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Hiroshige – the ukiyo-e master of nature

The life and works of Ando Hiroshige

From a samurai family, Hiroshige was born in 1797. He is particularly famed for his skill at capturing landscapes, birds and animals, and people going about their everyday life, but his ability to create stunning works of simple, yet detailed elegance with a deftness of composition is what he is rightly famed for. 

The confusing names of Hiroshige

portrait of hiroshigeLike many Japanese people, he took different names at different stages of his life. His first name was Jūemon, Tokubē, Tetsuzō, and Tokutarō before taking the name Hiroshige. But his last, or family name, also changed. He was born to the Andō family (although this was a name his father adopted), and later used the name  Ichiyūsai, but is most often known after the name of his artistic patron, Utagawa Toyohiro, sharing the “hiro” syllable to create his art name Utagawa Hiroshige, as was the custom.

The Utagawa school was famous for its adoption of western art’s perspective techniques, and its prolific nature! Utagawa dominated the 19th century, and this popularity caused some tension. Even Hokusai is said to have objected to their style of drawing noses! Hiroshige was offered the title of head of the school when his master Toyohiro died, but he refused it, and carried on as he was.

He had been employed as a fire warden at Edo castle since he was 12 years old, a job that he inherited from his father who died around that time. He kept that job even as he grew famous for his artwork, as it allowed him free time to paint.

Hiroshige’s legacy

His most famous works include Eight Views of Omi, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo among many others. Like most artists, he was underpaid given the legacy of his work. As soon as he could, he handed his fire warden job over to his son to concentrate on art. After his death, his son-in-law and student took the name Hiroshige II, as did another, rival student, who is now known as Hiroshige III to avoid confusion.

He had a great impact worldwide and influenced the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright, plus countless artists of all levels and genres. He is often called one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e, although this is a title that was shared among many people!

Hiroshige’s death

Just before he died, he wrote the poem,

I leave my brush in the East

And set forth on my journey.

I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.

In this case, the western land probably refers to the Buddhist paradise. He was 62, and the year was 1858. A cholera plague was sweeping through Edo, but it is unknown if he was one of the victims. As with so much of his life story, it was not well-recorded at the time. Our best chance to know him is through his works.

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