Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Art of Hiroshige

Cherry Blossom Time at Naka-no-cha in the Yoshiwara about 1848–49 (Kaei 1–2)
from the series Famous Places in Edo
Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige I, Japanese, 1797–1858;
Publisher: Fujiokaya Keijirô (Shôrindô), Japanese
Horizontal ôban; 24.9 x 37.1 cm (9 13/16 x 14 5/8 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper

Throughout my Japanese Art project, I've become more and more aware that Hiroshige produced some really stunning woodblock prints and excelled at landscapes. So for my last post of April I'm going to focus on Ando Hiroshige aka Utagawa Hiroshige.

As I always do when studying a topic I've developed an information site Hiroshige - Resources for Artists.

Hiroshige was born in old Edo (Tokyo) in 1797 and died in 1858. He seems to have more names than most! Two important ones are Ando which was his family name and Hiroshige which was his "studio surname", given to him at age 15 just after he entered painting school by his painting master Toyohiro. Biographical information about him is pretty fragmentary - however he certainly seems to have been a very prolific artist. Some say he produced some 12,000 designs - but it's more likely to have been somewhere between 4,000-4,500. Besides design for prints he also illustrated 120+ books and produced designs for practical objects (eg c.350 fan prints) . He produced very many prints of views of certain popular locations. variations were achieved through the introduction or variations of obligatory features such as snow, moonlight, evening light, fireworks and cherry blossom. He also rang the changes on the different combinations of birds and flowers

Western interest in Hiroshige dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. In 1887, Van Gogh copied two of his works in oils and Hiroshige obviously provided inspiration for Whistler - in terms of both bridges (and fireworks!).
Hiroshige is a marvellous Impressionist
Pissaro (1893) - after visiting an exhibition of prints by Utamaro and Hiroshige
Another enthusiastic collector of Hiroshige prints was Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1906, (Frank Lloyd Wright) staged the first ever retrospective of Hiroshige's work at the Art Institute of Chicago, describing them in the exhibition catalog as some of "the most valuable contributions ever made to the art of the world".
Hiroshige was particularly renowned for subtlety in his art which meant he could represent, for example, the nuances of the climate and seasons. He has been characterised as the artist of mist, snow and rain.

The Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido
- the road between the two capitals Yedo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto, a distance of 323 mile

He specialized in landscapes and had a number of works in sets or series - famous ones include:
He worked with Kunisada (another artist who has become one of my favourites during this project) on a joint project Famous Restaurants from the Eastern Capital in which Hiroshige did the top half which was landscape and Kunisada did the bottom half which were actors.

The 53 Stations of the Tokaido (Hoeido Edition) - 1 Nihonbashi
published by
Takenouchi Magohachi (Hoeido) 1831-1834
format - Oban yokoye
( - click here to view the whole series with commentary)

Here's some highlights of the relevant links that I found:
Front Cover - Cherry Trees in Full Bloom at Arashiyama
- from famous Views of Kyoto c.1834
The Mann Collection, Highland Park, Illinois

Besides the websites listed above I've also got access an excellent reference book called Hiroshige - Prints and Drawings by Matthi Forrer.

This is a beautiful book produced by Prestel Publishing of Germany. It has excellent production standards and trouble has been taken to only include prints which could be taken from woodblocks which weren't produced on wood blocks which had been worn away.

The book was produced for an exhibition of prints and drawings by Utagawa Hiroshige the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

It's the sort of book which you can sit and look at for ages and continue to review for years. One can well understand the appeal that Hiroshige had for artists like Van Gogh and other nineteenth century painters.

If Hokusai is recognized for his bold compositions and clearly defined forms, Hiroshige is the master of the passing moment - the artist of mist, snow, and rain. The immense popularity of Hiroshige's prints meant that they were continually reprinted, wearing down the woodblocks. For this book, every effort has been made to reproduce only the finest early impressions. Each plate is provided with a commentary by Matthi Forrer who, in an introductory essay, examines Hiroshige's life and work, assessing his place in Japanese art and making important revisions to the generally accepted chronology of his oeuvre. Other essays draw attention to aspects of Hiroshige's life and work which have often been overlooked and place Hiroshige and his art in their social and political context. This volume also includes maps, a chronology, a glossary and a bibliography.
Publisher's synopsis
Matthi Forrer is Curator of the Japanese Department at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. He is also the author of Hokusai: Prints and Drawings.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book is that it includes pure drawings - these are ink drawings on paper rather than wood block prints. Hiroshige has a very sparse and almost calligraphic style of drawing. I'm guessing but knowing how Van Gogh's drawing style changed after he'd seen the work of Japanese artists like Hiroshige (see Van Gogh: drawing media and techniques) is that he may well have seen some of the sketches and drawings as well as the wood block prints. He certainly owned the Tokaido series.

How Hiroshige worked

There are very limited records of the way that Hiroshige worked - but this is a summary of some of them - as derived from Matthi Forrer's book:
  • His illustrations seem to be mostly based on first-hand observation (i.e. original sketches - see sketchbook in British Museum). There is a debate about exactly how much was done in this way but sketchbooks and diaries have survived from journies he undertook and there are also stories of his travels.
  • He strives for realistic portrayals - since not everybody has the opportunity to visit places - but does not attempt to incorporate every detail.
  • He chooses vantage points which help tell a tale and he omits anything which detracts from the story. His view was that 'everything lacking in taste and grace must be omitted'.
  • He appears to have been fascinated by climatic and atmospheric conditions which prevail across the seasons.
Paintings are based on the form of things. So if you copy the form and add style and meaning, the result is a painting.

To depict a beautiful view the artist must know how to combine with one another each of the elements that constitute the view.
Hiroshige 1849 Drawing Manual Ehon tehikigusa
I can go along with that!

I'm currently struggling with developing my drawing of the Japanese Gateway at Kew and I rather think I need to go back and study some of Hiroshige's work again in relation to his treatment of trees and bushes.

Note: May is scheduled to be a 'rest' month from projects - and it'll start with a week off from blogging as from next Monday (I want to finish the outline on my book and get it underway). During May I need to get on with artwork visiting gardens now that the better weather has arrived (this is me being optimistic - it's cold and raining outside). However, I'll probably try and do some more blog posts about composition and Japanese prints - as well as writing chapters!



  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and your great, well researched links - a fantastic post!

    I love Hiroshige and to see so many was a joy.

  2. Thanks a lot for this great post.


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