Hiroshige Completes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of Japan’s most popular artists of his day, Hiroshige published fifty-five woodblock prints depicting scenes found along the fifty-three towns and checkpoints of the Tokaido, or main highway, of Edo, Japan. The series became an immediate best seller and is still regarded as one of the finest examples of the ukiyo-e genre of printmaking.

Summary of Event

The mid-nineteenth century saw the zenith of ukiyo-e, a genre of woodblock print popular during Japan’s Edo Tokyo;art in period (1600-1868). Ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world, were typified by their bright garish colors depicting famous high-ranking courtesans, or geisha, well-known kabuki actors Theater;Japanese , theater scenes, landscapes, and illustrations for sex manuals. Ukiyo-e was an art form intended for mass consumption, and prints were available in albums or single sheets. One of the most famous and best-selling collections was Hiroshige’s 1831-1834 Tōokaidōo gojusan no uchi (The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, 1926). Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, The (Hiroshige) Hiroshige Tokyo;art in Ukiyo-e woodblock printing[Ukiyoe woodblock printing] Japan;art Art;Japanese [kw]Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations (1831-1834) [kw]Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, Hiroshige (1831-1834) [kw]Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, Hiroshige Completes The (1831-1834) [kw]Fifty-Three Stations, Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido (1831-1834) [kw]Stations, Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three (1831-1834) Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, The (Hiroshige) Hiroshige Tokyo;art in Ukiyo-e woodblock printing[Ukiyoe woodblock printing] Japan;art Art;Japanese [g]Japan;1831-1834: Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations[1650] [c]Art;1831-1834: Hiroshige Completes The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations[1650] Hokusai Utagawa Toyohiro Tokugawa Ienari Jippensha Ikku

The son of a firefighter, Hiroshige was born in 1797 in Edo (now Tokyo). He was given the name Utagawa Hiroshige one year after he began studying with the well-known master Utagawa Toyohiro Utagawa Toyohiro at the age of fourteen. Between 1825 and 1858, Hiroshige produced more than 5,400 color woodblock prints, including nine hundred scenes of Edo alone. In his lifetime, he likely supervised and designed five thousand more prints, or about two per week for forty-five years.

Japan’s Edo Tokyo;shogunate period was a time of relative peace and calm. After centuries of intermittent civil war, the Tokugawa family gained control of the islands and established the shogunate, ruling in the name of the emperor, who held cultural legitimacy but not much political power. Because of little actual fighting, members of the samurai Samurai Japan;samurai warrior class gradually became bureaucrats and administrators. Farmers and artisans, no longer plagued by lawless marauding armies, devoted themselves to production. For most areas of the country, the population increased, as did the quality of life of the people.

The most significant development of Edo times, however, was the establishment of a merchant culture. Towns sprang up around the castles of the various local vassal warlords, and prosperity led to the establishment of an urban middle class. Skilled laborers, craftsmen, artisans, and other service providers were required to support the idle samurai, who now wrote poetry, cultivated the arts, and practiced scholarship as much as swordsmanship. By 1800, Edo Tokyo;population of had a population of more than one million, and Osaka (a major business center) and Kyoto (the imperial capital) had more than 300,000 inhabitants between them. An urban merchant class of chonin, or townsmen, arose with the commercialization of the rural economy.

The chonin, and some of the idle samurai, established a fledging bourgeois culture of consumption and entertainment. Tea houses and pleasure quarters were found in every city. Popular art forms—such as the kabuki theater Theater;Japanese , romance and adventure novels, and illustrated volumes of comic pictures—widely proliferated. Woodblock printing allowed for the mass production and inexpensive distribution of picture books and illustrated novels and stories. In essence, then, ukiyo-e was the visual documentation of this ephemeral “floating world” of pleasure of the townsmen lifestyle.

Hiroshige lived during the reign of Tokugawa Ienari, Tokugawa Ienari the eleventh shogun. The time was one of good harvests, economic stability, and the absence of political strife (though this would change during the late 1830’s when crop failures, famine, Famines;Japanese and Ienari’s increasing corruption weakened the government). The Tokaido road connected the residence of the Tokugawa shogun with the emperor’s palace in Kyoto. Many traveled the Tokaido as local warlords sent their families back and forth for year-long “visits” to Edo—where the shogun could keep a close eye on them, gaining leverage against any warlord with political ambitions. Thousands traveled the road as porters for these entourages, as religious pilgrims, as merchants or traders, or as adventurers. Jippensha Ikku Jippensha Ikku immortalized some of these travels in a popular serialized satirical novel called Dōchū hizakurige (1802-1822; Hizakurige: A Shanks’ Mare Tour of the Tokaido, 1952), an account of two wanderers who had increasingly outlandish and bawdy escapades.

Travel along the Tokaido usually took about two weeks. About every two or three hours by foot was a shukuba machi (postal town), an official settlement established by the government to cater to travelers needs and to regulate who was going where. There were fifty-three such stations along the Tokaido.

By 1832, Hiroshige was a minor official in the shogun’s fire department. During that year he accompanied a troop taking a horse that Ienari was presenting to the emperor. As more and more people were becoming familiar with the Tokaido through their own travels or through popular literary accounts (such as that of Jippensha Ikku), and, as woodblock prints were often sold on street corners much like souvenir post cards, Hiroshige and his publisher, Hoeido Takenouchi Hoeido Takenouchi , realized that the sketches of his trip would make quite profitable reproductions.

In The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations, Hiroshige extended the development of the landscape form initiated by Hokusai Hokusai , the other great ukiyo-e master of the time. Hiroshige’s lighting and texture was more subtle, however, as was his use of weather to convey mood and atmosphere. The prints in the series demonstrated Hiroshige’s knowledge of Western realism and perspective, and often his coloring mimicked the brush strokes of a painting.


The immediate success of The Tokaido Fifty-Three Stations made Hiroshige an overnight sensation, and the work led to great demand for other series of travel scenes of the Tokaido. Hiroshige made some four dozen other series of Tokaido themes, the majority consisting of fifty or more prints. He catered to all tastes and age groups, from depictions of the Tokaido’s famous rivers to its famous bedrooms. Other artists tried, without much success, to duplicate his scenes, but no one was ever as popular or as critically acclaimed. Even Hiroshige only rarely exceeded the genius shown in the original series published by Hoeido. For example, his depictions, in collaboration with Eisen Ikeda Eisen Ikeda (1790-1848), of the Kisokaido, the alternative inland route from Edo to Kyoto, was less popular though still full of artistic merit. The work was published as Kiso kaidō rokujūkyūtsugi (sixty-nine stations of the east-west highway through the central mountains) in 1834-1842, and an English introduction and presentation of the artwork was published in 1922.

Hiroshige’s landscapes had a more universal appeal than the prints of other artists who specialized in kabuki actors, famous beautiful women, or erotica. While some say that the painter Hokusai Hokusai may have been more inventive, Hiroshige was by far the most popular ukiyo-e artist, ever, in terms of sales.

Nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints were the most advanced means of mass color reproduction anywhere until the advent of color photography decades later. When Japan was opened to international commerce during the late nineteenth century, Westerners became enchanted with Japanese art and curios of all kinds. Hiroshige’s prints were among the most popular. His works were on display at the Paris Expositions of 1855, 1876, and 1878. Young Vincent van Gogh Gogh, Vincent van , studying in Paris in 1870, owned and copied numerous Hiroshige prints, and other Western artists, such as James McNeill Whistler Whistler, James McNeill , Claude Monet Monet, Claude , and many Impressionists Impressionism;and Japanese painting[Japanese painting] , were influenced by Hiroshige’s compositional ideas or imagery.

Hiroshige died in 1858. Ironically, it was around that time that Hiroshige’s Edo—the floating world of the townsmen and travelers—began to disappear with Japan’s rapid industrialization. As one art critic noted, Hiroshige was the last Japanese ukiyo-e artist to work entirely within the conventions of the genre. His work is one of the last—and most complete and romantic—accounts of Edo culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bicknell, Julian. Hiroshige in Tokyo: The Floating World of Edo. San Francisco, Calif.: Pomegranate Art Books, 1994. A well-illustrated description of Hiroshige’s work in the context of Edo culture. Includes a chapter on the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blood, Katherine L., James Douglas Farquhar, Sandy Kita, and Lawrence E. Marceau. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. A colorful look at ukiyo-e and the floating world of Edo, Japan. An excellent resource published in association with the Library of Congress. See the companion Library of Congress Web site at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/. Accessed January, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fahr-Becker, Gabriele. Japanese Prints. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 1999. A common example of the many general collections of Japanese prints, but Fahr-Becker places Hiroshige in his artistic context and provides many detailed examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forrer, Matthi. Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997. A collection of some 140 color illustrations, with essays by Hiroshige scholars Henry D. Smith II and Juzo Suzuki.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michener, James. The Floating World. New York: Random House, 1954. A classic anecdotal account of the history of ukiyo-e by an American author and Japanese print collector. Michener’s insightful chapter on Hiroshige contains an interesting discussion on how and why the color of one print was altered in various editions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Narazaki, Muneshiuge. Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tokaido. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1969. Probably the best discussion of this print series for students and general readers. All fifty-five pictures are presented in color and analyzed individually.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salter, Rebecca. Japanese Woodblock Printing. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. This book, by a Western woodblock printer who studied in Japan, covers the making of Japanese woodblock prints. She describes in detail the creation of several of Hiroshige’s prints and how their special qualities were achieved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. An accessible historical overview of the Japanese visual arts, copiously illustrated with an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige. http://www .hiroshige.org.uk/. This comprehensive site includes images of Hiroshige’s work from both the fifty-three and sixty-nine stations series of prints. Also includes online versions of books from 1922 and 1925 that introduce Japanese printmaking to Western readers. Provides links to topic-related Web sites. Accessed January, 2006.

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