Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three stages of the Kisokaido”, Tokaido gojusan-tsugi: Kanbara, 1835-42
Art,  English

Hiroshige – One of the the most famous Japanese artistic productions

Explore more on our Hokusai article

The text below is the excerpt from the book Hiroshige (ISBN: 9781781608647), written by Mikhail Uspensky, published by Parkstone International.

“Dropping my brush at Azuma [Eastern Capital] I go a journey to the honourable country in the west [the Buddhist Paradise is supposed to be in the west] to view the wonderful sights there.”

– Hiroshige’s death-song which he wrote on a piece of paper.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in Japan, the Edo period (1603-1868), a new tendency in urban art developed and it is to this style, known as ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world”, that the woodblock print belongs.

A Bright Morning after a Fall of Snow by the Nihonbashi Bridge, Nihonbashi Yukibare, May 1856, Hiroshige
A Bright Morning after a Fall of Snow by the Nihonbashi Bridge, Nihonbashi Yukibare, May 1856. Colour woodblock print, 33.7 x 22.5 cm. Gift of Theodore Lande, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Vancouver.

Ando Hiroshige is quite possibly the most famous Japanese print artist beyond his native shores. In 1811 he joined the pupils of one of the prominent print artists of the day, Utagawa Toyohiro. From the turn of the 1830s, Hiroshige’s thoughts were more and more concentrated on the landscape, which subsequently became the chief theme of his creative work. Over the course of more than twenty years, the artist produced several series of prints, which demonstrated most vividly his talent in that sphere of art. In the 1850s Hiroshige’s work underwent a radical change: the earlier smooth narrative manner gave way to abrupt compositional and chromatic contrasts.

Hiroshige’s landscapes represented a new and final stage of development in the ukiyo-e landscape print and, more broadly, in the traditional art of Japan. For him, there were no vulgar objects, and in his work any landscape motif reflected in human perception is a means of penetrating the essence of nature, its spirit.

The Street of Fabric Shops in the Odemmacho Quarter, Odemmacho momendana, April 1858, Hiroshige
The Street of Fabric Shops in the Odemmacho Quarter, Odemmacho momendana, April 1858. Colour woodblock print, 36 x 24 cm. Gift of Anna Ferris, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Spring

The Nihonbashi (the “Bridge of Japan”) here functions as a symbol of Edo, then the capital of Japan, and indeed of the country as a whole.

In the year following the construction of the bridge, 1604, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued a decree that assured the importance of the Nihonbashi for posterity: the middle of the bridge became the point from which all distances in the country were to be measured. The area around the Nihonbashi was one of the most important commercial centres in Edo.

Massaki and the Suijin-no mori Shrine on the Sumidagawa, Sumidagawa Suijin-no mori Massaki, August 1856, Hiroshige
Massaki and the Suijin-no mori Shrine on the Sumidagawa, Sumidagawa Suijin-no mori Massaki, August 1856. Colour woodblock print, 36 x 24 cm. Gift of Anna Ferris, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

This view of sailing boats against the dawn background is the one obtained from the tall eminence called Kasumigasekizaka – the Hill of the Outpost of the Mists.

After Edo was made the capital, Tokugawa Ieyasu allocated Kasumigaseki for the residences of powerful members of the feudal hierarchy (tozama-daimyo). The prevailing atmosphere on the street is one of merrymaking. Hiroshige’s depiction of the Outpost of the Mists is indeed set in a festive period, during the New Year celebrations.

This print depicts one of the most aristocratic areas of the Eastern Capital – the place known as Hibiya, in the Soto-Sakurada district. Hiroshige places us directly opposite this estate, and the red gates of the house are the first thing to catch our attention. This is considered the most detailed image of a daimyo estate in ukiyo-e art. Two further details catch the attention: the traditional and most common New Year decoration, kadomatsu, a decorated pine in front of the entrance in the foreground, and the kites fluttering in the sky. These are indisputable signs that the start of the New Year is depicted here.

First Street in the Nihonbashi District, Nihonbashi tori Itchôme ryakuzu, August 1858, Hiroshige
First Street in the Nihonbashi District, Nihonbashi tori Itchôme ryakuzu, August 1858. Colour woodblock print, 36 x 24 cm. Gift of Anna Ferris, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Here the viewer is placed in a boat passing beneath the Eitaibashi Bridge. Eitaibashi is the largest bridge and one of the oldest across the Sumidagawa. It was constructed in 1698. The panorama from the bridge developed into one of the traditional themes of Japanese poetry in the Edo period. The bridge was frequently damaged by floods and had to be repaired at considerable expense. Finally, the government decided to give up the struggle and abandon the Eitaibashi.

The white summit of Mount Fuji rises from a scarlet strip of dawn sky. The even line of houses belonging to common people that forms the background of the print is disrupted only by the slight curve of the bridge built across the Yagenbori canal, at the point where it joins the Sumidagawa. This bridge is known as Moto-Yanagibashi – the “True Willow Bridge”. At this early hour, boats are passing along the Sumidagawa loaded with goods for the numerous markets that open while it is still dark.

Pagoda of the Zojoji Monastery and Akabane, Zojôjito Akabane, January 1857, Hiroshige
Pagoda of the Zojoji Monastery and Akabane, Zojôjito Akabane, January 1857. Colour woodblock print, 36 x 24 cm. Gift of Anna Ferris, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

In the early Edo period this spot, like the whole of the Bakurocho quarter, was the scene of lively horse-dealing. In front of the area of hostelries lay the Hatsune-no baba racetrack, the oldest in Edo. The site was directly connected with the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that brought the Tokugawa house to power. With time, the character of the place changed. Together with Bakurocho, it became a centre for working and selling fabrics…

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For your further reading on Hokusai, Utamaro and Ukiyo-E:

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