Said to be the last great master of ukiyo-e, Utagawa Hiroshige was a Japanese artist from the Edo period. He created over 8,000 works of art and was at the forefront of revolutionizing the art of ukiyo-e. His prints are popular collectibles depicting the life of ancient Edo. Hiroshige was a prolific artist who created his distinct style, empathetic to the people of Japan. It also influenced numerous European artists and even helped shape the Japonism movement. So, who exactly was Utagawa Hiroshige? And why is he the last great master of ukiyo-e?
Memorial Portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige by Utagawa Kunisada, 1858 | Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Born as Ando Tokutaro, Hiroshige’s name went through a lot of changes as a child. The family he was born into were Samurai of the highest ranking and inherited the post of fire wardens in civil service. His childhood was marked with tragedies as he lost his elder sister at the age of 3, followed by the demise of his mother at 11 and his father several months after. His father passed down his hereditary title of the fire warden, shortly before his death. It provided Hiroshige with a comfortable salary and a comparatively relaxed profession. It allowed him to pursue art in his leisure.
Originally, Hiroshige got inspired by Utagawa Toyokuni, a prominent artist of yakusha-e prints of kabuki actors but got rejected from his school. In 1811, he got accepted by Utagawa Toyoharu, an artist of ukiyo-e prints of kabuki actors and other figures. Hiroshige took on the name of his master, as was tradition, and entered the professional world of an ukiyo-e artist as Utagawa Hiroshige.
Ukiyo-e simply translates to ‘Pictures of the floating world’. It was a way of capturing the sensory pleasures of life in Japan, depicting the world of theatre actors, courtesans, rich merchants, and romanticized fleeting landscapes. This style of woodblock printing brought the masterpieces of Edo Japan to the common households. The ukiyo-e prints were priced to be affordable by an average man in the street, which led to their distribution as popular collectibles. The drawings were carved into wood and stamped with ink. It enabled the mass production of art that became popular collectibles.
Hiroshige’s career began in the steps of his master, with the art of kabuki figures, beautiful women, and narrative illustrations of comic poems. He continued to produce prints centered on figures until 1829, after which he began working on landscapes, for which he is well-known. Hiroshige continued to grow as an artist while upholding his duties as a fire warden. In 1831, he came across the works of Katsushika Hokusai, a prominent artist who had begun to innovate landscapes on ukiyo-e. It led to Hiroshige publishing his first landscape series, a ten-part known as ‘Famous Views of the Eastern Capital’.
In 1832, Hiroshige passed on his duties as fire warden to his son, Nakajiro. The same year, he accompanied an official procession to the Imperial court, journeying the Tokaido road. The travel path was one of Japan’s major pilgrimage routes adorned with temples, shrines, and scenic landscapes. The procession stopped at every station for the night and provided Hiroshige to meet numerous merchants, religious pilgrims, and tourists. They recounted their adventures from travels, revelry, food, and the daily pleasures of the local scenery. Hiroshige got greatly inspired by their tales, sketched everything he saw and experienced on the journey.
On his return to Edo, he painted his infamous series – The fifty-three stations of Tokaido completed in 1834. It was his first pivotal series that captured the hearts of all. He showcased the roads and travelers on the backdrop of morphing seasons. The series consists of 55 prints which include the 53 waystations and one beginning and one end. The prints got widely consumed by the public and made Hiroshige the most well-known and successful printmaker of the time. It also put him on the same pedestal as Hokusai, who created The Great Wave.
Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai got coined as the two leading figures in ukiyo-e who brought the spectrum of landscapes to the term. The artists being leading figures in similar landscapes had contrasting approaches and styles of painting. Hokusai had a bold, distinctive style of painting with an eccentric personality. On the other hand, Hiroshige was a master of the details and created views that were empathetic to the people of Japan. His use of vibrant colors to reflect the everyday life in Japan, transformed the landscapes into enticing works of art.
Another element of work that gained Hiroshige popularity was the bokashi technique of ukiyo-e. A majority of his prints showcased elegant skies in saturated color gradients. For this, he used a moistened print block and applied ink in multiple colors to different sections. It created a soft gradation when ink bled across the wet area. He also used this technique to depict depth, shadows, or create highlights in the composition.
Hiroshige had bloomed as an artist and created prolific works of art, especially in 1834-39. His wife passed away in 1839, a great supporter of his art. Accounts say that his wife funded the trips and art by selling her clothes and accessories. Her loss halted his work briefly, and the decade also witnessed the Great Tenpo famine with a national scarcity of food. In 1842, the shogunate banned the prints of actors and courtesans, as a response to uplifting the nation’s morale. It put Hiroshige in a favorable position as an artist within the elite as well as the commoners. During these times, he published the series The sixty-nine stations of Kisokaido (1834-42) and The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (1852-58). The former was a collaboration series of Hiroshige with Keisei Eisen that depicted the inland route of Kisokaido. The 69 halting waystations along with the commence point in Edo, make the 70 prints of the series. The latter is a series that illustrates the symbolic Mount Fuji from numerous noted places in the countryside. The artworks capture the cultural essence of Japan with its beloved Mt. Fuji in the backdrop. The vertical prints showcase a serene mountain, far away from the bustling city centers, and illustrate the natural wonders of the crashing sea waves and rumbling rivers.
Hiroshige created more vertical prints for his famous series – One hundred famous views of Edo. Unfortunately, he passed away before the completion of the series. It was continued by his son-in-law, Hiroshige II, and published between 1856-59. The prints received tremendous popularity, even in Europe, and are one of the most-remembered woodblock prints.
Hiroshige retired from the world at the age of 60 and became a Buddhist monk. Two years later, he passed away. He wrote a farewell poem before his demise, which translates to “I leave my brush in the East, and set forth on my journey. I shall see the famous places in the Western land”.
Considered to be the last great master of ukiyo-e, Hiroshige’s influence can be traced across Europe along with Japan. His use of vivid colors and unconventional angles intrigued the French and Dutch painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They drew inspiration from Hiroshige’s work in renovating the landscapes. Vincent van Gogh made copies of his prints as a means of learning, evident in his use of vibrant yellows and oranges alongside blues. Eduard Manet drew inspiration from Hiroshige’s approach to foreshortening. The stylized portrayal of flora in the prints captured the attention of various Art Nouveau artists.
As a fresh perspective from the illusionistic painting tradition of Rennaissance, Japonism surged across Europe. One of the most influential works of art that depicted the aesthetics of Japanese design was the ukiyo-e. And Hiroshige’s work helped shape the movement. Painters such as James Whistler and James Tissot adopted the essence of domesticized interiors and flat perspectives. In the late nineteenth century, these experiments by European artists became indicators of knowledge, taste, and wealth. It is evident in Whistler’s 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, which portrays the model looking at prints from Hiroshige’s Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces.
In more recent times, visual artist Julian Opie can be seen adopting the flat perspective of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints. On the other hand, artist Nigel Caple draws inspiration from striking colors and has created a series of drawings along the Tokaido road. Hiroshige and Hokusai’s prolific landscapes are also said to be influential in shaping the development of contemporary manga, a booming industry of storytellers.
Utagawa Hiroshige was indeed an influential ukiyo-e artist who rose to fame by his depictions of everyday life in ancient Japan. An artist who could reach people’s hearts and capture the local scenery with a hand for details. His prints are popular collectibles even today and continue to inspire the artists of tomorrow. There is little that got documented about his way of life, but some hypothesize that he had a modest way of life. And that is the story of a legendary ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Hiroshige.