New Design

Utagawa Hiroshige

Japanese Woodblock artist

Utagawa Hiroshige Photo
Born: 1797
Edo (Now Tokyo), Japan
Died: 1858
Edo
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Summary of Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige is known as the last great master in Japanese traditional woodblock printing, imbuing the Japanese landscape with a lyricism that drew upon the fleeting nature of sensual pleasure. Hiroshige's prints memorialized everyday life in the late Edo period, in which travel and entertainment became more widely available to the middle-class, and presented a vision of the country in which the changing of the seasons, and the associated festivities, were central. This vision of Japan, heightened by Hiroshige's lush colors and unconventional approach to composition, had widespread appeal within Japan and abroad, with European artists adopting both his bright colors and his themes, transposing his interest in the ephemeral into other settings.

Key Ideas

Biography of Utagawa Hiroshige

Detail of <i>Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (Ohashi Atake no Yudachi)</i> (1857) from the series <i>One Hundred Famous Views of Edo</i>

"I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that pervades their work," wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1888. "They draw a figure with a few well-chosen lines as if it were as effortless as buttoning up one's waistcoat."

Important Art by Utagawa Hiroshige

Station of Ōtsu (c. 1840)

Station of Ōtsu (c. 1840)

This print, from Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, depicts Ōtsu, one of the busier stations where travelers rested and refueled along the route. The station is shown from above, with the road diagonally bisecting the image. Hiroshige's image focuses on human activity in Ōtsu. The eye is drawn first to the group walking at the center of the image, led by a porter with a large bundle on his back, leaning forward. Behind him, one woman turns to talk to another, while a second porter brings up the party's rear. On either side of the road, wooden structures frame other scenes from the everyday life of the traveler. In the upper left corner, a woman in traditional dress passes a rolled print to a man in sumptuous robes while a younger figure, nearby, points toward something else, outside the frame, available at the same stall. At the lower edge of the frame, toward the centre, three people appear to be fighting or attempting to stop a man from running away. Further right, a man in simple clothes leads an ox, carrying firewood. The color palette is limited, with the road and its structures rendered in subdued green, beige and yellow while the figures, beige or white, wear brighter robes of blue, green and red.

This print allows its audience to experience the Tokaido in the same way as a traveler might, taking a voyeuristic thrill in the range of lives encountered, from wealthy leisure travelers to humbler workers and possible thieves. This sense of the viewer as a spectator is accentuated by the aerial perspective from which Hiroshige depicts the scene, allowing the audience to look in upon it from above. Hiroshige's cropping and use of diagonals contributes to the vibrancy of the composition. The central diagonal, around which the scene's action revolves, encourages the eye to move quickly around the print, evoking the sense of lively motion a traveler might experience along the Tokaido. The figures hint at narratives, provoking curiosity in the viewer, but Hiroshige's cropping leaves their next moves unknown, heightening dynamism.

Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province (c. 1853)

Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province (c. 1853)

This print shows waves crashing and foaming over rocks, with a whirlpool in the foreground and a peaceful scene of mountain and shoreline in the background, framed by the water. The scene depicts the changing of the tide in the Straits of Naruto, between the islands of Shikoku and Awaji; as the tide changed, water trapped between rocks would form dramatic whirlpools and waves. The print is in ōban [portrait] format, unusually for a landscape, which heightens the tension and dynamism and directs the eye to the whirlpool occupying the lower third of the image. The rocks, from this vantage point, are large and dominate the middle third, while the foaming water that leaps from them serves to frame the landscape beyond, across which a flock of birds fly.

Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province illustrates a significant turning point in Hiroshige's practice, with greater emphasis placed on the landscape than the figures within that landscape. There are, unusually, no figures within this print, leading the audience to scale nature in relation to themselves rather than to illustrated figures, further drawing them into the scene. The tightness of the composition, rendered vertically, heightens the audience's engagement. Hiroshige had never visited the Naruto Strait; it is likely that he based this print on existing images. The clearest debt, however, is not to an image of the Naruto strait, but to Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa (1839), which had become iconic by the 1850s. Hiroshige distinguishes his image of the sea's power through his emphasis on the whirlpool and rocks and their contrast with the peaceful sky and low-lying landscape beyond, facilitated by the portrait format where Hokusai uses a traditional landscape format. Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, is also distinctly modern in coloring. Hiroshige deploys Prussian Blue, a relatively new product to Japan associated with the country's increased global engagement, and takes advantage of this blue through the bokashi effect, using different shades to render fine gradations of color in the sky and the sea.

Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa (1856)

Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa (1856)

This snow scene is from Hiroshige's significant series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which captured well-known locations across the new capital. Kinryūzan Temple, or Senso-ji, is the oldest and most venerable Buddhist temple in Edo. This print, in the oban format, is framed on the left by the bright red entrance gate, which stands out against the white and grey snow, as do the red temple structures at the center and right edge of the image. The center is dominated by a group of trees, white with snow, lining the path that leads to the temple, along which a range of small figures move away from the viewer, their heads concealed by large parasols. The upper third of the image is dominated by a large lantern, rendered with considerable detail in red and black.

This print shows the ways in which Hiroshige combined European and Japanese influences. While earlier images utilize traditional bird's eye views, Kinryūzan Temple, Asakusa instead uses central perspective, introduced to Japan through European anatomical and surgical books, to create a sense of depth. Hiroshige's lyricism and ability to convey subjectivity are also clear in this image; the contrast between the bright red and the overwhelming areas of white and grey create a sense of peacefulness and evoke the magical, muffling dimension of heavy snow. Hiroshige's vertical composition allows the audience to find themselves in the scene, positioning them as if peeking through the gate toward the temple; the contrast between the detailed lantern and the simple lines of the roofs beguiles the viewer, creating a poignant, longing mood appropriate for the print's position toward the end of the One Hundred Famous View of Edo series.

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by , Anna Blair

"Utagawa Hiroshige Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair
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First published on 09 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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