The music that permeated Japanese society during the Edo period (1615–1868) is vividly captured in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world,” depicted townspeople engaged in a range of leisurely pursuits, where music and other pleasures of the senses were prevalent themes. A time of economic prosperity and flourishing cultural arts, the Edo period is defined as the 253 years the Tokugawa shogunate governed from the city of Edo, now known as Tokyo.
Music heralded festivities and good fortune, pervading images produced for celebrations. Prints of Benzaiten, the goddess of music and wealth, and of children with instruments foretold happiness. Portrayals of professional entertainers playing music or performing, popular among ukiyo-e enthusiasts, stirred the imagination and delighted audiences with dazzling displays of the latest fashions. Compositions invoking literary or historical tales often featured musical scenes that combined song and dance. Travel too was accompanied by the strains of itinerant blind musicians, as glimpsed through some of the prints in this exhibition.
These selections were curated by students in the RISD class Ukiyo-e Prints (THAD-H791-01, Fall 2021). To watch performances using instruments depicted in the prints, visit the QR codes provided on the object labels.
RISD Museum is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the generous partnership of the Rhode Island School of Design, its Board of Trustees, and Museum Governors.