Happy New Year! Let’s kick off 2022 by learning about Japanese woodblock master Utagawa Hiroshige.
Hiroshige was born in 1797 in Edo (Tokyo) as Ando Tokutaro. His name changed several more times throughout his childhood. Hiroshige’s family were Samurai. This meant that they were held in high esteem and had a high-paying job: fire warden. However, Hiroshige’s childhood seems to be filled with tragedy after tragedy. His sister died when he was three, his mother when he was eleven, and his father when he was twelve. With the death of his father, Hiroshige inherited his position as fire warden, which was a well-paying and cushy job that provided plenty of time to pursue art.
In 1811, Hiroshige began his formal artistic training with Utagawa Toyohiro. He was a specialist of Ukiyo-e, traditional woodblock printing. Utagawa Toyohiro focused on printing figures, namely actresses from kabuki theatre. Hiroshige followed his teacher with this type of artwork for many years, until 1829. In this time, Hiroshige got married to the daughter of a fireman and had a son, Nakajiro.
Inspired by contemporary landscape artists, Hiroshige abandoned character artwork to pursue landscape printmaking. He passed his position as fire warden to his son in 1832, when the boy was eleven. While it is unclear whether he left his job early to devote more time to his artwork, he undoubtedly began to flourish and gain fame after he did so.
Hiroshige worked continuously from 1832 to 1839. He created a great many prolific artworks, such as Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and Mount Utsu. Japan was suffering through the Great Tenpo famine during this time and it is unsure how well Hiroshige fared. His wife probably sold some of their possessions to keep food on the table and enabled him to continue his work, but she passed away in 1839.
When, in 1942, the shogunate banned images of figures (like the kind that Utagawa Toyohiro made) in an attempt to improve the morals of Japan. This meant that many other artists decided to switch to landscapes. Hiroshige once more innovated and began to create travel prints that celebrated the countryside, rather than the popular landmarks or buildings that those new to landscape were making.
In his later life, Hiroshige married again (a farmer’s daughter) and adopted a daughter, Tatsu. He also took on some students of his own, though none became well-known. In 1856, he became a Buddhist monk and continued to produce artworks, such as Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, that inspired and surprise his audience with their bright colors. He fell ill and passed away in 1858, and was buried in a Buddhist temple in Asakusa. He had produced over 5,000 print designs and is considered today to be the last great Ukiyo-e artist.
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