Art has always been subjective and what style is in demand one century may fall out of favor by the next. The woodblock prints in the “Floating Beauty: Women in the Art of Ukiyo-e” exhibition at the Bruce Museum through Nov. 1 present a historical survey on women and their depiction in art in Edo Period Japan (1615-1858). The artworks are beautiful in their own right but also are notable in they were originally made for commercial purposes, not as fine art, which of course they have now become.

The traveling exhibition comprises more than 40 prints on loan from the Reading Public Museum in Pennsylvania, which created and curated the exhibition. Its interpretation of these images focuses on the representation of women and their place in the Edo period of Japanese society. Corinne Flax, the Bruce Museum’s manager of school and community partnerships, curated the local presentation of the exhibition and said she was more interested in thinking about who would have purchased these prints and for what purpose.

“Floating Beauty” highlights female characters in literature, Kabuki theater and poetry; the courtesans and geisha of the Yoshiwara district; and wives and mothers from different social classes performing the duties of their station, in order to gain some insight into the lives of women in pre-modern Japan.

The prints in the exhibition mostly date from the mid-1700s to the late 1800s. They are all from, or inspired by, prior prints or brush paintings made during the Edo period. This was the era of Tokugawa Shogunate, a time of robust economic and population growth, which corresponded with a growing demand for artistic and cultural entertainment from the developing merchant class.

“There is a correlation between this exhibition and a 2018 exhibition at the Bruce Museum, ‘In the Limelight: Toulouse-Lautrec Portraits from the Herakleidon Museum.’ Much like Lautrec’s prints were once prominently placed on the streets of Paris as advertisements for cabaret and burlesque performances, the prints in the [Floating Beauty] exhibition were used to popularize Kabuki performers and performances, to introduce new textile patterns and combinations to consumers and as travel guides and inspiration,” she said.

Much of what we today think of as high art was previously used as advertisement and commercial imagery, Flax explained. “This does not take away from the artistry or the beauty of these prints, rather it confers upon them a duality, which is fascinating.”

Ukiyo-e, which translates to “pictures of the floating world,” is a Japanese art form that flourished during a time marked by major social, political, and economic change as the country went under the military control of the Tokugawa shogunate.

The new regime brought peace and wealth to the island nation but created four social classes, between which mobility was forbidden. This created tension and much resentment so the regime authorized the creation of Edo’s pleasure district, known as the Yoshiwara, in 1617. It was here that courtesans lived and worked, Kabuki theater was performed and the lower classes could show off their wealth and engage in decadent activities otherwise banned in conservative Japanese society.

This new urban culture came to be known as “the floating world,” a term which described the hedonistic lifestyle of frequenting the Yoshiwara, attending Kabuki plays and patronizing brothels. The women in the Edo period woodblock prints seen here were most typically Bijin-ga or beautiful women: this means they were courtesans or geisha, and while the connotation today for that often is for a sex worker, these women more likely were entertainers. The attractive women depicted in these prints would have been touted as examples of extreme beauty, and their clothing and hairstyles would have been widely copied at the time the prints were made.

Flax hopes audiences, who may already be familiar with some of these images, “will look beyond what they think they already know about these images, and the culture that made them, to really look closely to discover different interpretations and meanings.” An example of this is the print by renowned printmaker Hokusai, “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” which is actually one of a series of prints, “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” Audiences would then discover that Mount Fuji is the “star,” if you will, of this print, not the “Great Wave.” “It is this type of deeper looking and learning that the Bruce works to encourage and nurture in its galleries,” she said.

Admission is currently by advance reservation for timed ticketed entry; visit brucemuseum.org or call 203-869-0376.