The word ukiyo refers to the world of common people and e means "picture." Thus when ukiyo-e first emerged in the late sixteenth century, it usually depicted everyday life in the city of Kyoto. In the eighteenth century, ukiyo-e became a popular art form, though, thanks partly to advances in woodblock printing techniques. Also, familiar subjects like kabuki actors and beautiful women came to be depicted around this time. By that time ukiyoe became a Japan's popular culture.
At around the end of the nineteenth century, European painters came across ukiyo-e prints that were being used as wrapping paper. They were struck very strongly by the expressive curves, bold use of colors, and liberal designs of ukiyo-e.
Until then, European and U.S. artists had never come across the sorts of techniques that ukiyo-e artists used. Ukiyo-e thus had a great influence on such Impressionist painters as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.