Harunobu Suzuki was one of the leading print artists of his time and is widely recognized as having played a major role in the development of nishiki-e, the polychrome print. He was born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), where he also worked for most of his life. The strongest influence during his early years came from the Kyoto master Sukenobu, along with Kiyomitsu, Toyonobu and the ukiyo-e painters of the Kawamata school. His study of the principles and methods of the Kano school and of 16th-century Chinese genre painters is also reflected in his work. Unlike most ukiyo-e artists, Harunobu used his real name rather than an artist name.
Harunobu is the archetypal painter of bijinga (prints of beautiful women) and his designs show ladies of the demi-monde, middle-class women going about their everyday tasks, and women in mythological scenes, all executed in elegant colour and well-differentiated technique. Other subjects from ordinary urban life in Edo such as street vendors and errand boys are also included in his artworks, while the themes are often humorous parodies. Harunobu also painted erotic scenes, and he liked to have celebrated contemporary beauties as O-Sen and O-Fuji model for him.
In 1764 he was commissioned to design pictures for calendars, New Year’s and other congratulatory cards, so-called e-goyomi. Costly materials were used, and by 1765 the polychrome print was innovated by Harunobu through the use of multiple separate woodblocks in the creation of a single image. Instead of just two or three colours, the whole range of the artist’s palette was now available. The new technique depended on using kento (guide marks) to hold the paper in place and keep the successive colour printings in register. As such, Harunobu holds the credit for revolutionising printing in Japan and is much appreciated as an artist through the allegorical theme of his designs.