Biography of Japanese Ukiyo-e Landscape Artist.

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Hodogaya: 4th Station of The 53
Stations of the Tokaido Series (1834)
Tokyo National Museum.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)


Early Life and Apprenticeship
Landscapes: The 53 Stations of the Tokaido
Other Important Ukiyo-e Landscape Prints
Last Years
Reputation and Legacy

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One of Japan's best landscape artists of the 19th century, Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige was inspired to take up art full-time after seeing the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of his elder contemporary Hokusai (1760-1849), and became an even greater expert in the use of colour in his paintings and prints. Indeed, Hiroshige's masterpiece The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (c.1832-4, Tokyo National Museum), is considered to be the greatest example of landscape printmaking in the history of Japanese art - a huge achievement in view of Hokusai's exquisite Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1823-29, British Museum, London) and other works. Hiroshige's other famous works include Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido (1834-42, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco), and One Hundred Views of Edo (1856-58, Brooklyn Museum, New York). Influenced himself by Chinese art, Hiroshige had a significant impact on modern artists in Europe, as a result of the Japonism movement in the 1860s and 1870s, especially Van Gogh (1853-90), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). A man of no wealth, or importance, on his death at the age of 62, Hiroshige's posthumous reputation has continued to grow, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Edo Period in Japan.



Early Life and Apprenticeship

Born in the Yayosu barracks, near Edo Castle in present-day Tokyo, the son of Ando Gen'emon, a member of the castle's fire service, Hiroshige absorbed the basics of drawing and possibly painting from Okajima Rinsai, another fireman in the barracks, who instructed him in the Chinese-influenced Kano style of art. (See also: Chinese Painters.)

Hiroshige's natural talent as an artist rapidly made itself felt. By the age of 9 he was producing exceptional landscapes and studying the rules of linear perspective from engravings made by Dutch Realist artists. At about 13 he applied for an apprenticeship with the eminent painter Toyokuni but was turned down. He then applied to the studio of the woodblock artist Toyohiro, who accepted him as a trainee painter and printmaker in 1811. (Note: Toyohiro and Tokokuni had both been pupils of Toyoharu, the founder of the Utagawa school.) Under Toyohiro, Hiroshige studied the Kano and Shijo painting styles, becoming established in the workshop after only one year, but he gave little sign of the extraordinary genius which was to come, and his first original works did not emerge until 1818, when he reached the age of 21. It is possible that this relatively slow start was due to his working as a teacher in Toyohiro's school, as well as piece-work he undertook, decorating fans and other crafts items. In addition, it's worth noting however, that from the age of 12, he had taken over Fire Service duties of his father (on the latter's death in 1809). So that his art was not a full-time activity.

In any event, during his time with Toyohiro, after an initial period devoted to book illustration, he spent most of his time on traditional Ukiyo-e themes, including pictures of beautiful women (bijinga) and Kabuki actors (yakusha-e), all executed in the classic Utagawa school style. It was not until after the death of Toyohiro, in 1830, that Hiroshige made a dramatic change to his style of art, with the landscape series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital.



Landscapes: The 53 Stations of the Tokaido

Hiroshige first came to public attention in his mid-30s, with the publication of his Famous Views of the Eastern Capital (Toto Meisho) (1831), a series of landscape prints which were critically acclaimed for their composition and colour. They are generally referred to as Ichiyusai Gakki (after the signature he gave them, "Ichiyusai Hiroshige"), in order to distinguish them from his numerous other sets of prints of Edo.

This print set was released about the time that he decided to become a full-time ukiyo-e artist, allegedly after seeing prints made by his contemporary, Hokusai. As it was, 1832 was the year that Hokusai released some of his greatest paintings, including Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa.

Coincidentally, 1832 was also the year that Hiroshige himself made his reputation, after being invited to join other Shogunal officials on a trip to the Imperial court via the Tokaido Road. This road followed the coast, then traversed a range of snow-covered mountains before descending to Kyoto. Hiroshige's meticulous observations of the 490-kilometre journey formed the basis for his series of magnificent Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, entitled: The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (1832-4, Tokyo National Museum). When released, these woodcuts were an instant success: his reputation was now assured. Indeed, the series proved so popular that he returned to the same theme as many as 20 times, as exemplified by series like the "Gyosho Tokaido" (named after the cursive style of calligraphy used in the title text), the "Reisho Tokaido" (after the scribes style of calligraphy), and the "Upright Tokaido" (named for its upright layout).

Other Important Ukiyo-e Landscape Prints

After this, Hiroshige began work on his next series of landscape painting, which appeared in a series of Ukiyo-e prints entitled: Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido (1834-42, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco). His last great set of landscapes was One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-8, Brooklyn Museum, New York), published posthumously with some images being completed by Hiroshige II, his leading pupil. All these works were noted for their bold colours, exquisite lyricism, sweeping perspectives and realistic spatial depth. During the 1850s, he worked increasingly with polychrome prints (nishiki-e), creating some marvellously atmospheric pictures.

Last Years

Hiroshige never experienced financial security, even in old age: one reason why he continued working up to the end, even when his works declined somewhat in quality. In 1856, he "retired from the world," and became a Buddhist monk, although this didn't stop him beginning his final work One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He died during the great Tokyo cholera epidemic in 1858 and his remains were interred in a Buddhist temple in Asakusa.

His followers, included his two top pupils, Shigenobu (Hiroshige II) and Shigemasa (Hiroshige III), both of whom emulated his distinctive style though without his success. Other students of Hiroshige included Shigekiyo, Shigemaru, and Hirokage.

Reputation and Legacy

Along with Kunisada (1786–1865) and Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), Hiroshige was a member of the Utagawa school, although it was Hiroshige who dominated landscape printmaking during the 1840s and 1850s with his signature style of intimate, small-scale scenic travel prints. Working within the genre of famous places (meisho-e), he depicted the exploits of travellers making their way along famous routes, in all weathers - becoming known as "the artist of rain, snow and mist" - in a style which became immensely popular with all classes of urban customer. (Note: During the 18th and 19th centuries, in Japan, tourism became a boom industry, leading to an upsurge in popular interest in travel locations. Ukiyo-e prints thus acted as the forerunner of travel photographs.) In 1856, together with the publisher Uoya Eikichi, Hiroshige created a set of luxury prints using the finest printing techniques - embossing, fabric printing, blind printing, and the use of glue printing - including the addition of mica, which imparted a unique iridescent effect. In all, he created some 5,000 different designs, mostly landscapes, of which 2,000 were views of Edo (Tokyo).

In addition to influencing many of his Japanese contemporaries, Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo had a major impact on modern art in Europe, notably on movements like Impressionism (1870s/80s) and Post-Impressionism (1880s/90s), notably Gauguin's Synthetism, Bernard's Cloisonnism and Bonnard's Nabis group. Individual collectors of Hiroshige's Ukiyo-e woodcuts included, in particular, Monet and Van Gogh.

Paintings by Hiroshige can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world.

• For biographies of other Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of woodcuts and woodblock prints in Japan, see: Homepage.

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