Utagawa Toyokuni II, ‘Beauties of the Present Day Matched with Flowers: Bell Flowers’, ca. late 1820s, Scholten Japanese Art

aizuri-e (all blue print); signed Toyokuni ga with censor's seal Kiwame and publisher's seal Shimizu, ca. late 1820s

oban tate-e 14 5/8 by 10 1/8 in., 37.2 by 25.6 cm

In the late 1820s a new imported blue pigment became more readily available and affordable to woodblock print publishers. This intense blue was developed in Berlin by a color manufacturer in the early 18th century, and had been sporadically imported to Japan as early as the 1780s, primarily for use by painters.

The color was known as bero, a derivation from the Dutch Berlyns blaauw ('Berlin blue'); in English it is often called Prussian blue. Unlike the natural pigments previously used for print-making; this blue was strong, vibrant, and stable. While there may be examples where bero was used on woodblock prints in the 1820s, it was not widely utilized until circa 1830 when the costs decreased and the quantities increased (apparently as a result of competition between the Dutch and Chinese importers). In fact, there is scarce (if not unique) fan print by Eisen dated 1829 in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art which is thought to be the earliest dateable aizuri-e.

There are three other prints from this series, also in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum of Art, comparing beauties to plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, and chrysanthemums. As no other designs from the series have been located, it is plausible that there were only four designs corresponding to the four seasons: the Brooklyn impressions would therefore relate to winter, spring and autumn, respectively. As such, this print should represent summer. Although the flower on this print, kikyo (bell flower or balloon flower), is included in the traditional Japanese grouping of Seven Flowers of Autumn (Aki-no Nanakusa), most begin blooming in the late summer.

Series: Beauties of the Present Day Matched with Flowers

Image rights: Scholten Japanese Art

Publisher: Shimizu

For an in-depth discussion on the history of the color blue and the importance of the Berlin blue pigment in the development of ukiyo-e see Henry D. Smith II, Hokusai and the Blue Revolution in Edo Prints; in Hokusai and His Age, John Carpenter, ed., 2005, pp. 235-269

About Utagawa Toyokuni II