Utagawa Hiroshige (1798-1858) was a master of the Japanese Ukiyo-e wood cut print. The English translation of Ukiyo-e is pictures of the floating world: uki (floating) yo (world) e (pictures). The Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period, 1603-1867) brought peace, prosperity, and economic stability to Japan. Japanese culture included elaborate tea houses, Kabuki theater, geishas, and puppet shows. Ukiyo-e wood block prints flourished. Ukiyo-e prints reflected the sensuous pleasure of life in an ever-changing world. Typical subjects of the prints were beautiful women, popular Kabuki actors, and scenes of the pleasure districts. They were sold at low prices in shops and on the street by vendors. They became enormously popular with ordinary citizens.
Hiroshige was born in Edo, modern day Tokyo, into a samurai family. His father was a fire warden at the Edo Castle. When Hiroshige was 12, his mother died, and his father died later that year. He inherited his father’s duties as fire marshal in 1809. The job afforded him a lot of spare time, and he started the learn the art of printmaking. His artistic skills were of such high quality that in that same year he was authorized to sign his work. When his son reached the age of 12, Hiroshige turned over the fire warden duties to him and worked solely as an artist.
Hiroshige began his career by making bird and flower prints. Cherry blossoms hold a special place in Japanese cultural history. The cherry blossom (Sakura) is symbolic of spring; flowers bloom sometime between late March and mid-April. Hiroshige’s “Cherry Blossoms” (1830s) print contains five colors, printed on white paper. Each color, blue, light pink, darker pink, and black, were cut from separate wood blocks. The printmaker cuts away the section of the block not included in the print, leaving the section to be printed above the surface. Each block is then painted or inked with one color and pressed/printed onto the paper. A system called registering, marked alignment guides, was necessary to make sure each color block lined up every time. Each color block needed to be re-inked for each new print. Hiroshige signed by hand the early prints for the western market. Individual stamps (chop marks) were the common and easy way to sign documents and art. Each work could be printed many times until the raised wood image wore down. The size of Ukiyo-e prints ranged from 6 to10 inches by 10 to15 inches.
In the Edo period publishing of prints was flourishing. Publishers looked for new subjects beyond the geisha and courtesan. “White Cheeked Bird and Double Cherry Blossom” (1830s) depicts the double cherry blossom, white and pink, developed in the Edo period. The Japanese cultivated and produced over 200 varieties during this time. They were planted on the banks of rivers, in Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and the daimyo gardens of powerful warrior bands in Edo. Everyone could enjoy them.
Ukiyo-e artists used mineral-based pigments and natural dyes produced from plants and insects, including leaves, roots, petals, buds, dried fruit, grass, heartwood, and bark. Safflower produced the pale pink to red dye used to color the double cherry blossom. Hiroshige had approximately 20 colors to pick from. In this print, he had the newly available and popular Prussian blue to create the sky. The color was stable under light, had a wide range of hues, and was vibrant. Hiroshige and his contemporary Hokusai used the technique known as bokashi: applying the paint to the block and spreading the color with a brush.
Hanami, flower viewing, is a custom that dates to the 8th Century in Japan. “Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom at Goten-Yama” (1838-44) (approximately 9’’ x 14’’) depicts Japanese people celebrating Hanami. Cherry blossoms represented good fortune, new beginnings, and renewal. Cherry trees bloom for only two weeks. While they bloomed, they produced an enticing fragrance and a brilliant display of color. The trees were so full of blossoms they were thought of as clouds in the sky. Families and friends made this time an annual festival, eating, drinking, and dancing under the gorgeous cherry trees. The cherry blossom were considered to be the home of the souls of ancestors; therefore, looking at the flowers was a way to remember ancestors. During Hanami, schools and offices held open houses, encouraging people to make new friends.
Hiroshige used Prussian blue that gave a vibrant blue color to the water. Boats sail peacefully on the harbor. The viewer looks down at the roofs of houses along the water’s edge. The town of Goten-Yama stretches out in the background. Green trees behind the houses contrast with the red sunset. Above, a very dark edge of Prussian blue sky is blended slowly down from the top of the print. Red lead, red ochre, safflower, or another dye produced the red of the blankets and the sky at sunset. The color green was achieved by mixing Orpiment, a yellow mineral, with the blue of either indigo or dayflower. Hiroshige was one of the few artists who over printed certain areas with second or third color blocks, achieving subtle shadings and colors.
Hiroshige’s “Cherry Blossoms at Sage” (1854) (uchiwa, rigid-fan) (13.5’’ x 9.5’’) is an example of his advancement in technique and the development of new subject matter. “Cherry Blossoms at Sage” tell part of the story of Prince Genji, from the very popular Tales of Genji (1000-1008), written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting at the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1185). Prince Genji and one of his lady loves are dressed in exquisite silk robes of the imperial Heian period. The variety of fabrics, the knife in his belt, two sets of tassels on her gown, the markings on the boat, the mooring rope in the bow, and the small nest of four houses on the distant bank of the river all flow together in complete harmony. The cherry trees are the only pink in the scene. The complexity of the design is typical of Hiroshige’s later work. Considering the small scale of the print, 8.5” x 11.4,” as in all ukiyo-e prints, they are remarkable.
Genji and his lady are boating on the Hozu River with the Tonase waterfall in the background, and the town of Nakanoshima behind them. Tourism increased during the Edo period, and travel guides depicting meisho, famous places, were very popular. Hiroshige was invited to join an official procession to Kyoto from Edo in 1832. His first wife sold some of her clothing and combs to help him finance the trip. Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido road, a 300-mile trip, was produced from 1833 until1834. He included the location, date, and stories told by fellow travelers on the journey. The series was so popular that Hiroshige issued it three times. Other series by Hiroshige include: Ten Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (1831), The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kise Kaido (1835-42), and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, created from1848 until near the time of his death.
Evening viewing of cherry blossoms also was a popular and romantic activity. Hanami at night was called yozakura. “Moon Over Cherry Trees” (1830’s) (the 58th scene of Edo) does not show couples enjoying the special beauty of the evening. A full moon shines over Mt. Yoshino. It is a superb example of the intimate yet remarkable power of Hiroshige’s work.
Cherry blossoms exemplify the world view of Japanese Buddhism: life, like the cherry blossom, is beautiful but impermanent. When they bloom, they are vibrant, but their life is fleeting.
Hiroshige retired from printmaking in 1856 and became a Buddhist monk. He was working on the 100 views of Edo when Japan suffered a major cholera epidemic. Whether or not that was the cause of his death in 1858 is unknown. In 1867, Japanese trade with the West was opened, and Paris was flooded with Ukiyo-e prints. The effect on young French artists was overwhelming. Among the artists who were inspired by Hiroshige’s prints were Manet, Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh. The pictures of the floating world changed art in Europe forever. At his death, Hiroshige left a short poem:
I leave my brush in the East,
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.