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Background Information

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Memorial portrait of Hiroshige by Kunisada
Birth name Andō Tokutarō
Nationality Japanese
Field Painting and Printing
Works The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō
The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō

Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重, 1797 – October 12, 1858) was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, and one of the last great artists in that tradition. He was also referred to as Andō Hiroshige (安藤広重) (an irregular combination of family name and art name) and by the art name of Ichiyūsai Hiroshige (一幽斎廣重).

Early life

View of Mount Fuji from Satta Point in the Suruga Bay, woodcut by Hiroshige, published posthumously 1859.
This 1855 print from Hiroshige's Upright Tōkaidō depicts Hakone.

Hiroshige was born in 1797 and named "Andō Tokutarō" (安藤徳太郎) in the Yayosu barracks, just east of Edo Castle in the Yaesu area of Edo (present-day Tokyo). His father was Andō Gen'emon, a hereditary retainer (of the dōshin rank) of the shōgun. An official within the fire-fighting organization whose duty was to protect Edo Castle from fire, Gen'emon and his family, along with 30 other samurai, lived in one of the 10 barracks; although their salary of 60 koku marked them as a minor family, it was a stable position, and a very easy one — Professor Seiichiro Takahashi characterizes a fireman's duties as largely consisting of revelry. The 30 samurai officials of a barracks, including Gen'emon, oversaw the efforts of the 300 lower-class workers who also lived within the barracks. A few scraps of evidence indicate he was tutored by another fireman who taught him in the Chinese-influenced Kanō school of painting.

Legend has it that Hiroshige determined to become a ukiyo-e artist when he saw the prints of his near-contemporary, Hokusai. (Hokusai published some of his greatest prints, such as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, in 1832—the year Hiroshige devoted himself full-time to his art.) From then to Hokusai's death in 1849, their landscape works competed for the same customers. More likely though, like many other low-ranked samurai, Hiroshige's salary was insufficient for his needs, and this motivated him to look into artisanal crafts to supplement his income. It was easy to balance his job and his artistic pursuits, as a fireman was only intermittently busy.

His natural inclination toward drawing marked him for an artistic life: as a child, he had played with miniature landscapes, and had already produced an impressive painting in 1806 of a procession of delegates to the Shogun from the Ryukyu Islands, which was remarkably accomplished given his young age. He began by being taught the Kano school's style by his friend, Okajima Rinsai. These studies (such as a study of perspective in the Dutch images imported) prepared him for an apprenticeship. He first attempted to enter the studio of the extremely successful Utagawa Toyokuni but was rejected. Thus, he eventually embarked on an apprenticeship with the noted Utagawa Toyohiro instead of with Toyokuni. He was rejected again on his first attempt to enter Toyohiro's studio, but later accepted at the age of 15 in 1811. Toyohiro bestowed upon him the name "Utagawa" after only a year (instead of the usual period of two or three years). Hiroshige later took his master's name, becoming "Ichiyūsai Hiroshige."

In his early apprenticeship to Toyohiro, he showed little sign of artistic genius and did not publish many works. Despite earning an artistic name ("Ichiyūsai Hiroshige") and school license at the young age of 15, Hiroshige's first genuinely original publications came six years later in 1818. His Eight Views of Omi and Ten Famous Places in the Eastern Capital were moderately successful.This was also the year in which he was commended for his heroism in fighting a fire at Ogawa-nichi. However, it was not until the publication of Hiroshige's Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (1831) that he attracted real public attention. It is speculated that he whiled away the interim between his initial apprenticeship and 1818 engaging in work for Toyohiro's school, such as painting fans and other small items. This sort of work supported him as he continued to study the Kanō and Shijō painting styles. These were merely precursors to the series of prints that made him famous. In 1832, Hiroshige was invited to join an embassy of Shogunal officials to the Imperial court. As his son, Nakajiro, could handle his fireman duties, Hiroshige joined the delegation. He carefully observed the Tōkaidō Road (or "Eastern Sea Route"), which wended its way along the shoreline, through a snowy mountain range, past Lake Biwa, and finally to Kyōto. His series of prints, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, was extremely successful, and Hiroshige's reputation was assured.

In 1839, Hiroshige's first wife, a woman from the Okabe family, died. Hiroshige re-married to O-yasu, daughter of a farmer named Kaemon.

Hiroshige lived in the barracks until the age of 43. Gen'emon and his wife died in 1809, when Hiroshige was 12 years old, just a few months after his father had passed the position on to him. Although his duties as a fire-fighter were light, he never shirked these responsibilities, even after he entered training in Utagawa Toyohiro's studio. He eventually turned his firefighter position over to his brother, Tetsuzo, in 1823, who in turn passed on the duty to Hiroshige's son in 1832.

Hiroshige's students

Hiroshige II was a young print artist, Chinpei Suzuki, who married Hiroshige's daughter, Otatsu. He was given the artist name of "Shigenobu". Hiroshige intended to make Shigenobu his heir in all matters, and Shigenobu adopted the name "Hiroshige" after his master's death in 1858, and thus today is known as Hiroshige II. However, the marriage to Otatsu was troubled and in 1865 they separated. Otatsu was remarried to another former pupil of Hiroshige, Shigemasa, who appropriated the name of the lineage and today is known as Hiroshige III. Both Hiroshige II and Hiroshige III worked in a distinctive style based on that of Hiroshige, but neither achieved the level of success and recognition accorded to their master. Other students of Hiroshige I include Utagawa Shigemaru, Utagawa Shigekiyo, and Utagawa Hirokage.

Late life

View of Kagurazaka and Ushigome bridge to Edo Castle (牛込神楽坂の図), by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1840.

In his declining years, Hiroshige still produced thousands of prints to meet the demand for his works, but few were as good as those of his early and middle periods. He never lived in financial comfort, even in old age. In no small part, his prolific output stemmed from the fact that he was poorly paid per series, although he was still capable of remarkable art when the conditions were right — his great One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei ) was paid for up-front by a wealthy Buddhist priest in love with the daughter of the publisher, Uoya Eikichi (a former fishmonger).

In 1856, Hiroshige "retired from the world," becoming a Buddhist monk; this was the year he began his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He died aged 62 during the great Edo cholera epidemic of 1858 (whether the epidemic killed him is unknown) and was buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa. Just before his death, he left a poem:

"I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land."

(The Western Land in this context refers to the strip of land by the Tōkaidō between Kyoto and Edo, but it does double duty as a reference to the Paradise of the Amida Buddha).


A rather dark printing of the view sometimes dubbed "Man on Horseback Crossing a Bridge." From the series The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, this is View 28 and Station 27 at Nagakubo-shuku, depicting the Wada Bridge across the Yoda River .

Hiroshige largely confined himself in his early work to common ukiyo-e themes such as women (美人画 bijin-ga) and actors (役者絵 yakusha-e). Then, after the death of Toyohiro, Hiroshige made a dramatic turnabout, with the 1831 landscape series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital (東都名所 Tōto Meisho) which was critically acclaimed for its composition and colors. This set is generally distinguished from Hiroshige's many print sets depicting Edo by referring to it as Ichiyūsai Gakki, a title derived from the fact that he signed it as Ichiyūsai Hiroshige. With The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833–1834), his success was assured. These designs were drawn from Hiroshige's actual travels of the full distance of 490 kilometers (300 miles). They included details of date, location, and anecdotes of his fellow travelers, and were immensely popular. In fact, this series was so popular that he reissued it in three versions, one of which was made jointly with Kunisada. Hiroshige went on to produce more than 2000 different prints of Edo and post stations Tōkaidō, as well as series such as The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō (1834–1842) and Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1852–1858). Of his estimated total of 5000 designs, these landscapes comprised the largest proportion of any genre.

He dominated landscape printmaking with his unique brand of intimate, almost small-scale works compared against the older traditions of landscape painting descended from Chinese landscape painters such as Sesshu. The travel prints generally depict travelers along famous routes experiencing the special attractions of various stops along the way. They travel in the rain, in snow, and during all of the seasons. In 1856, working with the publisher Uoya Eikichi, he created a series of luxury edition prints, made with the finest printing techniques including true gradation of colour, the addition of mica to lend a unique iridescent effect, embossing, fabric printing, blind printing, and the use of glue printing (wherein ink is mixed with glue for a glittery effect). One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (issued serially between 1856 and 1859) was immensely popular. The set was published posthumously and some prints had not been completed — he had created over 100 on his own, but two were added by Hiroshige II after his death.


left: Hiroshige, "The Plum Garden in Kameido"
right: Van Gogh, "Flowering Plum Tree"
left: Hiroshige, "Great Bridge, Sudden Shower at Atake"
right: Van Gogh, "The Bridge in the Rain"

Hiroshige was a member of the Utagawa school, along with Kunisada and Kuniyoshi. The Utagawa school comprised dozens of artists, and stood at the forefront of nineteenth century woodblock prints. Particularly noteworthy for their actor and historical prints, members of the Utagawa school were nonetheless well-versed in all of the popular genres.

During Hiroshige’s time, the print industry was booming, and the consumer audience for prints was growing rapidly. Prior to this time, most print series had been issued in small sets, such as ten or twelve designs per series. Increasingly large series were produced to meet demand, and this trend can be seen in Hiroshige’s work, such as The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

In terms of style, Hiroshige is especially noted for using unusual vantage points, seasonal allusions, and striking colors. He adapted Western principles of perspective and receding space to his own works in order to achieve a sense of realistic depth. In particular, he worked extensively within the realm of meisho-e (名所絵) pictures of famous places. During the Edo period, tourism was also booming, leading to increased popular interest in travel. Travel guides abounded, and towns appeared along routes such as the Tōkaidō, a road that connected Edo with Kyoto. In the midst of this burgeoning travel culture, Hiroshige drew upon his own travels, as well as tales of others’ adventures, for inspiration in creating his landscapes. For example, in The Fifty-three Stations on the Tōkaidō (1833), he illustrates anecdotes from Travels on the Eastern Seaboard (東海道中膝栗毛 Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, 1802–1809) by Jippensha Ikku, a comedy describing the adventures of two bumbling travelers as they make their way along the same road.

Hiroshige’s The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833–1834) and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856–1858) greatly influenced French Impressionists such as Monet. Vincent Van Gogh copied two of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo which were among his collection of ukiyoe prints. Hiroshige's style also influenced the Mir iskusstva, a 20th century Russian art movement in which Ivan Bilibin was a major artist.

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