Artist profile: Hiroshige – Introduction

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

Hiroshige is one of a few Japanese woodblock artists that are well-known outside Japan; two others being Hokusai (maker of that wave you see everywhere) and Utamaro.

Memorial portrait of Hiroshige by Kunisada
Memorial portrait of Hiroshige by Kunisada

Hiroshige (1797-1858) inherited a lower rank of samurai from his father. He started painting at a very young age, and (after two rejections) was accepted as an apprentice at age 15. Hiroshige started as a Ukiyo-e artist, painting “floating world” subjects like kabuki actors and geisha, but quickly transitioned to landscapes. All the while, he was also a fireman like his father had been (he was 12 when his father died).

He became an artist full-time in 1832 after the publishing of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. It was blend of a travelogue and art book that helped establish the “famous views” genre (think Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji). Hiroshige wrote and painted Fifty-Three Stations while in a party transporting horses from the Shogun to the Emperor. These kinds of prints are not only beautiful, they’re also very valuable from a historical standpoint as they’re the next best thing to photographs of places all over Japan.

Prune Orchard Sun
Prune Orchard Sun

One reason why Hiroshige was so prolific – he made thousands of prints – was because he wasn’t always well-paid for his prints; he was never quite financially secure. He became a Buddhist monk two years before he died, during which he worked on One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, a very popular collection of prints and stories.

from Whirlpools on a Rocky Coast
from Whirlpools on a Rocky Coast

In Europe and the U.S., Hiroshige heavily influenced Vincent Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both were avid ukiyo-e collectors: Wright pored over his collection for architectural inspiration, while Van Gogh copied at least two of Hiroshige’s prints, incorporated elements of ukiyo-e style into his own, and went so far as to say that “all of my work is founded on Japanese art”.

This month I’ll be surveying his artworks, which took the form of woodblock prints and paintings.

Other parts in the Hiroshige artist profile series
Bright Blue



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