From the top of the composition the kingfisher appears to dive into the blooms of blue and white hydrangeas below. The bird will find no water at the base of these flowers, yet the poem lends a clue to the kingfisher’s confusion. Written between flowers the haiku reads, “Hydrangeas/ They do not bloom in water/ Yet, seem to hold it.” Blooming during tsuyu, or the rainy season in Japan, hydrangeas are associated with water. Hiroshige renders the blooms without an outline, echoing the sentiment expressed in the haiku. This work is considered a true masterwork of Hiroshige’s kacho-e, or “bird and flower pictures.” As he combines word and image, the work becomes a lyrical evocation of flora, fauna, and seasonal beauty. Like many of Hiroshige’s kacho-e, this design was printed in multiple impressions by different publishers.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Honolulu Museum of Art. Poem translation from Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection.
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.