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10 Facts about Utagawa Hiroshige: The Last Great Master of Woodblock Printing in Japan

Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige is known as the last superb artist of the Ukiyo-e movement. Ukiyo-e simply means “images of the floating world,” and artists of the movement made woodblock prints and paintings.

Their artwork depicts scenes of history, nature, and the famous faces of Edo. However, Hiroshige developed his own style, rather than just creating prints depicting typical Ukiyo-e motifs.

He took inspiration from everyday experience for inspiration, showcasing images of working men and women in urban environments. His artwork was such that He created his paintings with such skill that the day-to-day scenes were transformed into enticing landscapes with vibrant colors and details.

Photo of Memorial Portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige by Utagawa Kunisada, 1858.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Hiroshige’s prints became very famous because the Japanese public was able to relate to the scenes. His artwork also comprised of seasonal weather conditions or festivities that marked a specific time of the year. Hiroshige’s woodblock prints showcasing the ancient Edo period.
Here are ten facts about the legendary Japanese Ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Hiroshige.

A photo of “Station of Ōtsu” by Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1840. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

HE HAD MANY NAMES
Hiroshige was the son of Andō Gen’emon born and was born in 1797. He had multiple names since childhood like Andō Tokutarō, Jūemon, Tokubē, and Tetsuzō.

He had a tragic CHILDHOOD.
Hiroshige’s family belonged to one of the highest-ranking of the four Japanese castes called Samurai. Since they belonged to high social strata and the Andō family was expected to uphold their ancestral place as fire wardens in the civil service. They lived in the capital of the Japanese empire in 1603, called the Yayosu Riverbank area of Edo, which is now known as Tokyo.

His life had many turns with his sister passing away when Hiroshige was three-years-old years old. When he was 11, his mother died. Sadly his father passed away several months later, just after his 12th birthday. This resulted in him becoming an orphan and had to fend for himself.

A photo of “Suijin Shrine and Massaki on the Sumida River.”

HE WAS A FIREMAN BEFORE AN ARTIST
Hiroshige got his father’s role of fire warden of Edo castle after his father’s death. It helped him survive and, at the same time, provided him with a lot of free time. Many others also pursued their hobbies because of their free time in hand. Well, Hiroshige took up art as a hobby and enrolled himself under Japanese ukiyo-e artist Toyohiro of the Utagawa school. He also studied at Kanō school. It is indeed one of the most famous schools of Japanese painting.

HE WAS A MASTER OF BOKASHI
Hiroshige was famous for his woodblock prints that showcased beautiful skies in saturated color gradients. He used the ukiyo-e bokashi technique. In this technique, he used a brush to apply ink in multiple colors to different sections of a moistened printing block. The ink bleeds across the wet area, which then created a soft gradation when printed on paper.

“Teppozu and Tsukiji Honganji Temple.” That is a part of the series, “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” (Photo- Wikimedia Commons)

HE INSPIRED FAMOUS EUROPEAN ARTISTS
Hiroshige’s prints led to the popularity of Japanese art around the world. Artists in Europe of the 19th century were fascinated by his use of color and his ability to capture the passing of time. Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, who were French artists, were absolute fans of his work.

And some art historians have stated that Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne’s use of viewpoint is like that in Hiroshige’s -The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. You will be surprised to know that even Vincent Van Gogh gave honor to Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake with his 1887 painting known as Bridge in the Rain.

HE CREATED AROUND 8,000 WORKS
Hiroshige was exceptionally prolific throughout his life. He made more than 8,000 works of art. His earliest prints showcased common ukiyo-e themes such as women and actors. However, then in

1831 he began making artworks of landscapes. He created numerous artwork that was inspired by the beauty of Edo, his travels around Japan, and changing seasons.

Photo of “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake.”

HE PRODUCED MULTIPLE PRINTS THAT DOCUMENT HIS JOURNEY ALONG THE IMPERIAL ROAD, TŌKAIDŌ
Hiroshige’s first prominent print series was The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. It showcases a trip the artist took in 1832 during which he traveled the entire imperial Tōkaidō road. The journey is considered to be one of the most important of the Five Routes of the Edo period that connected Kyoto to Edo.

In fact, there were 53 post stations along the route to Kyoto, and he stopped at each one to sketch the scene. On returning home, he immediately began work on the first prints from the series. He then showcased the landscape prints to publishing houses, and they soon became some of his best-selling works of art. The success of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō series made Hiroshige the most famous and successful printmaker of the time.

“Hodogaya (Shinkame Bridge),” in “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Road) (Tōkaidō Gojūsan-tsugi no uchi),”

HIS ONE HUNDRED FAMOUS VIEWS OF THE EDO SERIES BECAME ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS COLLECTIONS OF JAPANESE ART
Hiroshige began his powerful and influential One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series back in 1856. His works of art were unique and had a distinct style; the prints depicted the shrines, restaurants, tea-houses of Edo famous stores, restaurants, and the Sumida river and its surrounding landscape.

But the sad part was that Hiroshige died before he could complete the collection. But later, his work was continued by his son-in-law, Hiroshige II. The finished series was then published between 1856–59 and gained tremendous popularity. The prints from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo are yet some of the most famous and remembered woodblock prints of all time.

Photos of Part of the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,”

HE LIVED IN POVERTY
As you already know, Hiroshige was a successful artist, but he never became wealthy. He made only about twice the salary of a laborer. So this sets many people thinking about why did he then produce so many artworks. He worked really hard to earn money to sustain his living. However, he died with no debts on his head remaining for someone else to pay off on his behalf.

HE BECAME A BUDDHIST MONK
Well then, in 1856, Hiroshige “retired from the world” and became a Buddhist monk. After that, he died in the next two years when he was in his early 60’s. He was then buried in a Zen Buddhist temple. Hiroshige died during the great Edo cholera epidemic in 1858. But there is no clarity whether the disease led to his death. Before he died, Hiroshige wrote a farewell poem:
“I leave my brush in the East,And set forth on my journey. I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.”

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