Ukiyo-e means - pictures of the floating world- and derives from a Buddhist metaphor for the transient world of fleeting pleasures.
The subjects chosen by artists for there woodblock print were characters and and scenes from the - floating world- of the entertainment quarters in Edo - later day Tokyo- , Kyoto, Osaka.
The floating world, centred in pleasure districts such as Edo's Yoshiwara, was a topsy-turvy kingdom, an inversion of the usual social hierarchies that were held in place by the power of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Here, money meant more than rank, actor and artists were the arbiters of style, and prostitutes elevated their art to such a level that their accomplishment matched those of the women of noble family.
The vivid colours, novel composition and flowing line of Ukiyo-e cause great excitement in the west, sparking a vogue that one French art comic dubbed -Japonisme-. Ukiyo-e became a key influence on impressionists and post-impressionists. Among the Japanese, the print were hardly given more than passing consideration- millions were produced annually in Edo.
They were often thrown away or used as wrapping paper for pottery. For many years, the Japanese continued to be perplexed by the keen interest foreigners took in this art form, which they considered of ephemeral value.