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Biography: Utagawa HIROSHIGE I (歌川廣重 [一代])

Kunisada memorial portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige I
Utagawa Kunisada I
Memorial portrait of Ichiryûsai Hiroshige I (1858)
Woodblock print, ôban (362 x 244 mm)




Hiroshige I signatureHiroshige I signature Utagawa Hiroshige I (一代目 歌川廣重 1797-1858), whose childhood names included Andô Jûemon, Tokutarô, and Tokubei, was born in 1797 in the Yayosu Quay (耶楊子) or barracks section in the Yaesu (八重洲) district in Edo (modern Tokyo). He enjoyed a samurai heritage and was the great-grandson of Tanaka Tokuemon, who held a position of power with the Tsugaru clan in the northern province of Mutsu. Hiroshige's grandfather, Mitsuemon, was an archery instructor who worked under the name Sairyïken. Hiroshige's father, Andô Gen'emon, was adopted into the family of Andô Jûemon, whom he succeeded as fire warden (a lower-ranking samurai or dôshin, 同心) for the shogunal jôbikeshi (firefighting brigade: 定火消) in Yayosu Quay. Hiroshige's mother died in early 1809, and his father followed later that year after transferring his fire warden duties to his twelve-year-old son. Hiroshige would proceed to carry out his official supervisory duties for more than two decades, but ultimately he handed them over to his adopted heir in 1832, about the time that his fame as a ukiyo-e artist was already spreading throughout Edo and beyond.

Hiroshige's position as a fire warden required managing roughly 300 contract workers in his particular brigade, but it left enough time for other pursuits. At about the age of 14, he sought out Utagawa Toyokuni (歌川豊國 1769-1825) as a mentor, but that master was unable to take on more pupils, so Hiroshige was allowed to train and work with Utagawa Toyohiro (歌川豐廣 1773–1828), starting in 1811, which he did for the next 17 years. He signed with his art name "Hiroshige" as early as 1812. Hiroshige's first known book illustration and print design appeared in 1818. Over the course of four decades, he produced more than 4,700 print designs, roughly 120 illustrated woodblock-printed books (ehon: 絵本), and many paintings. For his printed works, he collaborated with approximately 90 publishers.

Hiroshige is said to have studied the techniques of the officially sanctioned academic Kanô school (狩野派), the Nanga school (南画派) inspired by the Chinese Southern School and literati painters, and the Maruyama-Shijô school (円山四条派) specializing in realist nature and figure studies, and possibly the perspective techniques of Western art and its imitative Japanese uki-e ("floating" or perspective pictures: 浮絵 or 浮繪). However, before specializing in fûkeiga (landscape prints: 風景画), Hiroshige designed mostly yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵) and bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). Actor subjects from 1818 are known, including two double portraits of Nakamura Shikan I paired up with other actors in performances at the Nakamura-za. That same year, he also illustrated a small book of kyôka (playful poems: 狂歌) titled Kyôka murasaki no maki (Volume of Murasaki playful verses: 狂歌紫の巻). Two bijinga series from around 1822 were Uchi to soto sugata hakkei (Eight views with figures, inside and outside: 外と内 姿八景) and Goku saishiki imayo utsushi-e (True modern pictures brilliantly colored: 極さい色今様うつしゑ). During this early period, a few kachôga (bird and flower prints: 花鳥画) also appeared with Hiroshige signatures.

Soon after Toyohiro's death, Hiroshige began to explore the theme of landscapes. In 1831-32, he produced his first series, titled Tôto meisho (Famous places in the eastern capital: 東都名所) comprising 10 prints. It was only two years after the first Tôto meisho set that Hiroshige produced what would prove to be his most admired series, the horizontal ôban-format Tôkaidô gojûsan tsugi no uchi (Fifty-three stations of the eastern sea road: 東海道五十三次之内), published by Takenouchi Magohachi (firm name Hoeidô). Much has been written about this series comprising 55 prints (53 stations plus the starting point at Nihonbashi and the endpoint in Kyoto). Hiroshige, as a hikeishi-dôshin, was allowed small privileges available to low-ranking samurai, and he somehow secured an invitation to join a shogunal procession traveling to Kyoto in 1832. The ostensible purpose was to sketch the ceremonies at the imperial grounds in Kyoto, but the journey gave Hiroshige an opportunity to sketch scenes along the Tôkaidô.

Scenes from the Tôkaidô were endlessly popular and Hiroshige obliged by designing roughly 2,000 single-sheet prints in various series and sets. While some of the designs were masterful, others were uninspired. Nevertheless, many images sold very well, as we can surmise from surviving impressions taken off rather worn-out original blocks.

Hiroshige I sudden rain over ohashiHiroshige's first kachôga (flower and bird pictures: 花鳥画) appeared around 1832. It is estimated that he produced more than 500 single-sheet kachôga. There appear to have been nearly 200 alone in various tall-narrow formats: ô-tanzaku (large poem slips: 大短册), about 380 x 170 mm; chû-tanzaku (medium poem slips: 中短册), 380 x 130 mm; and ko-tanzaku (small poem slips: 小短册), 345 x 76 mm. He also designed kachôga for standard chûban ("medium print: 中判) and koban ("small print": 小判) formats as well as uchiwa-e (fan-shaped prints: 團扇絵). Hiroshige did not favor the ubiquitous ôban ("large print": 大判) format for his nature studies.

As mentioned earlier, the young Hiroshige produced actor portraits and bijinga while he was active in Utagawa Toyohiro's studio. He continued producing prints featuring women until quite late in his career, although in only moderate numbers. Hiroshige did not, unlike with his landscapes, achieve much with the theme of bijinga. His female figures derive unabashedly from the Utagawa tradition, particularly in the treatment of faces and body types as exemplified by Utagawa Kunisada I. In fact, the two artists collaborated more than once with Kunisada always drawing the figures and Hiroshige the landscapes. Still, Hiroshige designed, on his own, a respectable number of appealing bijinga, notably in triptych format.

Hiroshige "renunciated" the world in the third month of 1856 when he shaved his head and took formal vows to become a Buddhist priest. In practical terms, it was more symbolism and ritual than actual forsaking of earthly concerns. He continued to design prints; in fact, his last great project — the already discussed Meisho Edo hyakkei — series actually comprising 118 prints (three of which have been attributed the Utagawa Shigenobu, later Hiroshige II) that was begun at the same time. Meisho Edo hyakkei embodied much of what defined Hiroshige's lifelong achievement: a realization in prints of a panorama of the natural world and its effects on the human experience. There is much on display in the 118 scenes to induce feelings in the observer: lyricism, humor, curiosity, imagination, innovation, serenity, isolation, melancholy, and foreboding.

Hiroshige I's names

Utagawa (歌川)

Personal Names:
Andô Jûemon (安藤十右衛門))
Tokutarô (徳太郎)
Jûbei (十兵衛)
Tokubei (憶兵衛)

Art names (geimei):
Hiroshige (廣重) starting in 1812 (see signature in red cartouche at top right)

Pseudonyms ():
Ichiyûsai (ー遊齋 c. 1818-30)
Ichiyûsai (一幽齋 c. 1830-31)
Ichiryûsai (ー立齋 c. 1832-42) see red seal below signature at top right
Ryûsai (立齋 c. 1842-58)
Tôkaidô Utashige (東海道歌重 c. late Tenpô era, 1830-44)

Pupils of Hiroshige I

Hiroshige probably had fewer than twenty students, including the following pupils who all used the Utagawa (歌川) surname:

Hiroshige II (廣重 1826-1869)
Shigemasa (重政 same as Hiroshige III, 廣重 1842 / 1843-1894)
Shigemaru (重丸 act. c. 1848-54)
Shigekiyo (重清 act. c. 1854-87)
Shigefusa (重房 act. c. 1854-early Meiji)
Hirokage (歌川廣景 act. c. 1855-65)
Shigeharu (重春 act. c. 1864-65)

For more about Utagawa Hiroshige I, see John Fiorillo's web page: