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Utagawa Hiroshige

The master of Japanese ukiyo-e

Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was one of the last great artists in the ukiyo-e tradition. Translating as “pictures of the floating world,” ukiyo-e was a woodblock print genre of art that flourished in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e captured fleeting moments - whether they be the bright lights and attractions of Edo, or spectacular natural landscapes. In particular ukiyo-e came to describe the hedonistic pleasures of cosmopolitan life for an emerging merchant class. Many of Hiroshige’s images depict the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and the geishas of the pleasure districts: the temporary, floating, night-time world of what would become Tokyo.

Hiroshige, also known as Ano Hiroshige, was trained in the influential Utagawa school. One of his most famous series of prints is The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, each image recording the journey from Edo to Kyōto, and important because it established a major new theme for ukiyo-e: that of the landscape print or fūkei-ga. Birds and flowers, traditionally atypical subjects became the norm. Hiroshige even produced his own Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, following from the celebrated artist Hokusai’s original illustrations.

In the West, Hiroshige’s prints became exemplary of the Japonisme that swept through Europe and defined the Western imagination of the East. The style had a strong influence on French impressionists as well as Mir iskusstva, a 20th-century Russian art movement. After producing more than 8,000 works, in his old age Hiroshige retired from the world and became a Buddhist monk. But during this final stage of his life he produced One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. TASCHEN books has reprinted this stunning series and also holds a title on the artist in the Basic Art Series book collection. Emphasizing the poetic rather than the formal, Hiroshige’s art challenged the perspectival realism of European centric vision with its serene and peaceful abstraction.