Aizuri-e or Japanese Blue Pictures

Azure, sapphire, cobalt. Blue traditionally has been one of the most precious colors in paintings. Ultramarine was derived from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli that had to be ground into a powder. The discovery in 1830 of a synthetic blue hue called Prussian Blue changed the art world, and it had a major impact on Japanese woodblock printing. Series of aizuri-e, blue pictures, became popular. Rendered in vivid blue, they captured landscapes, fashionable ladies, and city scenes. They are among my favorite Japanese woodblock prints for their l’heure bleue quality that lends itself to reveries.

Take a look at the print above, Kinryuzan Temple in Asakusa from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital” by Hiroshige II. The striking use of red and blue creates an elegant effect, with the temple and the pagoda standing out prominently against a blue-shaded landscape. The small figures of passersby are sketched out just enough to give a sense of movement and a lively atmosphere. The splashes of deep blue on trees and the tops of the clouds create a color accent that adds more complexity to the composition. The feeling is of a majestic and mysterious place.

Another famous ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, used blue extensively in his Great Wave off Kanagawa series created in the late 1831. In another series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, blue takes on a new prominence. In the example below, you can see the picture created entirely in azure shades. Different tones are used to suggest shapes and textures and to add shadows. The pointillist touches on the waves evoke swirls of seafoam. The figures of two fishermen in the center of the painting highlight the grandeur of nature and its sublime, awe-inspiring beauty.

Finally, another category of aizuri-e I enjoy are prints of beautiful women. Here is one of my favorite examples, a fashionable beauty viewing cherry blossoms on a spring day. Here again the touches of red uplift the blue and provide an alluring complement that draws the eye, while the parts of the print left white add delicacy and finesse. The white flowers blooming around the woman echo the blossoms on her kimono. The checkered shapes on her obi gently contrast with the striped fence behind her. The scene is of elegance and refinement, and blue enhances the mood.

Aizuri-e (meaning, blue picture) of a Standing Beauty, from Ryuko ai jitate (Fashionable blue print), c.1830.

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25 Comments

  • Zazie: How beautiful! Yes, all these picture have an evocative, elegant, day-dreaming quality about them.

    I am wearing Chanel’s la pausa, right now, and it seems to perfectly complement the delicate and airy artwork you are showing us.

    Many years ago I read an enjoyable novel about the color blue in art, in French I think it’s “pastel”, by Olivier Bleys, an author that I find always exploring interesting subjects. I like him very much for this reason and his esprit enjoué.

    The pairing with red in the paintings is striking –
    though the color palette is subdued, the red portions stand out as real and tangible against the dreamy and hazy background.
    I was reminded of another striking novel on color in art, “my name is red”, by Pamuk. I think you already know this one.

    If anyone has other recommendations concerning fiction having color as protagonist, I’m all ears. And all eyes, so to speak. August 8, 2022 at 9:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve read My Name is Red and enjoyed it. I like Pamuk’s writing, and especially his novels featuring Istanbul was poignant.
      I don’t have a recommendation for fiction that features colors, but The Secret Lives of Color Hardcover by Kassia St. Clair was a great read. Highly recommended if you want to learn about colors and their history. August 9, 2022 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Nikos: I think we share the same admiration for Japanese art. Currently I’m reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari thanks to you and that older post on Japanese ghost stories.

    I am so obsessed that I always try perfumes that reference Japan, CdG Kyoto and Mona Orio’s Dojima being my favorite till now. August 8, 2022 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that you’ve picked that one up. Such a good book! August 9, 2022 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Ava: Thank you for this wonderful Post, Victoria.
    As a lover of japanese art I was not aware of this phenomen.
    And the book recommendations from @Zazie and @Nikos sound inspiring!

    I so much enjoy this space/place! August 8, 2022 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Ava! August 9, 2022 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Adrienne: Victoria, this has particularly resonated with myself. I lived in Japan for three years and learned indigo dying from the masters of the craft. I learned to make washi paper, silk embroidery, shibori, printing yukata fabric, Japanese quilting and the wonderful sumi-e. Today I still tend towards making my quilts in indigos and blues. It was a sensory paradise every day. August 8, 2022 at 9:36am Reply

    • Victoria: What an experience this must have been! Indigo dyeing is such a unique craft, and the range of colors and hues is impressive. Your quilts sound very beautiful. August 9, 2022 at 12:38pm Reply

      • Adrienne: Something I learned while I was living there is that the farming community where indigo died clothes because the indigo acts as a mosquito repellent. The smell never goes away even after washing the garments. August 9, 2022 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: Yet another interesting post, Victoria, and an example of your wide interests. Thank you!
    As an artist I have a keen interest in color and blue has always amazed me in its broad range. It has a huge range, say a pale robin’s egg to the darkest midnight blue and still be labeled “blue”.
    You might enjoy reading the book Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. It’s fascinating and a real reminder that the abundance of pigments and dyes we have today is a real luxury. Thanks again, Victoria for your lovely website and video offerings. I may not always respond but they enrich my day. August 8, 2022 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I have a copy of Victoria Finlay’s book on my shelf. I’m going to read it tonight.
      Your descriptions of hues is by itself enchanting. August 9, 2022 at 12:40pm Reply

    • Karen A: Wasn’t that book fascinating! I read it a few months ago. August 10, 2022 at 7:44am Reply

  • Fazal: Great article. Love the paintings, especially how they employ different shades of blue. Concur with Elizabeth above that your articles are a joy to read. August 8, 2022 at 11:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Fazal. They make me think of Persian miniatures. August 9, 2022 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Filomena: What beautiful paintings and lovely article. Thanks for sharing! August 8, 2022 at 12:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure. Thank you for reading. August 9, 2022 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for sharing Victoria, those blue prints have a dreamy and timeless quality. August 8, 2022 at 2:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Dreamy is such a good word to describe them. August 9, 2022 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Alityke: Victoria, the market place in that first print put me in mind of L.S. Lowry’s “matchstick men”. The way the mere suggestion of people & animals going about their business gives life & draws in the viewer, igniting the imagination of those seeing the scene. I want to know what those shoppers have on their lists, what they will serve for dinner, will they barter for the best price & best quality. What are their hopes & dreams. Are that young couple flirting coyly, will the little dog cock its leg on the basket of cherries inadvertently put on the floor whilst neighbours gossip.
    Lowry must have seen similar Japanese works & adapted it for his scenes of industrial Salford. August 8, 2022 at 2:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m looking it up right now. Thank you for mentioning. August 9, 2022 at 12:42pm Reply

  • OperaFan: I have not given this process much thought until recently. How the beauty of nature is reflected/ interpreted in the prints themselves is already a marvel to behold; the fact that the fine details had to first be carved into multiple pieces of wood, then the colors painstakingly transferred multiple times – how much patience and precision that must have required. The detailing for some of these prints remind me of the Chinese ivory carvings displayed in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. They are simply miracles. August 8, 2022 at 4:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is one of the best I’ve visited. I also remember the Chinese ivory carvings there.
      Brussels has a big exhibit on ukiyo-e a few years ago, with thorough explanations and demonstrations. It made me realize how painstaking the whole process is and how much precision is required. August 9, 2022 at 12:43pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I‘m deeply impressed by the second aizuri-e: the hard-working fishermen and their lines, the raging waves, the cliff, Mount Fuji, the clouds! It is such a detailed maelstrom of natural force in the front and then, in the background, the merest abstraction of lines resembling landscape, mountain and sky. Toil and labour in the foreground/presence; serene, sketchy harmony in the distance/future/afterlife …? Thanks for this eye-opener article! August 9, 2022 at 3:14pm Reply

  • Marianne: Thank you for this evocative post, written with the same grace and refinement as that of the Japanese paintings you presented. A composition of ‘flat’ red and lapis blue together is a great favourite of mine. It’s evident in traditional early American colonial fabrics where, to me, it evokes the values of simplicity and honesty that I link to the Puritan early European settlers. I’ve seen Suzani cloths and Turkish carpets with an emphasis on similar colours. Lapis beads as a necklace are lovely too, simple and understated.

    Also, I have the book about the history of colours and found it so fascinating that I’ve given away copies to family and friends. The author wrote a book about the history of gemstones as well. August 10, 2022 at 7:03am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Wonderful paintings, and such fascinating information, Victoria. I love the landscape and nature paintings best. The comments and discussions above reminded me about the huge value of indigo from India during colonial times. We were taught about the massive exploitation of indigo farmers during British rule, where people were forced to grow the crop instead of food. And then we’re forced to sell it for a pittance (less than 5% of what it would be sold for in Europe). Finally, in the mid 19th century, the Bengali indigo farmers revolted and later took their case to the English courts. I always remember this (his)story when I read about indigo.

    On a happier note, I just got back from Mexico where we visited some of the rug weaving cooperatives in Oaxaca. Here we learnt and saw much about all the natural dyes used to make their rugs/carpets. They also used indigo. All very fascinating and beautiful. August 20, 2022 at 2:57pm Reply

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