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Utagawa Hiroshige

Japanese Woodblock artist

Movement: Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints

Born: 1797 - Edo (Now Tokyo), Japan

Died: 1858 - Edo

Utagawa Hiroshige Timeline

Summary of Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige is known as the last great master in Japanese traditional woodblock printing, imbuing the Japanese landscape with a lyricism that drew upon the fleeting nature of sensual pleasure. Hiroshige's prints memorialized everyday life in the late Edo period, in which travel and entertainment became more widely available to the middle-class, and presented a vision of the country in which the changing of the seasons, and the associated festivities, were central. This vision of Japan, heightened by Hiroshige's lush colors and unconventional approach to composition, had widespread appeal within Japan and abroad, with European artists adopting both his bright colors and his themes, transposing his interest in the ephemeral into other settings.

Key Ideas

While Hiroshige was very prolific and made prints on a range of subjects, it is his landscapes, particularly those of his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, that had the most impact. Hiroshige interpreted famous sites through the lens of everyday experience, rather than literary, historical or imperial significance, giving his prints a mass appeal and allowing the Japanese public to feel emotionally involved with their native landscape.
Hiroshige captured the idea of a 'floating world,' from which the term ukiyo-e derived, through attention to the transient pleasures of secular life rather than, as had been the case prior to the Edo period, philosophical detachment rooted in Buddhism. The mood of his prints draws strongly from his focus on seasonal phenomena, fleeting weather conditions or festivities that marked the passing of time. Hiroshige's prints offered a lasting record of experiences that otherwise disappeared quickly.
Hiroshige's work, alongside that of Katsushika Hokusai, popularized Japanese art and aesthetics in Europe. Hiroshige's bright colors and attention to the passing of time had a strong impact on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, while his bold lines representing trees and flowers had a strong influence on Art Nouveau design.
Detail of <i>Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohashi Atake no Yudachi)</i> (1857) from the series <i>One Hundred Famous Views of Edo</i>
Detail of Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohashi Atake no Yudachi) (1857) from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

"I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that pervades their work," wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1888. "They draw a figure with a few well-chosen lines as if it were as effortless as buttoning up one's waistcoat."

Important Art by Utagawa Hiroshige Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important by Utagawa Hiroshige - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Station of Ōtsu (c. 1840)
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Station of Ōtsu (c. 1840)

Artwork description & Analysis: This print, from Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, depicts Ōtsu, one of the busier stations where travelers rested and refueled along the route. The station is shown from above, with the road diagonally bisecting the image. Hiroshige's image focuses on human activity in Ōtsu. The eye is drawn first to the group walking at the center of the image, led by a porter with a large bundle on his back, leaning forward. Behind him, one woman turns to talk to another, while a second porter brings up the party's rear. On either side of the road, wooden structures frame other scenes from the everyday life of the traveler. In the upper left corner, a woman in traditional dress passes a rolled print to a man in sumptuous robes while a younger figure, nearby, points toward something else, outside the frame, available at the same stall. At the lower edge of the frame, toward the centre, three people appear to be fighting or attempting to stop a man from running away. Further right, a man in simple clothes leads an ox, carrying firewood. The color palette is limited, with the road and its structures rendered in subdued green, beige and yellow while the figures, beige or white, wear brighter robes of blue, green and red.

This print allows its audience to experience the Tokaido in the same way as a traveler might, taking a voyeuristic thrill in the range of lives encountered, from wealthy leisure travelers to humbler workers and possible thieves. This sense of the viewer as a spectator is accentuated by the aerial perspective from which Hiroshige depicts the scene, allowing the audience to look in upon it from above. Hiroshige's cropping and use of diagonals contributes to the vibrancy of the composition. The central diagonal, around which the scene's action revolves, encourages the eye to move quickly around the print, evoking the sense of lively motion a traveler might experience along the Tokaido. The figures hint at narratives, provoking curiosity in the viewer, but Hiroshige's cropping leaves their next moves unknown, heightening dynamism.

Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Met

Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province (c. 1853)
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Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province (c. 1853)

Artwork description & Analysis: This print shows waves crashing and foaming over rocks, with a whirlpool in the foreground and a peaceful scene of mountain and shoreline in the background, framed by the water. The scene depicts the changing of the tide in the Straits of Naruto, between the islands of Shikoku and Awaji; as the tide changed, water trapped between rocks would form dramatic whirlpools and waves. The print is in ōban [portrait] format, unusually for a landscape, which heightens the tension and dynamism and directs the eye to the whirlpool occupying the lower third of the image. The rocks, from this vantage point, are large and dominate the middle third, while the foaming water that leaps from them serves to frame the landscape beyond, across which a flock of birds fly.

Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province illustrates a significant turning point in Hiroshige's practice, with greater emphasis placed on the landscape than the figures within that landscape. There are, unusually, no figures within this print, leading the audience to scale nature in relation to themselves rather than to illustrated figures, further drawing them into the scene. The tightness of the composition, rendered vertically, heightens the audience's engagement. Hiroshige had never visited the Naruto Strait; it is likely that he based this print on existing images. The clearest debt, however, is not to an image of the Naruto strait, but to Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa (1839), which had become iconic by the 1850s. Hiroshige distinguishes his image of the sea's power through his emphasis on the whirlpool and rocks and their contrast with the peaceful sky and low-lying landscape beyond, facilitated by the portrait format where Hokusai uses a traditional landscape format. Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, is also distinctly modern in coloring. Hiroshige deploys Prussian Blue, a relatively new product to Japan associated with the country's increased global engagement, and takes advantage of this blue through the bokashi effect, using different shades to render fine gradations of color in the sky and the sea.

Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Met

Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa (1856)
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Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa (1856)

Artwork description & Analysis: This snow scene is from Hiroshige's significant series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which captured well-known locations across the new capital. Kinryūzan Temple, or Senso-ji, is the oldest and most venerable Buddhist temple in Edo. This print, in the oban format, is framed on the left by the bright red entrance gate, which stands out against the white and grey snow, as do the red temple structures at the center and right edge of the image. The center is dominated by a group of trees, white with snow, lining the path that leads to the temple, along which a range of small figures move away from the viewer, their heads concealed by large parasols. The upper third of the image is dominated by a large lantern, rendered with considerable detail in red and black.

This print shows the ways in which Hiroshige combined European and Japanese influences. While earlier images utilize traditional bird's eye views, Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa instead uses central perspective, introduced to Japan through European anatomical and surgical books, to create a sense of depth. Hiroshige's lyricism and ability to convey subjectivity are also clear in this image; the contrast between the bright red and the overwhelming areas of white and grey create a sense of peacefulness and evoke the magical, muffling dimension of heavy snow. Hiroshige's vertical composition allows the audience to find themselves in the scene, positioning them as if peeking through the gate toward the temple; the contrast between the detailed lantern and the simple lines of the roofs beguiles the viewer, creating a poignant, longing mood appropriate for the print's position toward the end of the One Hundred Famous View of Edo series.

Woodblock print - Brooklyn Museum

More Utagawa Hiroshige Artwork and Analysis:

Plum Estate, Kameido (1857) Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (1857) Fireworks at Ryōgoku Bridge (1858)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Utagawa Hiroshige
Interactive chart with Utagawa Hiroshige's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Show influences

Artists

Katsushika Hotsukai
Utagawa Kunisada

Personal Contacts

Okajima Rinsai
Utagawa Toyohiro

Movements

Kanō
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Utagawa Hiroshige
Utagawa Hiroshige
Years Worked: 1811 - 1858
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh
James WhistlerJames Whistler
Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Claude MonetClaude Monet

Personal Contacts

Hiroshige II
Hiroshige III

Movements

ImpressionismImpressionism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism
Art NouveauArt Nouveau

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair
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First published on 09 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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