of winter which explains the inclusion of snow. In contrast, the egret is associated with summer so its inclusion here would have been very surprising to viewers. The novelty of his designs plus the use of multiple colors likely contributed to the popularity of his prints with viewers seeking visual stimulation and pleasure.  the popularity of his prints with viewers seeking visual stimulation and pleasure. 


a   See Hockley (2003) for a list of Koryūsai’s bird prints plus a description of his life and work. 




29   Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) and little egret (Egretta garzetta) by Koryūsai Isoda, 210 mm x 285 mm, woodblock print




(3) Eisen Ikeda


Eisen made more than forty bird prints during the early 1800s. For some of these prints he borrowed from the work of other more famous artistsa. For example, the descending goose shown in print 30 is similar to designs published by both Hiroshige Utagawa and Hokusai Katsushika.  The volume of Eisen’s output suggests that his work was appreciated by print purchasers of the time, perhaps because it resembled the work of other popular artists.   


a   Copying the designs of others was common practice and considered to be a sign of respect for the originator of a particular design (Jordan and Weston, 2003).







30   Goose (Anser sp.) by Eisen Ikeda,

165 mm x 225 mm, woodblock print

(4) Toyohiro Utagawa


Toyohiro was active during the late 1700s and early 1800s. During this period he published close to forty bird prints. While full color was the norm for bird prints at that time he chose just shades of grey for most of his prints. Print 31 is one example.  In this print he met the challenge of using a limited color palette to depict a white bird by outlining the cockatoo in light grey instead of the usual black used by his predecessors. Today, Toyohiro is perhaps better known for being the teachera of the prolific bird printmaker Hiroshige Utagawa than for his own bird prints.  


a   Additional biographic information about Toyohiro and other ukiyo-e artists is given by Roberts (1976).



31   Cockatoo (Cacatua sp.) by Toyohiro Utagawa,  165 mm x 220 mm, woodblock print





(5)   Hokusai Katsushika


Hokusai worked mostly during the first half of the nineteenth century. His entertaining style made him the most famous ukiyo-e printmaker of his generation. While best known for his prints of people and landscapes he also designed about thirty bird prints. Print 32 is one examplea. He typically exaggerated the size of the bird’s beak and eyes. His birds were always active, either flying or posed to suggest movement. Here the bullfinch was shown upside down in a position that it could not maintain for long. Dark blue was one of Hokusai’s favorite colors and here he completely filled the background with it. His bird and flower subjects usually had a symbolic association. Both the bullfinch and cherry flowers are symbols of the spring season in Japan.


a   See Narazaki (1970) for additional examples.



32   Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) by Hokusai Katsushika, 185 mm x 250 mm, woodblock print




6)   Taito II Katsushika


Taito II is the name Fumio Fujiwara signed on his art. He took the name Taito II Katsushika because he was a student of Hokusai Katsushika who, for a short time, used the art name of Taito. Taito II produced more than twenty bird prints in the mid-1800s. His style was identical to that of Hokusai. For example, his drawing of a Eurasian tree sparrow in print 33 showed the same pointed wings and exaggerated head size as the sparrow drawn by Hokusai in print 23. In this print the sparrow was paired with brightly colored flowers which was typical of both Taito II’s bird prints and Hokusai’s bird prints. The flower and bird species depicted often had a similar symbolic association. For example, the chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum grandiflorum) and sparrow in this print were both associated with honor and with the autumn season.  The vertical format of print 33 was typical of most ukiyo-e bird prints. However, Taito II also used a horizontal format for other prints (e.g., print 26) which was much less common. 



33   Eurasian tree sparrow       (Passer montanus) by Taito II Katsushika, 125 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print




(7)   Hiroshige II Utagawa


Hiroshige II’s original name was Chimpei Morita. He was a student of Hiroshige Utagawa and when his teacher died he not only took his name but also married his daughter. Like Taito II, Hiroshige II used the same style as his teacher for his bird prints. Colorful birds, attractive flowers and poems about them appeared in most of Hiroshige II’s prints. Print 34 featuring the brightly colored common kingfisher is an example. Hiroshige II published about thirty bird prints in the mid-1800s which was much less than Hiroshige’s total of more than six hundred prints.



34   Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) by Hiroshige II Utagawa,   165 mm x 225 mm, woodblock print courtesy of the Rhode Island School of Design




(8)   Utamaro Kitagawa


Utamaro published about twenty bird prints in the late 1700sa. Print 35 is one example. Some of his depictions of birds, including the pair of Japanese quail in this print, were among the most accurately drawn by ukiyo-e printmakers. He showed finer details of a bird’s feather pattern than most other artists. The feathers of these two quail are a good example of that fine detail. The quail is associated with poverty in Japan because its mottled plumage brings to mind worn out clothing. Birds chosen for depiction by Utamaro usually had a symbolic association.


a   He also published bird prints in picture book format for which he is perhaps better known. His most famous book, entitled Momochidori Kyōka Awase (i.e., Birds Compared in Humorous Verses) was reprinted by Meech-Pekarik and Kenney (1981).



35   Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) by Utamaro  Kitagawa,175 mm x 260 mm, woodblock print




(9)   Shigenaga Nishimura


Shigenaga was one of the pioneers of ukiyo-e bird printmaking. Print 36 is one of about a dozen he published in the early 1700s. Typical of prints produced then, colors other than black were used only sparingly. Even without full color the duck depicted here was easily recognized as a mandarin duck because of its distinctive shape. Shigenaga’s style was strongly influenced by Chinese bird-and-flower painting in which birds were paired with flowers. The size of flowers was often exaggerated as was the case for the Japanese iris (Iris ensata) shown in the background of this picture. All prints were oriented vertically similar to the Chinese scroll paintings whose style they copied.    





36   Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) by Shigenaga Nishimura, 155 mm x 310 mm, woodblock print





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