Research: Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: Hiroshige and His World

Utagawa Hiroshige, seated

Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786–1864). Memorial Portrait of Ichiryusai Hiroshige, 1858. Woodblock print. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, John Chandler Bancroft Collection

Edo was the city where the artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was born, lived, and died, and it is the place depicted in the majority of his landscape prints. Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868) was the largest city in the world by the eighteenth century, with a population of more than one million people. Established first as a castle town in 1590, Edo became the de facto political capital of Japan in 1603. For the next two and a half centuries the country would be ruled by a lineage of feudal overlords (shoguns) and regional military lords (daimyo). Required to live in Edo on alternate years, the daimyo, with their families, household servants, and samurai, or military retainers, accounted for about half of the city's population. The remaining citizenry were mostly the many merchants and artisans (known as chōnin, or townspeople) who provided for the material needs of the city, as well as a substantial contingent of Buddhist and Shinto priests.

In this prospering commercial center, economic power resided with the wealthy townspeople. Artistic patronage and production no longer belonged only to the ruling elite but reflected diverse tastes and values. A new urban culture developed, valuing the cultivation of leisure that was celebrated in annual festivals, famous local sites, the theater, and pleasure quarters. The rich urban experience and the landscape of the time were documented by ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world," including woodblock prints like Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Since they could be purchased inexpensively—one print cost the same as a bowl of noodles—refined images became accessible to a wide audience.

Hiroshige was born a low-ranking member of the samurai class. He inherited his father's official post within the shogunal fire-fighting organization (jōbikeshi), which protected Edo castle and the residences of the shogun's retainers. The majority of samurai retainers lived in chronic poverty and were forced to take side jobs to supplement their meager stipends. At age thirty-one, Hiroshige began to study under the ukiyo-e master Utagawa Toyohiro, who gave him the artist's name by which he is remembered. He subsequently led a very successful career in designing series of color landscape prints, such as the famous Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, 1832, and was considered the foremost artist of topographical prints, best known for capturing the atmospheric effects of place and season.

Only a few years after commodore Matthew Perry's mission to open Japan to the West in 1853–54, Hiroshige produced the most ambitious series of his career; prior to this work, landscape print series never attempted so many individual views. Issued between 1856 and 1858, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was called Hiroshige's "grand farewell performance," since he died in 1858, during a cholera epidemic. The series, actually comprising 118 prints, remains not only the last great work of Japan's most celebrated artist of the landscape print but also a precious record of the appearance, and spirit, of Edo at the culmination of more than two centuries of uninterrupted peace and prosperity.

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