Ukiyo-e Print Colorant Database
Since 2002, the MFA’s Asian Conservation Studio and Scientific Research department has been conducting research into the colorants used in Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period (1603-1868). Non-invasive techniques that do not require sampling from the prints have been used: X-ray Fluorescence (XRF), Excitation Emission Matrix (EEM) and Fiber Optic Reflectance (FORS) spectroscopies. The results were cross referenced with samples that were formulated and printed using organic and inorganic materials traditionally believed to have been used during the Edo period. Thus far, over 800 prints have been analyzed.
This Ukiyo-e Print Colorant Database is an effort to begin collating the analytical results of colorants used in Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1868) into one location that is accessible to all researchers. It currently focuses on prints from the MFA’s collection from the early 1700's to the mid-1800's. It does not yet cover the whole breadth of colorants used, such as the aniline based colorants, but we hope to continue to expand the database.
A list of colorants detected so far in this research. Click to see examples of the printed colors, spectra, and a list of analyzed prints. More on the data.
A list of publications and resources on the identification of colorants in Japanese woodblock prints.
About the Collection
The MFA has over 50,000 Japanese prints and approximately 3,000 titles of illustrated books covering the Edo period (1603-1868) to the present. The Japanese woodblock print collection spans the Edo period from its birth to color printing to its height as a commercial product and to its end in the Meiji period (1868-1912). This collection represents not only the breadth of artists working at the time but also multiple impressions and editions which makes it a comprehensive resource for scholarship, research, and teaching. Collections from prominent Bostonians such as William Sturgis Bigelow, Denman Ross, and the Spaulding brothers form the basis of the collection. Furthermore, the William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection which cannot be exhibited due to the donor's bequest is comprised of over 6,000 prints. This group of prints generally display remarkable preservation of the colorants making it a valuamble benchmark for the study of color and palette.
The colorant research comes out of a long collaboration between the Asian Conservation Studio and Scientific Research department. We would like to thank the many volunteers who contributed to this research. We are also grateful to Richard and Jo-Ann Pinkowitz for donating to this database project which allowed us to bring the Ukiyo-e Print Colorant Database online.