Though some scholars assert that Harunobu was originally from Kyoto, pointing to possible influences from Nishikawa Sukenobu, much of his work, in particular his early work, is in the Edo style. His work shows evidence of influences from many artists, including Torii Kiyomitsu, Ishikawa Toyonobu, the Kawamata school, and the Kano school. However, the strongest influence upon Harunobu was the painter and printmaker Nishikawa Sukenobu, who may have been Harunobu's direct teacher.
Little is known of Harunobu's early life; his birthplace and birthdate are unknown, but it is believed he grew up in Kyoto. It is said he was forty-six at his death in 1770. Unlike most ukiyo-e artists, Harunobu used his real name rather than an artist name. He was from a samurai family, and had an ancestor who was a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu in Mikawa Province; this Suzuki accompanied Ieyasu to Edo when the latter had his capital built there. Harunobu's grandfather Shigemitsu and father Shigekazu were stripped of their hatamoto status when they were found to be involved in financing of gambling and other activities; they were exiled from Edo and relocated to Kyoto. At some point, Harunobu became a student of the ukiyo-e master Nishikawa Sukenobu.
Harunobu began his career in the style of the Torii school, creating many works which, while skillful, were not innovative and did not stand out. It was only through his involvement with a group of literati samurai that Harunobu tackled new formats and styles.
In 1764, as a result of his social connections, he was chosen to aid these samurai in their amateur efforts to create e-goyomi. Calendars prints 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, which incorporated the calculations of the lunar calendar into their images, would be exchanged at Edo gatherings and parties.
These calendar prints, 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 cherry wood 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; Just 20 years previously, the invention of benizuri-e had made it possible to print in three or four colors; Harunobu applied this new technique to ukiyo-e prints using up to ten different colors on a single sheet of paper. The new technique depended on using notches and wedges to hold the paper in place and keep the successive color printings in register. 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. As the technique was first used in a calendar, the year of their origin can be traced precisely to 1765.
In the late 1760s Harunobu thus became one of the primary producers of images of bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) and kabuki actors of Edo, and of similar and related subjects for the Edo print connoisseur market. In a few special cases, notably his famous set of eight prints entitled Zashiki hakkei (Eight Parlor Views), the patron's name appears on the print along with, or in place of, Harunobu's own. The presence of a patron's name or seal, and especially the omission of that of the artist, was another novel development in ukiyo-e 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 Shunsho and Torii Kiyonaga.
In addition to the revolutionary innovations that came with the introduction of nishiki-e, Harunobu's personal style was unique in a number of other respects. His figures are all very thin and light; some critics say that all his figures look like children. However, it is these same young girls who epitomize Harunobu's personal style. Richard Lane describes this as "Harunobu's special province, one in which he surpassed all other Japanese artists - eternal girlhood in unusual and poetic settings". Though his compositions, like most ukiyo-e prints, may be said to be fairly simple overall, it is the overall composition that concerned Harunobu. Unlike many of his predecessors, he did not seek to have the girls' kimono dominate the viewer's attention.
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, kabuki 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. His work is rich in literary allusion, and he often quotes Japanese classical poetry, but the accompanying illustrations often gently poke fun at the subject.
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.
Harunobu’s works have been featured three times in commemorative postage stamps issued by the Japanese post office:
1957 Philatelic Week
1969 16th Universal Postal Union Congress
1981 Philatelic Week (se-tenant pair)
His works have also been depicted in topical stamps from the Federated States of Micronesia, Sierra Leone and St Vincent.