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.
- 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.
The Life of Utagawa Hiroshige
"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
Station of Ōtsu
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
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
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
Plum Estate, Kameido
Plum Estate, Kameido is the thirtieth print in Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The colors are striking and unusual; the upper third is dominated by a deep red while the lower third is dominated by a deep green, with touches of blue suggesting shadow, with the middle third of the vertical print acting as a transitional space in which the colors graduate through pink and beige. The image focuses on a group of plum trees and is dominated by the grey trunk of the closest tree, which repeatedly forks, leading the eye upward. In the background are further trees, fences and groups of people picnicking and standing on the grass. The white blossoms of the plum in the foreground unify the top and bottom of the print.
Hiroshige's use of color became more dramatic and daring as his career progressed; the red sky, here, is a divergence from naturalism which serves to emphasize the mood of spring, heightening the audience's sense of nature's splendor and provoking a sense of calm. Hiroshige's masterly use of the bokashi technique allows the transition between the red and the green to occur seamlessly, drawing the viewer's eye through the image. Appreciation of blossoms, in Japanese culture, draws largely from the viewer's knowledge of their fleeting appearance; Hiroshige's dreamlike colors emphasize the brilliance blossom viewing attains in memory. This particular print had a notable effect on European artists, with Édouard Manet's Music in the Tuileries Garden transposing the combination of leisure seekers and tree trunks into a Parisian setting while Vincent van Gogh copied the image in paint and later deployed contrasting colors to evoke a similar dynamism.
Woodblock print - Brooklyn Museum
Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake
This print shows a group running from a sudden torrent of rain while crossing the Shin-Ohashi Bridge over the Sumida River. The vertical composition is dominated by its diagonals. At the bottom, the bridge stretches from the middle right to the lower left, while the horizon line in the background slants downward from left to right. On the bridge, three figures lean forward, toward the left, to cover their bodies, holding umbrellas above their heads, while three figures moving in the other direction huddle under a shared umbrella and another figure, slightly further forward on the bridge, holds what appears to be a blanket above the body. On the water, a figure can be seen guiding a boat. The distant bank is grey and indistinct and dark clouds gather at the top of the frame. The rain, rendered as straight black lines, falls at a slight angle from these clouds, heightening the sense of chaos while drawing the different areas of the composition together.
This print is fifty-eighth in One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Like others in the group, it is in oban format and adopts an unconventional compositional approach that serves to dramatize the scene. The figures are small and apparently helpless against the storm; the verticality emphasizes the relentless downward drive of the rain, while the use of multiple diagonals, including that of the river itself, creates a sense of disorientation. While the palette is more subdued than others in the series, the contrast between beige and blue causes the bridge to appear as a bright element, heightening the sense of saturation, while the darker hues at the top and bottom of the image serve to keep the audience's attention within the frame.
Woodblock print - Brooklyn Museum
Fireworks at Ryōgoku Bridge
Fireworks at Ryōgoku Bridge, from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, adopts an elevated perspective to show boats and people gathered around and on a long bridge across the Sumida River, watching a display of fireworks in the sky above. The bright blue of the river stands out against the dark browns and greys of the bridge, boats, bank and sky above; red lanterns on the boats in the foreground match the crimson line of a firework arcing upward, leading the eye into the sky, where the right corner fills with starburst shapes in white and red. Hiroshige uses diagonals to draw the viewer's eye into the scene, with the brown bridge dividing the river, occupying the lower third, into two triangular spaces.
This scene would have been recognizable, to contemporary Japanese audiences, as kawabiraki, a festival marking the beginning of boating season. The image captures the fleeting nature of pleasure, pausing a moment - the explosion of fireworks - which typically vanishes as the viewer bears witness to it. Hiroshige was drawn to the ephemeral and transitory, as were others in this period, when ukiyo, or floating world, began to refer less to Buddhist detachment and more to the secular association of beauty with the ephemeral. His elevated perspective heightens the sense of the individual's insignificance in the face of passing time, while the vivid colors and positioning of the viewer outside the scene heightens the poignancy of the moment. This print, like others in the series, had an impact on Western artists; James McNeil Whistler's Nocturne: Black and Gold series borrowed fireworks as subject in depicting the River Thames in London.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Biography of Utagawa Hiroshige
Utagawa Hiroshige, born as Andō Tokutarō in 1797, was the only son of Andō Gen'emon. Hiroshige's name changed regularly as a child; he was also known as Jūemon, Tokubē, and Tetsuzō. The Andō family were Samurai, the highest ranking of the four Japanese castes, and consequently entitled to a hereditary post as fire wardens in the civil service. They lived in the Yayosu Riverbank area of Edo, now known as Tokyo, which had become capital of the Japanese empire in 1603. There is little documentation of Hiroshige's personal life or attitudes, but that which is known suggests his upbringing was distinguished by tragedy, beginning with the death of an elder sister when he was three; Hiroshige's mother died in 1809, when the artist was eleven, and his father died several months later, after his twelfth birthday.
Shortly before his death, Hiroshige's father passed his hereditary title to his son, providing Hiroshige with a salary capable of supporting two people comfortably and a profession which was comparatively relaxed; many of those working in the fire service pursued other occupations, including art, alongside it. It is unclear how Hiroshige came to be interested in art and why or when he chose printmaking as his medium. There are stories suggesting a friend of his father's, Okajima Rinsai, who worked in the fire service, introduced the young artist to painting when he was nine, but these are likely to be apocryphal.
Early Training and Work
Hiroshige was inspired by the popular artist Toyokuni, but was rejected when he applied to join his school.
In 1811, Hiroshige was accepted as a pupil to Utagawa Toyohiro, an Ukiyo-e artist specializing in prints of actors from kabuki theatre and other figures. Hiroshige took his master's name, Utagawa, as was traditional, and combined different readings from characters in his master's name and his own in order to form the professional name by which he was consequently known, Utagawa Hiroshige. Following his master, Hiroshige began his career producing woodblock images of kabuki figures, beautiful women and narrative illustrations of comic poems. He continued to support his development as an artist through his work as fire warden.
Hiroshige married the daughter of a fireman, Okabe Yuaemon, in 1821, and their first son, Nakajirō, was born in the same year. He continued to create prints focused on figures until 1829, when he began work on the landscapes for which he would become well-known. In 1831, inspired by Katsushika Hokusai, who had recently begun to revitalize the landscape genre, Hiroshige published the ten-part series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital.
Hiroshige passed his position as fire warden to his son, Nakajirō, in 1832. This was an unusually early retirement from the civil service and his reasons for it remain unclear; some have suggested that it was due to an earlier mistake in genealogy, stemming from his father's adoption into the Andō family, which may have jeopardized his claim to the position. Experts agree that Hiroshige did not give up the position in order to devote himself to printmaking, but his consequent freedom from other responsibilities meant that he soon became a prolific artist.
In the same year, Hiroshige joined an official procession travelling along the Tokaidō, the road that connected Edo, the new capital, with Kyoto, site of the imperial court. This journey, along Japan's major pilgrimage route, took between ten and sixteen days on foot and passed numerous temples, shrines and culturally significant landscapes. While the group that Hiroshige joined travelled along the road in order to deliver horses to the court, others often travelled for pleasure, reveling in local scenery and in food and beverages available at the waystations along the route. This journey led to Hiroshige's first significant series, 53 Stations of the Tokaidō, completed in 1834.
Having discovered his talent for landscape, Hiroshige worked quickly and continuously from 1834 to 1839, when much of his best work was produced and published. Hiroshige's lifestyle and finances during this period, however, remain unclear; some hypothesize that he lived a typical middle-class existence, drinking frequently and eating well, while others claim his habits were more modest. The decade, however, appears to have been difficult, with the Great Tenpō famine causing food scarcity nationally. Hiroshige's wife is believed to have sold clothing and accessories in order to support his work, providing the necessary funds for travel. She, however, died in 1839, halting his production briefly.
Hiroshige's talent for landscape placed him in a better position than many other ukiyo-e artists, as the shogunate banned prints of actors and courtesans, in 1842, in a bid to improve the moral health of the nation. While others followed the traditional approach of showing landscape and significant pilgrimage sites as spectacular and idealised, Hiroshige combined visions of the countryside with the language of the popular print and seized upon the zest for travel, providing audiences with groups of prints that evoked the experience of travel and the public with a sense of collective ownership over the national landscapes, previously considered to be solely as property of the imperial family.
Late Period and Death
Hiroshige's head was described as being "round as a dumpling". It is the only known likeness of the artist.
In 1847, Hiroshige married for the second time, choosing a farmer's daughter, Oyasu, around fifteen years younger than him. The pair moved, in 1848, to Kanōshindō, another district of Edo, where Hiroshige borrowed money to build a new house, and adopted a daughter, Tatsu. Tatsu would go on to marry two of Hiroshige's pupils, divorcing Hiroshige II before marrying Hiroshige III.
In these years, Hiroshige produced triptychs depicting beautiful women and educated a number of pupils who, as was traditional, took on his name. His three pupils were not successful as artists, though it is unclear whether this is due to a poor choice of pupils or poor teaching methods on Hiroshige's part. In 1856, he decided to become a Buddhist monk, which involved shaving his head. He continued to produce art, including One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, in 1857, which had a considerable impact in Europe due to Hiroshige's vivid colors and unconventional perspectives.
In 1858, Hiroshige fell ill, likely due to the cholera epidemic that took 28,000 lives in Japan. He dictated a poem as he died:
"I leave my brush at Azuma,
I go to the Land of the West on a journey
To view the famous sights there."
He was 62 years old and was buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa. He had, over the course of his lifetime, produced over 5,000 print designs, of which many copies were made.
The Legacy of Utagawa Hiroshige
Hiroshige is considered to be the last great ukiyo-e master and his influence can be more obviously traced in Europe than Japan, as the great cultural shifts of the Meiji Period caused Japanese artists to look abroad for inspiration. Hiroshige's lyricism and brilliant use of color resonated with French and Dutch painters, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, similarly searching for new ways to approach landscape. Vincent van Gogh made copies of Hiroshige's prints in order to learn from them and the artist's influence can be seen in van Gogh's use of vibrant yellows and oranges alongside blues. Édouard Manet's approach to foreshortening was influenced by Hiroshige, while Art Nouveau artists and designers were inspired by Hiroshige's stylised depictions of delicately curved trees and flowers.
Hiroshige's work was particularly influential in shaping the Japonism movement, in which painters such as James McNeil Whistler and James Tissot borrowed both the style of Hiroshige's prints and used representations of similar work as indicators of taste within domestic interiors. In the late nineteenth century, the popularity of ukiyo-e prints was such that they were seen as indicators of knowledge, taste and wealth that could be deployed in portraits or interiors in order to bestow these qualities upon their owner. This is particularly obvious in Whistler's 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, in which Whistler's model, Joanna Hiffernan, is shown looking at prints from Hiroshige's Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces, which Whistler himself owned, wearing a kimono beside a Japanese screen.
More recently, Hiroshige's work has had an impact on Julian Opie, whose own flat aesthetic borrows from that of Hiroshige's woodblock prints, and Nigel Caple, who created a series of drawings along the Tōkaidō after those of Hiroshige. Hiroshige's landscapes, alongside those of Hokusai, are also widely understood to have shaped the development of contemporary manga; scenes depicting longing or the passing of time frequently draw upon Hiroshige's references to seasonal festivities.
Influences and Connections
- Katsushika Hotsukai
- Utagawa Kunisada
- Okajima Rinsai
- Utagawa Toyohiro
Useful Resources on Utagawa Hiroshige
- HiroshigeOur PickBy Adele Schlombs, 1 February 2006
- Hiroshige: Birds and FlowersBy Cynthea J. Bogel, October 1, 1988
- Hiroshige Box EditionBy Matthi Forrer, November 21, 2017
- Hiroshige's Journey in the 60-Odd ProvincesBy Marije Jansen, June 2004
- Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of EdoBy Melanie Treade and Lorenz Bichler, October 1 2010
- Hiroshige: Visions of Japan HardcoverBy Rossella Menegazzo, April 23, 2019