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Utagawa Hiroshige

Updated: Mar 21


[Utagawa Kunisada I. Memorial Portrait of Hiroshige, 1858,

Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper]


Considered one of the last great ukiyo-e (a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries) artists, Utagawa Hiroshige had a prolific life and career in the Edo period. He was born in 1797 in Edo (now Tokyo) and had multiple names throughout his life which included Jūemon, Tokubē, and Tetsuzō. There is little known about his personal life, but of what is known is surrounded by tragedy with the death of his older sister when his was three, his mother's death when he was 11, and his father's death several months later (Ingram). After being rejected by Toyokuni, an artist that he revered, he became an apprentice in 1811 of Utagawa Toyohiro, whose specialty was prints of kabuki actors.


In 1821, he married his first wife Okabe Yuaemon, a daughter of a fireman, and had their first son, Nakajirō, the same year. He had inherited the position of fireman, but quickly passed it on to his son Nakajirō in 1832. This was an unusually early retirement from the civil service and his reasons remain unclear, though experts agree that while Hiroshige did not give up the position in order to devote himself to printmaking, his consequent freedom from other responsibilities allowed him to became a prolific artist (Ingram).


It was in 1832 that he began to create one of his most famous works, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. This series of woodblock prints depicts a trip Hiroshige had taken along the entire length of the Imperial Tōkaidō road, one of the most important of the Five Routes connecting Kyoto to Edo. Hiroshige stopped at each station to sketch the scene (Taggart). However, despite creating one of his best works, the decade after his civil retirement proved to be a difficult one.


[Utagawa Hiroshige. Kanbara: Night Snow (Kanbara, yoru no yuki), from the series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, 1833-4, Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper]


This period proved to be difficult not only for Hiroshige, but for Japan as a nation. The Great Tenpō famine caused food scarcity nationally and it is believed that Hiroshige's wife sold clothing and accessories in order to support his work, providing the necessary funds for travel. When she died in 1839, Hiroshige halted his production briefly (Ingram). By 1847, he had remarried and also adopted a daughter, Tatsu. She went on to marry two of Hiroshige's pupils, divorcing Hiroshige II before marrying Hiroshige III (Ingram).


It wasn’t until 1856 that he created another one of his most prolific series. After becoming a monk, which involved shaving his head, he started serializing One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. In 1858, before he could complete the series, 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 (Ingram)."


This series would eventually be completed by Hiroshige II.


When it came to the art he produced, Hiroshige was a master of landscapes. He took some liberties in depicting nature: while his images were based on direct observation, the artist added and removed people and unattractive elements to construct a composition pleasing to the eye, arguing, “Everything lacking in taste and grace must be omitted. To depict a beautiful view the artist must know how to combine with one another each of the elements that constitute that view (The Clark Art Institute).” A technique he mastered in his art was bokashi, which entails producing color gradients by carefully dipping the corner of a brush into water to achieve saturated and dilute colors (Google Arts & Culture). It was included in many of his works and is one way he showcased his many artistic skills.


[Utagawa Hiroshige. Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival (Asakusa tanbo Torinomachi mode), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Tokyo, 1857,

Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper]


Mostly known for his triptychs of beautiful women and landscapes, Hiroshige’s legacy has been long-lasting and his works are still celebrated today. In the course of his life, it is said that Hiroshige created over 8,000 works. Vincent van Gogh was an avid fan of Hiroshige and collected many Japanese prints. In a letter to his brother from 1885, van Gogh writes, “My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches (Van Gogh Museum).” The Japonisme trend had swept Europe and influenced not only van Gogh’s art, but others as well, a true testament to the beauty and significance of Hiroshige’s work.


Selected Notable Works

The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō

One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō

Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces


See these series and other works by Hiroshige on the MFA Online Collections website:


Further Reading

Hiroshige. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Lorenz Bichler (2015)

Hiroshige 69 Stations of the Nakasendo by Cristina Berna, Eric Thomsen (2023)


 

Works Cited



Google Arts & Culture. “10 Facts about Hiroshige.” Google Arts & Culture, artsandculture.google.com/story/10-facts-about-hiroshige/lAUBlJtjfPlUyA?hl=en. Accessed 9 Jan. 2024.


Ingram, Sarah. “Utagawa Hiroshige.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist/hiroshige-utagawa/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2024.


Taggart, Emma. “10 Facts about Utagawa Hiroshige: The Last Great Master of Japanese Woodblock Printing.” My Modern Met, 10 Aug. 2021, mymodernmet.com/utagawa-hiroshige/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2024.


Van Gogh Museum. Inspiration from Japan. 2019, www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/stories/inspiration-from-japan#0. Accessed 10 Jan. 2024.


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