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Category: Ronin Gallery Catalog

Masterworks of Hiroshige's Landscapes

Ronin Gallery is pleased to present a very special exhibition of selected masterpiece landscapes by Hiroshige. From majestic landscapes to lively street scenes, Hiroshige's portrayal of the Japanese landscape not only illustrates the beauty of Japan during the four seasons, but also the dynamic life of the people who lived there. His prints are known universally for their daring and dramatic compositions that influenced the Impressionists and changed the course of Western art. Monet was so entranced by the "Kameido Bridge" print, within the 100 Views of Edo series, that he built a drum bridge in the garden of his home and depicted it in his famed painting "Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies." Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated with Hiroshige's daring diagonal compositions and inventive use of perspective and Whistler painted a series entitled "The Nocturnes" inspired by Hiroshige's "Kyobashi Bridge." Van Gogh owned over 25 Hiroshige prints and literally copied both the "Plum Garden at Kameido" and "Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge."

In the history of ukiyo-e, there is one name above all others that evokes the tender, lyrical beauty of the Japanese landscape – Hiroshige. Beloved the world over, Hiroshige’s inspired portrayals of the natural world have earned him such epithets as the “poet of travel” and the “artist of rain.” Those prints containing an image from his famous trilogy – moon, snow, rain – remain unsurpassed examples of their kind. “In special atmospheric effects, such as moonlight, snow, mist, and rain,” remarked Fenollosa, “Hiroshige achieved a verity of effects such as neither Greek nor European has ever known.” His most well known landscape series – The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, The 100 Famous Views of Edo, The Famous Views of the Sixty-Odd Provinces, and The 36 Views of Mt Fuji – stand as enduring testimony to the magic that Hiroshige worked with water and light, rock and foam, cloud and cliff.

Ronin Gallery is pleased to present a collection of landscape prints selected from Hiroshige’s most famous masterpiece series. This exhibition will celebrate this artist’s bold, daring compositions and dynamic explorations of perspective, and will focus on Hiroshige’s innovative use of cropping, diagonal compositions, and exaggerated perspective as a way to illustrate and express not only the natural beauty of Japan, but also the dynamism of the everyday lives of its citizens.

Hiroshige was born in the city of Edo, the lively, flourishing hub of Japan’s merchant class. Hiroshige’s family was historically part of a class of urban low-ranking samurai, who were charged with the duty of fighting fires in the community surrounding Edo Castle. Despite the apparent danger and excitement of this familial role, the occupation actually afforded a young Hiroshige with a great deal of free time, which he quickly filled with the amateur study of art. However, in his twelfth year, a double tragedy befell him: his father died, and then a few months later, his mother followed. This sudden blow devastated him, and we can trace its lasting influence in those prints where he endows nature with all the poignant sadness of the human condition. At the age of fifteen, Hiroshige entered the studio of Toyohiro to begin formal study, and within a year he had so excelled in his work that he was granted the privilege of using his master’s name. Combining the last part of Toyohiro’s name with another character of his own, he began signing his works “Hiroshige” – a signature that was destined to appear on some of the world’s masterpieces. Little more is known about Hiroshige’s personal life, except that he married twice—his first wife died young in 1838—and had one daughter, Tatsu, who would eventually marry Hiroshige’s pupil Shigenobu (Hiroshige II).

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Shogunate relaxed centuries-old restrictions and unfettered travel for large numbers of people became possible. A new genre of “travel art” sprang up overnight, and Hiroshige became especially drawn to a subset of this genre, known as meisho-e, or pictures of famous places. He even traveled the length of the Tokaido Road in 1832 as part of an official delegation from Edo to the imperial capital of Kyoto, a journey quickly becoming known for its celebrated vistas. He was so inspired by his experience of the varied and beautiful landscape of his homeland that immediately upon his return, he began to transform his numerous sketches into designs for full-color prints – prints that would become the incomparable 53 Stations of the Tokaido.

In popular imagination, these famous sites of travel were closely associated with legend, poetry, and myth. It was a genre whose traditional themes–the beauty of the seasons and the daily tasks of common people–had always been close to Hiroshige’s artistic soul. Sales of Hiroshige’s landscapes, already substantial, soared to unprecedented heights with the production of these new travel and landscape series. His creative energy rarely faltered, and Edo’s crowds continued to thrill to his deft touch and quick eye, his fresh intimate handling of the locale and his affectionate treatment of the subject matter.

In 1853, at the apex of Hiroshige’s artistic career, Commodore Perry and his black ships sailed into the Yokohama harbor, heralding a new and momentous exchange of culture between East and West. While new forms of Western visuality were curious and inspiring to Japanese artists of the period, at the same time, Europe’s rising generation of artists incorporated the new conceptions of space and form that they found in Hiroshige’s prints, revitalizing the art of Europe. Monet was entranced by Hiroshige’s designs of the drum bridges at Meguro and Kameido Tenjin Shrine, going so far as to build a small version of the bridge in his own gardens which then were featured in so many of his famous water lily paintings. Edouard Manet was obviously influenced by the series The Sixty-odd Provinces in his painting Ships at Sunset; Van Gogh owned over twenty-five of Hiroshige’s prints and reproduced several as oil paint ings; Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated with Hiroshige’s daring diagonal compositions and inventive use of perspective. For these artists and many others, Hiroshige’s bold cropping of planes, dramatic truncation of objects, and exhilarating leaps of viewpoint heralded an unprecedented approach to composition. By the end of the nineteenth century, the new visual vocabulary that Hiroshige had made available to Europe’s artists had helped to catalyze a revolution in aesthetic sensibility that we now call Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Throughout his career, Hiroshige transformed the themes, techniques, and style of ukiyo-e printmaking. And, as an incredibly prolific artist, he produced over 5,000 individual print designs, more than 2,000 of which belong to the views and great traveling roads of Edo-period Japan. This wholehearted discovery of the landscape and the role of travel in the lives of Edo-period citizens reinvigorated an old and mostly Sinophilic subject: Hiroshige’s best landscape masterpieces are imbued with both the poetry of the past and the lively, particular energy of the time. Hiroshige’s ability to create designs that convey an intimacy of the travel experience and the palpable atmosphere of each specific season is unsurpassed, even to this day.

In 1856, after decades of popular success and acclaim, Hiroshige became a Buddhist monk at the age of 60, retiring all his other duties in the world. However, he still produced his most acclaimed print series during this time—the 100 Famous Views of Edo—which was fully financed by a wealthy Buddhist priest. Then, in the summer of 1858, cholera raged through the streets of Edo; some say as many as 28,000 perished in its wake. While designing this series, The 36 Views of Mt Fuji, Hiroshige too fell victim to the illness, and on the sixth day of the ninth lunar month, he died. An accomplished poet, Hiroshige left the following lines to mark his farewell: “Leaving my brush on the Azuma road, I go to see the famous sights/ Of the Western Paradise.”

MAJOR LANDSCAPE SERIES

The 53 Stations of the Tokaido
The 53 Stations of the Tokaido was a series of 55 prints designed by Hiroshige in 1832-1833, celebrating a newfound love of travel in Edo-period Japan. The Tokaido was the main road between the imperial capital of Kyoto and the Shogun’s administrative capital in the city of Edo. Thousands of people travelled this road, stopping at the 53 rest stations that graced its length. Every one of these stations boasted great scenic beauty, with spectacular views of the sea and the mountains. Hiroshige himself traveled the length of the Tokaido in 1832 as part of an official delegation to the Shogun in Edo, and he was so inspired by the changing landscape that immediately he began to turn his numerous sketches into designs for full-color prints. Many of the innovative and exciting designs from this series are counted among Hiroshige’s most precious and important masterpieces. Hiroshige’s first edition of the 53 Stations (now known as the “Hoeido,” after the main publisher) was so immensely popular that he would eventually publish over three-dozen versions of the Tokaido stations in his lifetime. Other versions of the Tokaido series consist of additional print formats: the “Upright” Tokaido (1855), in the vertical oban format, the aiban format of the Gyosho Tokaido (from the early 1840s), and several designs from the various chuban format prints that Hiroshige completed between the early 1830s and the 1850s.

The Famous Views of the Sixty-Odd Provinces From 1853 - 1856
Hiroshige designed The Famous Views of the Sixty-Odd Provinces. It is interesting to note that the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships and the forced opening of Japan to the West in 1853 coincided with the debut of this series. This monumental series presented the first major artistic view of all the provinces of Japan from the Tohoku region in the Northeast to Kyushu in the Southwest. Several of the prints stand as the crowning achievement of his life’s work: “Moonlight on Lake Biwa,” a stunning vista of serene power and beauty; “Gokanosho, Higo Province,” an isolated kingdom of mountains and clouds; “Sarashina, Shinano Province,” with its mezmerizing reflections of the moon on terraced rice paddies; and “Naruto Whirlpool,” with its mighty hypnotic swirl of sea and foam. The landscapes in this series represent the full range of Hiroshige’s genius. Suffused with color, they render the seasonal variety of nature in all of its breathtaking splendor.

The 100 Famous Views of Edo
The One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was designed and published from February 1856 through August 1858. The prints depict the various seasons, sites, annual events, and customs of the flourishing city of Edo. Many of the designs from this series are considered to be masterpieces of Hiroshige’s career, as well as masterpieces of world art in general. The series was originally intended as 100 prints, but was so popular that Hiroshige continued to produce Edo designs until his death in 1858. The designs from this series were sought after in 19th-century European art circles as the enthusiasm for “Japonisme” gripped the city of Paris. The iconic images from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series were inspirational for artists like Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Whistler, more so than any other landscape series that Hiroshige designed in his lifetime. Van Gogh even directly copied two prints from this series as oil paintings: the Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi and Atake and Plum Park in Kameido.