The Triptych Format in Japanese Woodblock Prints
There were about seven standardized sizes used in the production of Japanese prints, ranging in size from the small chuban (13" x 9") to the large oban (conventionally about 10" x 15"). These paper sizes were most commonly used as single sheets, but occasionally the artist chose to expand the format of the image in two- or three-sheet compositions. To produce a diptych, the paper was used side by side for a wider image or one on top of the other to create a longer work. The works displayed here are among the largest Japanese print images to have been produced. These sammaitsuzuki, or triptychs, use three sheets of the largest standardized paper size to expand the format of the print over three panels in a single composition.
During the Edo period (1603-1868) when they were produced, triptychs were not fastened together or even necessarily bought as a set. While they may have been purchased separately, they were commonly laid out on a table together to be viewed as a set. Collectors of the day seem not to have been concerned if the three prints making up a triptych were not from the same, matched edition: a number of the sets that survive today are made up of prints of varying quality. Later collectors have favored prints with a matched level of color intensity and quality, forming an even, single image. This preference for the single, uninterrupted image also led some later collectors to fasten the prints together, which was not done during the Edo period.
The format represented a special challenge to the artist and an opportunity to present themes on a striking, monumental scale. The themes chosen often reflect the special impact that increased size had on the viewer. Grand, expansive landscapes could be created, and heroic themes could be effectively showcased, as in Goddess in the Hills. Here, the expanded format aids in the representation of depth and immensity in the rocky landscape, both increasing the awe inspired by the vision of the goddess, and adding rugged vitality to the hero. In some cases, the format was used as a convenient frame for different elements of a composition, a separator of interior from exterior areas, for example. In other cases, the pages of a triptych seem to function well as three separate sheets, which, when placed together, create an effect that enhances all three. This is true of Hiroshige's Three Standing Wommen Admiring Iris Blossoms. Here, each sheet is an effective, independent portrait of a woman in the landscape, but when placed together, a unified landscape with striking depth is created.