"An Artist of Rain and Snow": Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road

Extremely popular during his lifetime, Hiroshige (1797-1858) is one of the few Japanese artists known to Westerners who are not familiar with Japanese art. Born to a family of low-echelon samurai"”his father was a fireman in Edo (Tokyo)"”he entered the studio of a popular printmaker, Utagawa Toyohiro, when he was fourteen years old. Following the path taken by many print designers of his day, Hiroshige began as an illustrator of books and designer of prints depicting actors and beautiful women. However, it was his evocative landscape prints that won him recognition, particularly scenes along the Tōkaidō, the famed road between Kyoto and Edo.

In July 1832, Hiroshige was offered the opportunity to join a "travel group" probably accompanying officials who were transporting gift horses from the shogun (the hereditary title for the general who served as the effective leader of Japan) to the imperial family in preparation for the komahiki (selection of horses for imperial use), to be held in Kyoto on the first day of August.

The Tōkaidō route runs along the southern coast of Honshu Island until it turns inland near Yokkaichi. It covers a distance of over 300 miles, and in Hiroshige's time took more than two weeks to cover on foot. The set of Fifty-three Stations, which seems to have been completed in 1833-34, actually includes 55 prints, beginning at the Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge) in the center of Edo, the "cross-roads of Japan," and concluding with a scene at the Sanjo Ohashi (Great Sanjo Bridge) in the hub of Kyoto.

Hiroshige's depictions of stopping places along the Tōkaidō are not pure landscapes, although a few scenes look deceptively "pure," Most of the scenes focus on travelers' experiences, and many record hardships the travelers encounter and the weariness that sometimes overcomes them. Hiroshige was truly an "artist of rain and snow": his landscapes record the changing mood of the natural surroundings during different times of day, different seasons, in different kinds of weather.

Ando Hiroshige. Tōkaido gojūsan tsugi no uchi [Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road]. 55 color woodblock prints, ca. 1833-34.
The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection.

More images from Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road

Related Publication: Tales of Japan: Scrolls and Prints from The New York Public Library

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