See catalog of his works by J. Hillier (1970); biography by I. Kondo (1956); study by S. Takahashi (1968).
Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) (1724 – 1770) was a Japanese woodblock print artist, one of the most famous in the Ukiyo-e style. He was an innovator, the first to produce full-color prints (nishiki-e) in 1765, rendering obsolete the former modes of two- and three-color prints. Harunobu used many special techniques, and depicted a wide variety of subjects, from classical poems to contemporary beauties. Like many artists of his day, Harunobu also produced a number of shunga, or erotic images. During his lifetime and shortly afterwards, many artists imitated his style. A few, such as Harushige, even boasted of their ability to forge the work of the great master.
In 1764, as a result of his social connections, he was chosen to aid these samurai in their amateur efforts to create calendar prints. Calendars of this sort from prior to that year are not unknown but are quite rare, and it is known that Harunobu was close acquaintances or friends with many of the prominent artists and scholars of the period, as well as with several friends of the shogun. Harunobu's calendars and other prints would often be exchanged at Edo gatherings and parties.
These calendar prints, which incorporated the calculations of the lunar calendar into their images, would be the first nishiki-e (brocade prints). As a result of the wealth and connoisseurship of his samurai patrons, Harunobu created these prints using only the best materials he could. Harunobu experimented with better woods for the woodblocks, using cherrywood instead of catalpa, and used not only more expensive colors, but also a thicker application of the colors, in order to achieve a more opaque effect. The most important innovation in the creation of nishiki-e was the ability of Harunobu, again due to the wealth of his clients, to use as many separate blocks as he wished for a single image; Harunobu was the first ukiyo-e artist to consistently use more than three colors in each print. Nishiki-e, unlike their predecessors, were full-color images.
In the late 1760s Harunobu thus became one of the primary producers of images of kabuki actors of Edo, and of similar and related subjects for the Edo print connoisseur market. Often, a patron's name will appear on the print along with, or in place of, Harunobu's own. The presence of a patron's seal, and especially the omission of that of the artist, was another new development of this time.
Between 1765 and 1770, Harunobu created over twenty illustrated books and over one thousand color prints, along with a number of paintings. He came to be regarded as the master of ukiyo-e during these last years of his life, and was widely imitated until, a number of years after his death, his style was eclipsed by that of new artists, including Katsukawa Shunshō and Torii Kiyonaga.
Harunobu is also acclaimed as being one of the greatest artists of this period in depicting ordinary urban life in Edo. His subjects are not restricted to courtesans, actors, and sumo wrestlers, but include street vendors, errand boys, and others who help to fill in the gaps in describing the culture of this time.
Many of his prints have a solid, single-color background, created by a technique called tsubushi. Though many other artists used the same technique, Harunobu is generally regarded as having used it to the strongest effect. The colored background sets a mood and tone for the entire image.