HIROSHIGE self portrait
Legend has it that Hiroshige determined to become a ukiyo-e artist when he saw the prints of his near-contemporary, Hokusai. (Hokusai published some of his greatest prints, such as Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, in 1832—the year Hiroshige devoted himself full-time to his art.) From then to Hokusai’s death in 1849, their landscape works competed for the same customers. More likely though, like many other low-ranked samurai, Hiroshige’s salary was insufficient for his needs, and this motivated him to look into artisanal crafts to supplement his income. It was easy to balance his job and his artistic pursuits, as a fireman was only intermittently busy.
Hiroshige largely confined himself in his early work to common ukiyo-e themes such as women (美人画 bijin-ga) and actors (役者絵 yakusha-e). Then, after the death of Toyohiro, Hiroshige made a dramatic turnabout, with the 1831 landscape series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital (東都名所 Tōto Meisho) which was critically acclaimed for its composition and colors. This set is generally distinguished from Hiroshige’s many print sets depicting Edo by referring to it as Ichiyūsai Gakki, a title derived from the fact that he signed it as Ichiyūsai Hiroshige. With The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833–1834), his success was assured. These designs were drawn from Hiroshige’s actual travels of the full distance of 490 kilometers (300 miles). They included details of date, location, and anecdotes of his fellow travelers, and were immensely popular. In fact, this series was so popular that he reissued it in three versions, one of which was made jointly with Kunisada.  Hiroshige went on to produce more than 2000 different prints of Edo and post stations Tōkaidō, as well as series such as The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō (1834–1842). Of his estimated total of 5000 designs, these landscapes comprised the largest proportion of any genre.
In his declining years, Hiroshige still produced thousands of prints to meet the demand for his works, but few were as good as those of his early and middle periods. He never lived in financial comfort, even in old age. In no small part, his prolific output stemmed from the fact that he was poorly paid per series, although he was still capable of remarkable art when the conditions were right — his great One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei ) was paid for up-front by a wealthy Buddhist priest in love with the daughter of the publisher, Uoya Eikichi (a former fishmonger).
In 1856, Hiroshige “retired from the world,” becoming a Buddhist monk; this was the year he began his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He died aged 62 during the great Edo cholera epidemic of 1858 (whether the epidemic killed him is unknown) and was buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa. Just before his death, he left a poem:
“I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.”
(The Western Land in this context refers to the strip of land by the Tōkaidō between Kyoto and Edo, but it does double duty as a reference to the Paradise of the Amida Buddha).
TREE by Hiroshige
TREE by Van Gogh after Hiroshige
TREE by Bob Kessel after Hiroshige
Bob Kessel’s art series “100 VIEWS” features pictures based on the works of Hiroshige. These pictures are available as signed and numbered limited edition fine art prints. Contact Bob Kessel for pricing and availability.
BLUE MOUNTAIN by Bob Kessel
FALLS VIEW by Bob Kessel