Utagawa Hiroshige: Master of Japanese Woodblock Prints
Utagawa Hiroshige, known around the world as Andō Hiroshige or by just his last name, was a master of Japanese ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e literally means ‘Pictures of the Floating World’, and the art style encompasses the famous Japanese woodblock prints that we know so well. It was an art style that was particularly popular in the Edo Period – make sure to check out our previous blog on The History of Japanese Art for more information.
Hiroshige’s Early Life
Hiroshige lived through the first half of the 19th century, from 1797 – 1858, living in Edo (now modern day Tokyo). His father was part of the Edo fire brigade, a job which Hiroshige took over when his father resigned in his early teens. Both of his parents died when he was 12.
A couple of years after the deaths of his parents, Hiroshige entered the school of ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyohiro. Toyohiro had a more artistically refined taste than the more popular Utagawa Toyokuni (to whom Hiroshige originally applied), and it would seem that this was Hiroshige’s Sliding Doors moment. Toyohiro’s works included many ukiyo-e prints that detailed the landscape of Japan, and it is this education that formed and guided Hiroshige’s own style.
This early period is generally known as Hiroshige’s student period, and runs until around 1830. It can be seen from this earlier work that the artist’s subject matters were broadly the same as the elders in the fields of printing and illustration.
Hiroshige’s earliest work was illustration – his first published piece was book illustration in 1818 when he was 21 years of age. Many of the commissions around this time in Hiroshige’s life were illustrations (and some prints) of warriors, women of beauty and kabuki actors.
From 1830 onwards, and following on from the tutelage of Toyohiro, Hiroshige’s work started focusing specifically on landscape prints. This is what we will explore next.
Hiroshige Prints: Fifty-Three Stages of the Tōkaidō
Hiroshige’s best and most famous work comes in the series Fifty-Three Stages of the Tōkaidō. These woodcut prints depict the station stops on the Tōkaidō highway along the coast of Japan, connecting Edo and Kyoto. The station stops were more than just a train station: they were for travellers to rest before going on the road again. Often these stops would have small markets and places to eat as well.
Along with his early contemporary Hokusai, most famous for The Great Wave and his serious of woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji, Hiroshige championed landscape art in a way which had never been done before. It brought popularity to the artform and influenced far and wide across the world. For instance, Vincent van Gogh was a staunch admirer of ukiyo-e, and incorporated stylistic elements into his own work: natural details, bright colours and unconventional perspectives.
Hiroshige’s woodblock prints are among some of the most recognised pieces of Japanese art, and are the perfect glimpse into pre-industrial Japan in the 19th century. If you’re looking for the perfect gift for a Japanese art or culture lover, you don’t need to look any further than our fantastic collection.