As the northern Japanese Alps meet the sea, the cliffs of Oyashirazu were known for their notoriously dangerous conditions. Here, the Hokurikudo Road became a treacherous and narrow strip between the rugged cliffs and the crashing Sea of Japan. The name “Oyashirazu” means “without knowing one’s parents,” alluding to a mother’s poem penned after losing her child to the waves at this site. In Hiroshige’s design, the abbreviated figures on the beach emphasize the enormity of the cliffs and the depth of their many waterside caves. As the sea roils in shades of blue, its waves taller than the figures on the shore, Hiroshige hints at the inherent danger of this famous place. Today, the former Echigo Province corresponds with Niigata Prefecture, excluding Sado Island.
About the artist
Born in Edo as Tokutaro Ando, Hiroshige Utagawa grew up in a minor samurai family. His father belonged to the firefighting force assigned to Edo Castle. It is here that Hiroshige was given his first exposure to art: legend has it that a fellow fireman tutored him in the Kano school of painting, though Hiroshige’s first official teacher was Rinsai. Though Hiroshige tried to join Toyokuni Utagawa's studio, he was turned away. In 1811, young Hiroshige entered an apprenticeship with the celebrated Toyohiro Utagawa. After only a year, he was bestowed with the artist name Hiroshige. He soon gave up his role in the fire department to focus entirely on painting and print design. During this time he studied painting, intrigued by the Shijo school. Hiroshige’s artistic genius went largely unnoticed until 1832.
In Hiroshige's groundbreaking series of woodblock prints, The 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1832-1833), he captured the journey along the Tokaido road, the highway connecting Edo to Kyoto, the imperial capital. With the Tokugawa Shogunate relaxing centuries of age-old restrictions on travel, urban populations embraced travel art and Hiroshige Utagawa became one of the most prominent and successful ukiyo-e artists. He also produced kacho-e (bird-and-flower pictures) to enormous success. In 1858, at the age of 61, he passed away as a result of the Edo cholera epidemic.
Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock prints continue to convey the beauty of Japan and provide insight into the everyday life of its citizens during the Edo period. The appeal of his tender, lyrical landscapes was not restricted to the Japanese audience. Hiroshige’s work had a profound influence on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of Europe: Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated with Hiroshige’s daring diagonal compositions and inventive use of perspective, while Van Gogh literally copied two of Hiroshige's prints from the famous series, 100 Famous Views of Edo in oil paint.