Saturday, January 1, 2022

Hiroshige, Japanese Woodblock Artist

Portrait of Hiroshige as a Buddhist monk

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 10 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

The Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858; also called Ando Hiroshige but usually known simply as "Hiroshige") was a traveler and keen observer. 

Hiroshige was born in what was then called Edo, now Tokyo. His parents died when he was twelve; his father, fire warden for the area, left his duties to his young son. In charge of preventing fires in the Shogun's home, Edo Castle, he began painting during his ample leisure time. Though working as an apprentice, by age 15 he was permitted to sign his own works.

At age 26, he passed most of his fire warden duties on to his son, and continued to paint and produce ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints for which he became famous. The art of woodblock printing is a painstaking process. The artist carves a piece of wood (in reverse) and makes a print from it. At first, prints were in one color, sometimes with other colors added by hand.

But by Hiroshige's time, prints were often made using multiple blocks, one for each color. This allowed for easy reproduction, and the beautiful but inexpensive prints were collected by the rising merchant class in Edo.

Hiroshige came along near the end of ukiyo-e's two centuries of popularity. He produced over 8,000 works, mainly on the popular themes of the day: beautiful women, famous actors, historical and literary scenes, flowers and animals, and, most notably, landscapes.

Perhaps the most famous of these is his Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (made in several editions, the first in 1833-34). This showed the stations along a road from Edo to Kyoto. At that time, the Emperor lived in Kyoto, but the military ruler, the Shogun, was in Edo. The road was built with 53 stations along the way, to facilitate rapid communication between the two cities.

[In 2001, the 400th anniversary of that road, I made the journey, walking for 35 days entirely on foot. Along the way, I tried my best to take photos matching the scenes Hiroshige portrayed. Though much has changed, some of the sights were still there to be seen.]

In 1856, Hiroshige retired from the outside world and became a Buddhist monk. He died in 1858, just as modernization was bringing an end to the popularity of ukiyo-e. His influence lived on, however, and Western artists like Monet and van Gogh were known to be admirers of his work.

Hakone, #11 of Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. admirers
  2. ample
  3. apprentice
  4. carves
  5. facilitate
  6. in reverse
  7. keen observer
  8. literary
  9. notably
  10. painstaking
  11. reproduction
  12. warden
  1. making copies
  2. a kind of student who works for a "master"
  3. plenty of
  4. make something easier or even possible
  5. requiring great care and/or hard work
  6. backwards
  7. importantly
  8. a kind of guard; person in charge of
  9. from stories or poems
  10. one who looks carefully
  11. people who like or respect something
  12. cuts into something using a knife

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What unusual job did Hiroshige have as a boy?
  2. How did his "day job" make it possible for him to become a painter?
  3. What is an ukiyo-e? Who bought them?
  4. What were some of the subjects of Hiroshige's art? What series was especially well known?
  5. How did Hiroshige influence western art?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. What advantage do you think ukiyo-e artists had over, say, oil painters?
  2. Why do you think travel pictures were so popular? What sorts of "travel pictures" do we make today?
  3. Why do you think a successful artist like Hiroshige would become a Buddhist monk?

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice:

    Vocabulary: 1. K; 2. C; 3. B; 4. L; 5. D; 6. F; 7. J; 8. I; 9. G; 10. E; 11. A; 12. H

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. Hiroshige was a fire warden in charge of Edo Castle at age 12.
    2. Hiroshige's job allowed him a lot of free time.
    3. An ukiyo-e is a picture printed from carved wooden blocks. They were bought by rich merchants, a new class of people in Edo.
    4. Hiroshige portrayed beautiful women, actors, scenes from history and literature, flowers, animals, and landscapes, including views along the Tokaido Road.
    5. Artists like Monet and van Gogh were admirers of Hiroshige's work.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").