In An Artist and His City: Select Works from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Ronin Gallery explores Edo through the eyes of a local. While heralded as the “poet of travel,” perhaps Hiroshige’s most intimate urban portraits are those of his hometown. In the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-1858), Hiroshige captures the spirit of capital in its dynamic splendor. Between natural beauty and urban landscape, changing seasons and local celebrations, he creates a veritable microcosm of edokko ("child of Edo") life with each print. Portraying summer festivals, local folklore, and natural cycles, the series reads as a love letter to Japan’s 19th century cultural capital.
An Artist and His City invites you to explore Japan’s feudal capital through the eyes of an edokko. From crowded theaters lining moonlit streets to temple grounds glimpsed through crisp autumn leaves, these selected works from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo capture not merely the city. Hiroshige echoes the urbanites who frequented these spaces through his inventive composition, brilliant color, and playful allusion to human presence. Whether a hairpin just removed from its packaging or a kimono hanging up to dry, Hiroshige subtly reminds the viewer that the heart of any city is its residents.
Over the course of this exhibition, we’ll take a closer look at the interaction between artist and city. From intimacy of unseen individuals in Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festivalto the natural havens woven into the urban fabric through Moon Pine, Ueno (89), this three-part blog series considers several of Hiroshige’s designs in depth. But before we can explore Edo through Hiroshige’s eyes, let’s orient ourselves in the city at hand.
Edo as City: Urban Culture, Feudal Capital
Built around the site of a medieval castle in 1590, the city of Edo flourished as the political and artistic center of Edo period Japan, ultimately evolving into the Tokyo we know today. By the early 17th century, the feudal wars had to come to close and Japan enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. The ruling Tokugawa Shogunate shifted the capital from its imperial seat in Kyoto to the strategically situated Edo. As the city came into its own throughout the 17th century, a bustling city sprung from the marshlands surrounding castle. Under the shogunate,the policy of sankin kotai, or “alternate attendance,” required provincial lords (daimyo) to rotate their residence between their regional domain and the capital. This policy allowed the shogunate to keep regional power in check while simultaneously sparking the population of the capital. The regular comings and goings of daimyo households created a market of consumers. The chonin, or “merchant class,” rose and prospered around this market. Among the ranks of artisans, merchants, and traders, this newfound economic power of a newly formed middle class led the creation of the “floating world.” Focused between two poles – the Yoshiwara, the legalized prostitution district, and the Kabuki theaters. Both realms dealt in pleasure and attracted a clientele beyond the chonin class. The allure of this vibrant, urban culture proved so strong that even members of the aristocracy could not resist the theatrical and carnal pleasures promised within Edo’s ukiyo, or “floating world.”
While Edo’s population ebbed and flowed with daimyo processions and merchants, the physical fabric of Edo also experienced a steady evolution whether by design or flame. In general terms, the physical poles of the city aligned with their cultural equivalents. The daimyo estates proliferated around the seat of the shogunate at Edo castle, while the neighborhoods of the chonin class radiated from the nihonbashi, or the “bridge of Japan.” The long bridge marked the official entrance to the capital, the starting point from which journeys where measured. Storehouses lined the river, allowing the easy movement of the goods from the bay to the storage to market. Specific areas between the river and the daimyo households became known for their specializations – bamboo merchants clustered towards the south, textile dyers established their own quarter to the north, while teahouses and restaurants spread near the river to the east. Across the bridge, the east bank of the river was initially home the floating world, though both the Yoshiwara and the Theater district ultimately returned to the northwest side of the river. As Edo’s population surpassed one million residents, the city sparked to life through tensions between the merchant and samurai classes, the freedom of the floating world and formality of courtly life. Hiroshige embodied this dual nature.
Hiroshige as Artist: Conveying the Edokko
A member the samurai class, Hiroshige straddled the courtly realm and creative circles as a supervisor of the shogun’s firefighting force and one ukiyo-e’s most successful woodblock print artists. Born in Edo as Tokutaro Ando, Hiroshige grew up in a minor samurai family. His father held the rank of doshin, supervising 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). When his father passed away in 1808, thirteen-year-old Hiroshige assumed his father’s role, but simultaneously pursued a career as a woodblock print artist. First, he tried to join Utagawa Toyokuni’s studio, but he was turned away. Three years later, Hiroshige entered an apprenticeship with the Utagawa Toyohiro. After only a year, he received the artist name Hiroshige, but his artistic genius went largely unnoticed until 1832, when he embraced the genre of meisho-e, or “famous place pictures,” with the series 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1832-1833).
Hiroshige lived in the “Daimyo Alley,” just to the east of Edo castle until he was forty-three. While he spent a great deal of his life living in the most prestigious quarters of the city, his lifestyle was not lavish. Hiroshige faced a condition common to lower-ranking samurai (gokenin) families: despite samurai status, secondary work was required to support oneself. Thus, he straddled class lines. While thoroughly enmeshed in the floating world as a woodblock artist, he retained his official rank among the samurai class. For this reason, historians have hesitated to title him a true edokko. Yet, through One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Hiroshige unarguably captures the spirit of the chonin class. Each view unfolds against the backdrop of the feudal capital, but the focus rests in the pleasures, actions, and interests of the chonin that live there.
In One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Hiroshige not only captured the culture of Edo's residents, but also a portrait of the city on brink of its evolution from the stability of the Edo period, to the rapid modernization brought with the Meiji Restoration. By the time Hiroshige began the series in 1856, the stability that so shaped Edo culture began to feel uncertain. In 1854, the Shogun agreed to trade with the United States, following the gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Perry. A year later, the city and its spirit were severely damaged through the great earthquake and resulting fires. Following the publication of Hiroshige’s 115 designs, the opening of Yokohama in 1859 would allow an unprecedented surge of foreigners into Japan. Nearly a decade later, the name Edo would fall with the rule of the shogun, replaced by the imperial line and a reimagined Japanese capital – Tokyo. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore several of these urban portraits.
Next week, be sure to check back as we take a close look at Asakusa Rice Fields and Torinomachi Festival. In the meantime, explore the city through the online exhibition An Artist and His City here.