The mountain village of Kanbara appears dark and chilly as the night quickly falls. Footprints dot the ankle-deep snow, only to be filled with fresh flakes. Hunched and heads bowed, travelers battle the wind. All is muffled in the final moments of dusk. Most scholars agree that Hiroshige passed through Kanbara during the summer. What’s more, as part of modern Shimizu, this region is very temperate and even the smallest amount of snowfall is rare. In Hiroshige’s five renditions of this station he presents not the Kanbara of his travels, but that of his imagination. The Hoeido depiction of this station is considered one of the masterpieces of the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. In Hiroshige’s own words, “Though there are many things that I have abbreviated, the composition is exactly like a true reflection of the scenery, so those who cannot travel can find some pleasure in them.” In 1996, the band Weezer based their Pinkerton album cover on this design.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, British Museum, Library of Congress, Harvard Art Museum, Edo Tokyo Museum and Honolulu Museum of Art.
Born in Edo as Tokutaro Ando, Hiroshige 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 Utagawa Toyokuni’s studio, he was turned away. In 1811, young Hiroshige entered an apprenticeship with the celebrated Utagawa Toyohiro. 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), Hiroshige 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 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.
Hiroshige’s prints continue to convey the beauty of Japan and provide insight into the everyday life of its citizens. 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, Van Gogh literally copied two prints from Hiroshige’s famed series, 100 Famous Views of Edo in oil paint.