Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川廣重), whose childhood names included Andô Tokutarô, Jûemon, and Tokubei, was born in 1797 in the Yayosu Quay (耶楊子) or barracks section in the Yaesu (八重洲) district in Edo (modern Tokyo). He was of a samurai background and the great-grandson of Tanaka Tokuemon, who held a position of power under the Tsugaru clan in the northern province of Mutsu. Hiroshige's grandfather, Mitsuemon, was an archery instructor who worked under the name Sairyïken. Hiroshige's father, Andô Gen'emon, was adopted into the family of Andô Jûemon, whom he succeeded as fire warden (a lower-ranking samurai or dôshin, 同心) for the shogunal jôbikeshi (firefighting brigade: 定火消) in Yayosu Quay. Hiroshige's mother died in early 1809, and his father followed later that year after transferring his fire warden duties to his twelve-year-old son. Hiroshige would proceed to carry out his official supervisory duties for more than two decades, but ultimately he handed them over to his adopted heir in 1832, about the time that his fame as a ukiyo-e artist began to spread throughout Edo and beyond.
Hiroshige's position as a fire warden required managing roughly 300 contract workers in his particular brigade, but it left enough time for other pursuits. At about the age of 14, he sought out Utagwa Toyokuni (歌川豊國 1769-1825) as a mentor, but the master was unable to take on more pupils, so Hiroshige was allowed to train and work with Utagawa Toyohiro (歌川豐廣 1773–1828), which he did for the next 17 years. (He signed with his art name "Hiroshige" as early as 1812.)
Hiroshige is said to have studied the techniques of the officially sanctioned academic Kanô school (狩野派), the Nanga school (南画派) inspired by the Chinese Southern School and literati painters, and the Maruyama-Shijô school (円山四条派) specializing in realist nature and figure studies, and possibly the perspective techniques of Western art and its imitative Japanese uki-e ("floating" or perspective pictures: 浮絵 or 浮繪). But before specializing in fûkeiga (landscape prints: 風景画), Hiroshige designed mostly yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵) and bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). Actor subjects from 1818 are known, including two double portraits of Nakamura Shikan I paired up with other actors in performances at the Nakamura-za. That same year, he also illustrated a small book of kyôka (playful poems: 狂歌) titled Kyôka murasaki no maki (Volume of Murasaki playful verses: 狂歌紫の巻). Two bijinga series from around 1822 were Uchi to soto sugata hakkei (Eight views with figures, inside and outside: 外と内 姿八景) and Goku saishiki imayo utsushi-e (True modern pictures brilliantly colored: 極さい色今様うつしゑ). During this early period, a few kachôga (bird and flower prints: 花鳥画) also appeared with Hiroshige signatures.
Soon after Toyohiro's death, Hiroshige began to explore the theme of landscapes. In 1831-32, he produced his first series, titled Tôto meisho (Famous places in the eastern capital: 東都名所) comprising 10 prints. The publisher Kawaguchi-ya Shôzô (川口正蔵), firm name Shôeidô (正栄堂), is identified in the right margin below the kiwame ("approved": 極) censor seal. The Shôeidô address is given above the seal (Edo Kyôbashi Ginza Yonchome). The flight of geese descending through low-lying bands of clouds as a bright full moon shines over Edo Bay appears to suggest some Western influence in the receding perspective, although one should not entirely discount Maruyama-Shijô paintings and woodblock-printed albums that blended Western realism with Japanese decorative art, which Hiroshige likely studied while in Toyohiro's studio. There is both drama and stillness in Hiroshige's rendering of this view, a combination that he would return to repeatedly throughout his career.
It was only two years after the first Tôto meisho set that Hiroshige produced what would prove to be his most admired series, the horizontal ôban-format Tôkaidô gojûsan tsugi no uchi (Fifty-three stations of the eastern sea road: 東海道五十三次之内), published by Takenouchi Magohachi (firm name Hoeidô). Much has been written about this series comprising 55 prints (53 stations plus the starting point at Nihonbashi and the endpoint in Kyoto). Hiroshige, as a hikeishi-dôshin, was allowed small privileges available to low-ranking samurai, and he somehow secured an invitation to join a shogunal procession traveliing to Kyoto in 1832. The ostensible purpose was to sketch the ceremonies at the imperial grounds in Kyoto, but the journey gave Hiroshige an opportunity to sketch scenes along the Tôkaidô. The image below is considered one of several masterpieces from the set. Titled Shôno (庄野), the 46th station along the route, it includes the subtitle Hakuu ("Driving rain" or "Sudden rain": 白雨) inscribed in the red gourd cartouche at the upper left. Here we have an iconic view of men against nature, racing through a squall as bands of slanting rain pour down upon the hillside. There were several variants in shading and in the heaviness of the rain (darker than in the earlier print below), and there survive a great many impressions, with the later printings showing wear to the keyblock lines and slight off-setting of the color blocks.
Scenes from the Tôkaidô were endlessly popular and Hiroshige obliged by designing roughly 2,000 single-sheet prints in various series and sets. While some of the designs were masterful, others were uninspired. Nevertheless, many images sold very well, as we can surmise from surviving impressions taken off rather worn-out original blocks.
Kachôga (Flower and bird pictures: 花鳥画) were depictions of the natural world — birds, flowers, trees, plants, grasses, insects, fishes and animals. Along with figure and landscape painting, the genre represented a primary thematic grouping within classical Chinese and Japanese art. As expressions of the Japanese reverence for nature, kachôga did not typically focus on strict realism or scientific observation, although certain schools or styles were naturalistic (for example, the aforementioned Maruyama-Shijô school). Artists were expected to convey the spirit of nature as well as its material forms. Natural elements embodied symbolic, mythical, spiritual or religious values, while seasonal associations abounded, overlaid with poetic/literary allusions.
Hiroshige's first kachôga appeared around 1832. It is estimated that he produced more than 500 single-sheet kachôga. There appear to have been nearly 200 alone in various tall-narrow formats: ô-tanzaku (large poem slips: 大短册), about 380 x 170 mm; chû-tanzaku (medium poem slips: 中短册), 380 x 130 mm; and ko-tanzaku (small poem slips: 小短册), 345 x 76 mm. He also designed kachôga for standard chûban ("medium print: 中判) and koban ("small print": 小判) formats as well as uchiwa-e (fan-shaped prints: 團扇絵). Hiroshige did not favor the ubiquitous ôban ("large print": 大判) format for his nature studies.
The ô-tanzaku design on the right depicts tree sparrows with camellia on a snowy day. Published circa 1832-33 by Wakasaya Yoichi (firm name Jakurindô), it includes, like a great many of Hiroshige's kachôga, a Chinese-inspired poetic verse or "Chinese writing" (kanbun: 漢文), which has been translated (see Goldman ref. below) as: The crow fights with the kite over food / the sparrows dispute over nests / You stand alone beside the pond / on a windy, snowy evening. The delicacy of this naturalistic but delineative large-panel design reveals Maruyama-Shijô influences. It is printed to the highest standards with nuanced colors and confident outlines, enhanced by embossing to the feathers of the sparrow and the white snow on the green leaves and the camellia blossoms. Hiroshige was particularly adept at capturing birds in flight, often imbuing them with expressive "gestures."
As mentioned earlier, the young Hiroshige produced actor portraits and bijinga while he was active in Utagawa Toyohiro's studio. He continued producing prints featuring women until quite late in his career, although in only moderate numbers. Hiroshige did not, unlike with his landscapes, achieve much with the theme of bijinga. His female figures derive unabashedly from the Utagawa tradition, particularly in the treatment of faces and body types as exemplified by Kunisada. In fact, the two artists collaborated more than once with Kunisada always drawing the figures and Hiroshige the landsacpes (see "two brushes" design). Still, Hiroshige designed a respectable number of appealing bijinga, notably in triptych format. In the example shown below, three beauties are posed in a snowy landscape titled Ueno Shinobazu no ike no kei (Snow scene at Shinobazu in Ueno: 上野不忍の池雪の景), a vertical ôban triptych published by Jôshûya Kinzô (firm name Shôfukudô) circa 1848-49. There is a visually compelling contrast between the figures in saturated colors typical of the ukiyo-e manner versus the mostly white Hiroshige-style landscape.
In addition to an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 or more prints, Hiroshige also illustrated roughly 120 woodblock-printed books. Taking an example from another work depicting scenes along the Tôkaidô, the image below is a two-page spread from Tôkaidô meisho zue (Pictures of famous places along the eastern sea road: 東海道名所図絵) from 1848. The view here is of two bridges with Mount Fuji in the far distance. Featured in the left forground is the Nihonbashi (日本橋), the departure point (in Edo) for traveling along the Tôkaidô. In the middle distance on the right is the Ichikokubashi (一石橋). The latter appears in other prints by Hiroshige, including a fine scene titled Tôto Ichikokubashi (東都一石橋) from the artist's final year in the series Fuji sanjûrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji: 富士三十六景) in 4/1858. The title of the volumes is not unique — earlier examples exist, such as a six-volume set in 1797 authored by the yomihon (読本) writer and haikai (俳諧) master Akisato Ritô (秋里籬島 1776-1830), and with illustrations by the meisho-ki master [Naniwa] Takehara Shunchôsai Nobushige (浪花竹原春朝斎信繁) and the twenty-five other artists he selected to help him with the project. The 1797 work, many believe, had an impact on Hiroshige's various later series on the theme.
Hiroshige's skill at capturing snow scenes is well documented. One of his finest late-career designs is Meguro taikobashi yûhinooka (Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill: 目黒太鼓橋夕日の岡) from the series Meisho Edo hyakkei (One hundred famous views of Edo: 名所江戸百景) published by Uoya Eikichi in 4/1857 (see image at the top of this page). As one of the designs from a series filled with masterpieces, it is a prime example of a simple technical expedient: leaving unprinted those areas meant to represent snow. The effect is palpable, yielding a stillness as snow gently falls. One can imagine the sound of crunching snow beneath the feet of the pedestirans as they press on across the stone drum bridge. Seemingly random, the snow flakes in the sky come close to forming an intricate pattern (easier to see in full size) akin to certain dappled shibori (絞り) textile designs of the period. Fascinating, too, is the lively array of short brush strokes indicating the tree branches, leaves, grasses, and stonework of the bridge. The scene is "busy" with details, yet profoundly balanced and poetically evocative.
There has been some conjecture about the place occupied by the next print, a triptych from 8/1857 depicting the Kiso Road winding through a snow-covered mountainous landscape. Titled Kisoji no yamakawa (Mountains and rivers on the Kiso Road: 木曽路之山川), it is the last published of three known related triptychs, the others being Awa no naruto no fûkei (Landscape of the the Whirlpools of Awa: 安房鳴門之風景) from 4/1857 and Buyô Kanazawa hasshô yakei (Evening view of the eight famous sites at Kanazawa in Musashi province: 武陽金沢八勝夜景) from 7/1857. These three works have long been identified as a triad of designs for a setsugekka theme (Snow, moon flowers: 雪月花), a popular and much illustrated subject in Japanese art. However, according to Suzuki Jûzô (see Forrer ref. below), it is possible that yet another tritpych was intened for the subject of "Spring," which would have completed a set of triptychs for the "Four Seasons," another perennial theme in poetry and art. In any case, the present design represents Hiroshige at his best during his final years. The icy stillness of a rugged landscape blanketed in snow, its whiteness in bold contrast to the dark blue river and gray sky, make this a masterpiece of Japanese printmaking.
Hiroshige "renunciated" the world in the third month of 1856 when he shaved his head and took formal vows to become a Buddhist priest. In practical terms, it was more symbolism and ritual than actual foresaking of earthly concerns. He continued to design prints; in fact, his last great project — the already discussed Meisho Edo hyakkei — series actually comprising 118 prints (three of which have been attributed the Utagawa Shigenobu, later Hiroshige II) that was begun at the same time. Meisho Edo hyakkei embodied much of what defined Hiroshige's lifelong achievement: a realization in prints of a panorama of the natural world and its effects on the human experience. There is much on display in the 118 scenes to induce feelings in the observer: lyricism, humor, curiosity, imagination, innovation, serenity, isolation, melancholy, and foreboding.
The scholar Matthi Forrer (see ref. below) has written that, "Hiroshige himself may not have wanted to be regarded primarily as an artist of mist, rain, moonlight and snow, but investing these climatic and atmospheric conditions with 'style and meaning' ... does appear to have been a source of endless of fascination to him.... Comparison of the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige ... may possibly be reduced to the difference between form and mood. Hokusai's chief concern is form. Surprising yet firmly structured compositions of well-defined forms — that is where his innovative strength lies. Hiroshige ... eshews depicting everything down to the last detail. Reality, for him, is to be sought in a highly refined range of colors, orchestrated to articulate mood." © 2020 by John Fiorillo