As the black sky rains a shower of fine lines, several figures are caught in the sudden downpour. The two women brace their dark umbrellas against the wind as they run for the near bank of the Sumida River. Unprepared for the weather, a man pulls his straw cloak over his head, while three men huddle under a single umbrella on their way towards Atake, a red light district. In the river below, a small figure steers his boat to the shelter of Ohashi Bridge. Beneath the rain, the far bank is reduced to silhouettes, the temples of Fukagawa and Honjo just barely discernible. Hiroshige’s work captured not only the natural beauty of Japan, but also the everyday life of its citizens. As intersecting diagonals and unexpected perspective create a stunning scene, the tangible unpreparedness of the human figures completes the atmosphere of a summer shower. In 1887, Van Gogh was so enamored with this design that he copied it in oil paint, sparking the international recognition of this image.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Honolulu Museum of Art, British Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Library of Congress, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
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.