Harunobu Suzuki is associated with the word nishiki-e, which means literally brocade prints. In a wider sense nishiki-e stands for prints made in several colors. Harunobu is referred as the inventor of Japanese color prints.
Today we know that Harunobu certainly was not the first to make the step from black and white to multi-color prints. But he was the first to take full advantage of the new technique and he made nishiki-e popular. Suzuki Harunobu took the artcraft of Japanese wood block printmaking to new heights.
The necessity to produce prints with several colors was a result of market demand. At the time of Harunobu Suzuki picture calendars were very popular. In the Japanese language and by collectors they are called egoyomi. They were exchanged as gifts and everybody thrived to make the richest and most beautiful egoyomi - both in design, colors and printing materials used.
There were basically only two ways to produce colored prints. Either to print them in black and white and color them by hand or to carve an additional block for each color. It is interesting that the Japanese chose the second way while in Europe only the first alternative was considered - the hand-coloring.
The process of creating a Japanese color wood block print is described in detail in the article Japanese Prints.
Harunobu's style is often described as delicate, subtle, sophisticated or stylish. The favorite subjects are the depiction of beautiful young girls and men, lovers or courtesans. But also scenes from everyday's life are common. Harunobu's female images are slender, graceful. He shows them as if they were little teenage girls - fragile and idealized.
The artist was the first to introduce scenes in snow and during the night. The stylish Suzuki Harunobu prints met the taste of the affluent merchant class and were very successful.
Little is known about the life and personality of Suzuki Harunobu. The year of his birth was either 1724 or 1725. His birthplace is mentioned either as Kyoto or Edo (today Tokyo). It is agreed that he spent his life in Edo.
Judging from his prints with often poetic texts, it can be assumed that Harunobu came from a cultured and bourgois background and that he was at home in intellectual and poetic circles. There are also speculations that he came from the samurai class. But that does not mean very much. The percentage of the population with a samurai background is estimated at 8 percent by historians.
The art work of Suzuki Harunobu consists of drawings, paintings and at least 700 color prints. He illustrated about two dozen books. Harunobu as nearly all ukiyo-e artists also produced dozens of erotic prints, called shunga (springtime pictures).
The increased mastering of multi-color printing can be well seen in his prints. His early works before 1765 used two to three colors - usually green and red. After 1766 he used up to ten different colors.
Harunobu died at the age of about 45.
Author: Dieter Wanczura