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Ukiyoe are paintings developed in the Edo period (1603~1867), and most of them became widespread as wood block prints. The name comes from the fact that many showed the ukiyo (dreamlike world) of the theater and pleasure quarters.

They began in the 1670's when Hishikawa Moronobu discovered a way to make monochromic wood block prints. At first, only India ink was used, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of printing with several colors.

In addition to the human subjects of ukiyoe (beautiful women, actors and sumo wrestlers), landscapes and the living conditions of the common people were also illustrated. Famous among these are the prints of beautiful women by Kitagawa Utamaro, kabuki actors by Toshusai Sharaku and landscapes by Katsushika Hokusai ("Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji") and Ando Hiroshige ("Fifty-three stations on the Tokaidou").

Many ukiyoe pictures were taken to Europe in the late 19th century. They had a strong influence on Van Gogh, Manet and other Impressionists and resulted in the development of the new technique of realism.

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