Hishikawa Moronobu was a painter and print designer, considered today one of the chief founders or consolidators of the art form known as ukiyo-e. Chronologically and stylistically, he represents the last of those who are sometimes called "the Ukiyo-e Primitives" and the first artists of post-Primitive, true ukiyo-e. Moronobu may have been the first to sign his works as "ukiyo-eshi" ("Master of Pictures of the Floating World," or "Ukiyo-e Master").
Born in Awa province (today Chiba prefecture) to a father who embroidered tapestries by trade, Moronobu's first artistic forays involved doing the underdrawings for the embroidery, on cloth. He first settled in Edo in the late 1660s. Having apparently picked up skills painting in the Tosa and Kanô school modes, he soon became active as a genre painter and book illustrator.
He may have studied under the Kambun Master, one of the most prominent early ukiyo-e artists whose name, unfortunately, is lost to time. Moronobu did not simply copy older styles, however, but developed his own distinctive style, in which he would remain quite consistent throughout his works. Ukiyo-e specialist Richard Lane describes Moronobu's earlier works as "evocative yet somewhat austere, even slightly wooden," adding "Moronobu soon progressed to [a] more lively, dynamic style ... [his] figures [becoming] fuller and more rounded".
Moronobu's illustrations appeared in at least 150 books, only about one-quarter of which were shunga (erotic images). Among his most famous works were book illustrations made in collaboration with the novelist Ihara Saikaku, as well as picture-book re-formattings of Saikaku's works.
Though perhaps most well-known for his book illustrations and prints, Moronobu was also an accomplished artist, his bijinga paintings consolidating the theme or sub-genre, and establishing motifs and stylistic elements which would be seen in bijinga paintings ever since, through the Edo period as well as in the nihonga of the modern period.
- Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1978. pp44-51.
- Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. p280.
- Melinda Takeuchi, Seduction: Japan's Floating World, San Francisco: Asian Art Museum (2015), 9.
- Lane. p46.