Vintage Japanese Art: Hiroshige

The second artist that features prominently in our Japanese Prints collection CD is Hiroshige, the last great master of the ukiyo-e tradition. Like the influential Hokusai, Hiroshige departed from the usual ukiyo-e subjects of courtesans and actors. Instead he is remembered for his poetic landscapes and scenes of daily life and natural beauty.

Hiroshige was born in 1797, into a family of samurai background. His father was the local fire warden, and upon his father's death Hiroshige became fire warden. He was twelve years old. This position left Hiroshige much free time to practice painting. At age fourteen, he was accepted into a formal school of ukiyo-e and soon excelled. 

Hiroshige created several gorgeous series, including The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaido (both depicting scenes of his travels along famous roads), Famous Views of the Eastern Capital, and the remarkable One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, painted later in his life (Edo was Tokyo). Travel guides were popular during this period, and this increased demand for Hiroshige's travel series.

He excelled at lyrical depictions of natural beauty, and is also known for lovely images of birds and flowers. He often painted scenes of rain and snow and the turning of the seasons. He used special techniques such as his strikingly beautiful gradations of color, and sometimes mixed crushed mica into his paint for an iridescent effect.

Although Hiroshige was creative throughout his life, and was sought after as a teacher and illustrator, he never became wealthy, as he did not charge high commissions for his work.

In 1856, at age 59, Hiroshige became a Buddhist monk, although he continued to paint. He died three years later and is buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Japan. Here is a poem Hiroshige wrote shortly before his death:

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

Like Hokusai's, Hiroshige's work was very influential on European artists (especially the Impressionists) during the 19th century. He was a major influence on Monet, and Van Gogh painted copies of many of Hiroshige's works.


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