Ando Hiroshige - Criticism Of His Prints In Japan And In The West

Ando Hiroshige - Criticism Of His Prints In Japan And In The West

I wrote this paper on Hiroshige back in 1983 for my college Art History class. I think it contains a lot of interesting historical information about the artist and his time. I hope you enjoy reading it.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the art of Hiroshige it is important to examine the writings and criticism of his work, both in his native Japan and in the West. Aesthetic values and the conventions of art are not as universal as one would like to believe. The examination of the writings on Hiroshige reveals the fundamental differences in the aesthetic conventions and cultural values of both societies. Despite the critical ravings on both sides of the ocean, Hiroshige seems to rise as one of the greatest landscapists that the world has ever known. In this paper I will discuss the origins, exent, and types of criticism of Hiroshige's artistic vision. I will also include some background information on the social and artistic environment in which he lived, because without this, one would find it difficult to realize the validity and significance of Japanese aesthetic ideals.

Japan in Hiroshige's day had a social structure based on a rigid division of classes. The military class ruled the country but only formed ten percent of the population; the peasants, laborers, artisans, merchants, and farmers com posed about ninety percent of the population. A long period of civil war was over and the empire had entered upon peaceful times. It was the beginning of a period of new prosperity for Japan, which was most evident in the growth of its commercial centers. In Edo, a rapidly growing city, a number of factors combined to hasten the rise of the merchant class. The tastes and inclinations of the merchant class were largely determined by its inferior position in the feudal structure. Since the merchant class was refused political participation its members were not bound to the State or the values it represented.

Since money could not be used to improve social standing, enjoyment of the present became all-important. Huge festivals, picnics, outings, and extravagant parties became the rage of the day. It was not long before these trends and pastimes crystallized to form a definite urban culture whose aesthetic norms and conventions were quite different than those of the ruling class. The classical traditions of the art and literature of the court were often based on Chinese and Buddhist models. These themes were ancient and had both an elevated style and sublime subject matter. The literature and art of the lower classes took themes from day-to-day life, the experiences of the people.

The public wanted an art which was showy, diverting and easily understood. The public, for the most part, had no special respect for art but were more interested in novelty and content. A favorite subject for artists was the "floating world", a constantly-shifting subculture of traveling performers and fashionable beauties. Those who observed and chronicled the ephemeral community were to become the masters of Ukiyo-e color prints. Ukiyo-e is a word of Buddhist origin, which means "this wretched world" or "world of misery" but it was used to describe the "floating world" of the Edo townspeople. Jarves, an American critic and art historian, sums up the concept of Ukiyo-e quite nicely when he says;

The art of Ukiyo-e is a spiritual rendering of the realism and naturalness of daily life, intercourse with nature, and imaginings of a lively impressionable race, in the full tide of a passionate craving for art, .

(Amsden, 1905, p. 1)

Woodblock prints were the cheapest way of multiplying designs. These prints were available in many shops and only cost about a penny each. Lafcadio Hearn, a traveller to Japan, gives an instance of the work of Hiroshige being offered to him for purchase in a small village occupied by a

... curious pariah class of Japanese who were so far outside the pale as to live in their own community apart, and who ranked even below: the lowest of the artisans and laborers.

(Strange, 1925, p. 5)

Woodblock prints were bought for children, or taken home as souvenirs by travelers.

The Ukiyo-e artists strove to make their work accessible to a wide audience. Their technique was guided by strict canons of judgement and they often produced marvelous works of art. As the literacy of the middle classes increased, they began to develop sophisticated standards of criticism. Customers expected each print to be exquisitely executed, and artists competed for the admiration of the public. It seems that Ukiyo-e artists did not question their humble role. They did not consider themselves as pioneers of taste or leaders of the intellectually elite. In fact most of the Ukiyo-e artists, including Hiroshige and Hokusai, died penniless. It was not that they were un appreciated, but that Ukiyo-e artists were considered no higher than farmers or laborers. The low status of the artists is reflected by the lack of recorded knowledge of their lives.

There were many schools of Ukiyo-e competing for the support of the public. The Utagawa school was the last of the major Ukiyo-e lines and the most prolific in Ukiyo-e history. Its founder was Utagawa Toyoharu, an artist with a vivid, flamboyant style which gratified the people's taste for sensational designs. Toyoharu was a landscapist, but concentrated on teaching. He is noted for introducing a western style of expression in landscape and the development of perspective. Through Toyoharu's leadership, the Utagawa school became very large, claiming most of the Ukiyo-e artists. Part of this success was due to the establishment of a closer working relationship between pupil and master, systematized training and succession, and close connections with actors, writers, and publishers.

There are two major criticisms of the Utagawa school. The first is that after the school had grown, the pupils merely imitated the established style. All the prints were executed to conform to a pattern; thus a certain creativeness was lost and the art tended to become stale, repetitive, and trite. The second criticism is that although the techniques used to create a print were the most advanced in the world, the print had become a slave to the technique. This led to a shallowness and a virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Despite these criticisms, Hiroshige never abandoned his adherence to the Utagawa school, of which he considered himself a member.

The criticism applied to the Utagawa school by the government was similar to criticism applied to all Ukiyo-e schools. The government viewed Ukiyo-e as frivolous at best and subversive at worst. This attitude led to increasing censorship of prints as the middle class became more affluent and the military rulers weaker. Nothing was to be published which threw discredit on the government or was subversive of public morality, and copyright could not be infringed. Artist's sketches had to be submitted to a censor before printing. These censors were nominated by the Wholesale Publishers Guild and their stamp of approval was required on each print.

The criticism of the Japanese "fine artists", members of the Kano classical school, was quite severe. Henry Bowie, a writer who knew personally most of the leading artists in Japan, says this;

I have never seen a Japanese print in the possession of any major artist and I know their sentiments about all such work. A print is a lifeless production and it is quite impossible for a Japanese artist to take prints into any serious consideration. They rank no higher than cut velvet scenery or embroidered screens.

(Bowie, 1911, p. 20)

The prints did not exemplify art as the Japanese artists understood the term. Since Ukiyo-e was the result of many people (artist, carver, printer, and publisher), it was denounced as inferior and quite vulgar. A print was not the spontaneous, living, palpitating production of the artist's brush. The colors were

... cheap, awkwardly applied, too measured mechanical and calculated.

(Bowie, 1911, p. 22)

An additional objection to most of the prints was that they reproduced trivial, ordinary, everyday occurrences in the life of the people. In order to understand this criticism one should be familiar with the Kano school, to which most of these artists belonged. The school of Kano owed its origin to China, the stronghold of classicism, which adheres to Chinese models, traditional techniques and subjects which do not represent everyday life. This Chinese painting style tended to insist on a stereotyped formula. Artist were trained in the laws, of which seventy-two were recognized as important. The fundamental principle of Kano painting is "living movement", that the artist must feel the very nature of his subject at the exact moment of painting. Favorite subjects of these artists were Chinese saints, philosophers, heroes, and landscapes. It is easy to see why the Ukiyo-e schools were held in such disdain by these Japanese painters. Henry Bowie in his continuing criticism of the Ukiyo-e style ended his essay with this:

If limited to a choice of one artist of the Ukiyo-e school it would be Hiroshige, whose landscapes fairly reproduce the sentiment of Japanese scenery.

(Bowie, 1911, p. 25)

We know the bare details of Hiroshige's life but lack the direct knowledge of his personality. Ando Hiroshige was born in 1797 in Edo. His father was a fireman; Hiroshige was expected to follow in his footsteps, but his parents recognized his early aptitude for painting and allowed him to pursue his artistic inclinations. At fifteen he became a pupil of Utagawa Toyohiro.. It was not until he was twenty-seven that he devoted himself solely to painting. Hiroshige did not originally intend to become a landscape artist. He started his career as a book illustrator and a portrayer of beautiful women. In 1830 he decided to do only pictures of landscapes, birds, and plants. At this time he published Tokaido Gojusantsugi or 53 Stations of the Tokaido. This was an instant success and he went on to publish many series of views of famous places. In all he published over 8,000 prints, a surprising number of which were marvelous lyrical prints of a type unseen in the sensationalist gaudy Ukiyo-e tradition. He died in 1858 of cholera, leaving his studio to his adopted son Shigenobu.

ryogoku bridge

Evening Moon at Ryōgoku Bridge - 1831

Hiroshige was influenced by a wide variety of painting schools and teachers. Under Toyohiro Hiroshige had the freedom to develop because Toyohiro did not concern himself with the most profitable areas of Ukiyo-e and worked with relatively uncommercialized genres such as landscape prints. Later Hiroshige left to study Kano school art under Okajma Rinsai. This influence can be seen in the strong black lines of early prints. Other schools in which he studied were the Shija and Nanga artists who were concerned with realism and inspiration. This influence can be seen in Hiroshige's strongly personal approach to natural subjects. Hiroshige was also an admirer of Western painting techniques. He used Western perspective and a Western naturalistic approach in his landscapes. All these styles he absorbed and used in his prints to portray an array of emotional images.


When one writes about Hiroshige it is important to acknowledge another famous Japanese artist and print designer, Hokusai. Hokusai is famous for his prints of Mount Fuji and his picture books or Manga. He created the first independent landscape prints and established it as a genre of Ukiyo-e. Comparisons are often made between these two artists and there has been much argument as to who is the most important. It is true that Hokusai created the landscape print, but it was Hiroshige who developed the broader meaning of the Japanese print. In contrast with the passionate Hokusai, Hiroshige was a gentle person who observed more closely the natural features of Japan.

Contrary to Hokusai's spirited style, Hiroshige steeped nature in a subdued atmosphere of gentle poetry... an all-pervading mildness and lyricism better suited to the taste of the public,

(Terukazu, 1961, p. 178)

Research into the critical reactions of the Japanese to Hiroshige's prints, is found quite difficult because the structure of the art business was so much different to that of Europe. Exhibitions of Ukiyo-e were not held and criticism, as it developed in nineteenth century Europe, was not prevalent in Japan at this time. Hiroshige never attained national acclaim and recognition because he catered only to the ordinary people. Outside his own little circle of friends and customers Hiroshige was a man of small importance in Japan. It was only after his work attained a reputation in Europe that he began to be appreciated by the Japanese cultured classes, and it is only in the lower classes where one can chronicle a popular critical reaction to his prints.

This criticism can be observed in two ways: firstly, in the popularity that his prints enjoyed in the eyes of the common people; secondly, in the prefaces of books containing prints by Hiroshige. These prefaces, admittedly somewhat biased, were written by literary men with some claim to the attention of the public. It is through the examination of these two forms of criticism that Hiroshige's work can be evaluated and its impact on the Japanese people ascertained.

The popularity of Hiroshige's prints among the lower classes can be chronicled by the number of times a set or series of prints was reissued. Hiroshige's first effort as a landscape artist was an album of ten prints entitled " Toto Meisho" or "Views of the Eastern Capital". We are told that this series was fairly well received but that it did not prove impressive enough to enhance his reputation as an artist. Hiroshige was to use the Eastern Capital, Edo, as a subject for hundreds of prints throughout his career. Some of these sets were extremely popular and were reprinted many times. In these prints one can see a freshness of vision, the composition in strong and effective. The reason that many of these prints were so popular was that Hiroshige's landscapes absorb the viewer into a definite local atmosphere. This vitality and realism were elements previously unknown in Japanese art. The Chinese insisted on a stereotyped formula applied to landscapes, but Hiroshige was not bound by their limitations.

In this respect his independence of convention had great significance in Japanese eyes. When a book of prints was published it was the custom to have a well known writer pen a preface to introduce the series. Following are some translations of these prefaces on Hiroshige’s Edo prints.

... Hiroshige, selecting the best scenes, with his exquisite touch has so wonderfully portrayed the city, that his pictures seem better than the real sights! If one has never seen Yedo, to look at this book is sufficient.

... So faithful and forceful are his pictures that strangers will see it just as if they dwelt in the capital.

Hiroshige depicts landscapes, birds, grass, trees, and animals so faithfully, that on looking at the views one seems to be alive amidst them all.

Everyone likes pleasant things; the one who does not is unique. Yedo is a great city, full of noted places and brilliant scenes. All who see it wish to relate its wonders. Nothing is better than pictures... Whoever sees the series, enjoys the sights as if he were actually among them.

... so faithfully drawn that everyone at once recognizes the localities. The artist wields the brush of great achievement!

(Strange, 1925, pp. 109-111)

As one would expect all prefaces are glowing affirmations of Hiroshige's artistic vision. Almost all these writers attest to the accessibility of Hiroshige's prints and to the quality which pulls the viewer into, and make him a part of, the print. One of the most interesting and revealing prefaces is one written by Hiroshige himself:

All views are drawn with fidelity to nature, with exact truth. Of course rather freely and unskillfully, but it may amuse children or serve as lesson books.. Landscape foliage and letterpress are treated in a sketchy manner: were I to put in everything minutely, the scenes would be crowded with people, and some places would look like a well-used ant track... Criticize the work if you like, but I trust you will desire it and purchase it!

(Strange, 1925, p. 111)

In this preface we catch a glimpse of Hiroshige's humor and modesty. He didn't feel that his art was going to change the world but would 'amuse children or serve as lesson books". He admits to using a “sketchy manner" although it can hardly be called "'unskillful". His personality pervades his prints and this is a major reason for their popularity.

In 1834 Hiroshige published a set of fifty-three prints on the Tokaido. The Tokaido was a famous highway between cities, used by thousands of people every day. Hiroshige illustrated stopping points and scenery along the great road.

Tokaido map

When the prints first appeared on the market they were an instant success. Part of this reaction was due to the fact that travel was restricted by the government, therefore few were familiar with all the Tokaido's sights. They also appealed to the Japanese age-old love of nature. Their lyricism, economy, strength of line and distinct color greatly enhanced his fame. Hokusai, on a trip, hurried back to Edo to publish his "One Hundred Views of Fuji", in an attempt to bolster his threatened position as the nation's leading landscape artist. It was too late; Hiroshige's popularity attested to the fact that he was Japan's leading landscape print designer. The success of the Tokaido was so resounding that Hiroshige was commissioned to publish many more Tokaido sets. Their immense popularity was a result of their enduring charm, freshness of vision, an engaging sort of clumsiness about some of the compositions, and in all of them a complete absence of the shallow cleverness into which the old traditions of Ukiyo-e had sunk.


The books on Tokaido were, of course, prefaced; below is one of these prefaces,

... Looking at these pictures is even greater pleasure than travel itself! Those who have never travelled will find instruction in these pages while those who have visited these places will be vividly reminded of them and their associates. Ignorant as I am of drawing, I dare say that with dark and light shades of ink, its fragrance and beauty, this work is not inferior to the work of any old master.

(Strange, 1925. p. 52)

The comments by this writer restate Hiroshige's accuracy of depiction and skill in reproducing the sentiments of a scene so that one can feel its beauty. Hokusai had previously published several series of prints on the Tokaido, but he had not actually travelled on it. Hokusai's prints show idealistic

settings in which people figure more prominently than scenery. Hiroshige's figures are not detailed: he utilized nature to dramatize man, his primary focus was to empathize with the human element.

Hiroshige kept diaries of his travels on the Tokaido. He made careful notes of the industries and customs in the town he visited. He records the weather and the quality of food available at the inns. Included in the diaries are sketches, some accompanied by risque verses, but always in good humor. Examples of his humor can be seen in prints where a man chases his hat in the wind. A boy loses his kite while people strain to get over the wooden bridge. A procession stops at a checkpoint and while the officials exchange polite greetings, the porters light their pipes and rest their load.

Hiroshige's most remarkable prints were those containing rain, snow, or the moon. We see the snow like a white blanket and can feel its cold silence.

snow hiroshige critic

Hiroshige was acknowledged as the foremost depictor of rain. In this image we see porters caught in a sudden shower running for cover. The composition of this print is one of his finest.

Shono from the Fifty-three Stations on Tokaido

Shono from the Fifty-three Stations on Tokaido Highway, Hoeido version

The image of "Hara" is included below because critics feel that it is one of the weakest in the series. Although the landscape is good, the figures seem awkward and do not complement the scenery.

Hara Tokaido

Hiroshige completed many other series of prints based on famous places and roads in Japan. He also designed fan prints which covered the faces of folding fans. These designs are rare and well known among collectors for their beauty. He also designed bird and flower prints or kwa-cho. These were long narrow compositions, usually accompanied by a verse or saying. Figure X is an example of a kwa-cho print. These prints are attractive, graceful, and produced a feeling of wider space on a small canvas than Hokusai's. It is appropriate to close the Japanese criticism of Hiroshige with some quotations from Sotaro Nakai, a Japanese writer,

It was Hiroshige who discovered the "lost earth" in the midst of this general decadence of art and instilled a new life into art... At first Hiroshige used to paint human figures, but later he became conscious that this was not his mission, and the growing popular demand brought him nearer to nature... Hiroshige approached nature with unadorned simplicity and artless truthfulness... In some of his productions light humor and vivacity sparkle like gems.... Hiroshige treated men as part of nature and brought men and earth into a perfect harmony... In short Hiroshige's painting may be said to be entirely free from artificial ornaments, and he effectually succeeded in resurrecting the earth lost owing to the peculiarly tantalizing civilization of Yedo,

(Strange, 1925, p. p. 130-134)

Toward the end of Hiroshige's life he continued with his landscape prints. The military empire was collapsing because of inner strife and the pressures of the modern world. This apprehension and gloom was reflected in a slow degeneration of the arts. Ukiyo-e production was restricted but the public still clamored for designs. Hiroshige was kept very busy by his publisher, as there was much pressure on him to "produce". Some say that the quality of these later prints declined, that he "scamped" his work in order to exploit the popularity created by his earlier success. This line of thought, although plausible, is doubtful. The fact that some of his later work was of poorer quality was probably due to the large number of prints he designed, more than at any other time. Many of these later prints are among the strongest he ever did. The prints below are masterpieces of design and composition.

hiroshiges critics in the east and west

As Hiroshige grew older he often talked about giving up his brush lest his brush lose its power as age crept up on him. It seems that, like a true artist, he drew pictures not for the sake of monetary gain but solely for the sake of art.

No one can deny the influence that Japanese prints exerted on the West in the 1800's. The first examples of Japanese art to reach the Western world were illustrated books on Japan. In the United States Commodore Perry brought back several prints from his 1853 expedition. Prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige were the most prevalent ) and were chosen by Perry not as works of art, but for their technique and subject matter. In 1856, three of Hiroshige's color prints were published by the U.S. Congress in an account of the expedition. In 1867, Japanese prints were ordered for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Many critics mistook these prints as watercolors. In 1888, a periodical was launched called 'Le Japon Artistique" with illustrations and reproductions of Hokusai and Hiroshige prints. In 1893 the Galeries Durand-Ruel staged an exhibition of Utamaro and Hiroshige prints. The uninitiated Western audience was drawn to the novel aspects of Japanese pictorial techniques. The multi-colored woodblocks were admired for their nuances in colors and the skillfulness in printing. Japanese art had found a new audience and a new brand of criticism.

At the advent of its introduction, the utter novelty of Japanese art left it open to a general free-for-all in both critical evaluation and promulgation of information Japanese art had arrived at a time when art criticism was not the exclusive domain of a group of elite critics, It attracted non-specialists, writers, journalists, art dealers, doctors, and art historians. Most of these early writers were "Japanophiles" often with no previous interest in art, but converted by exposure to Japanese culture through travel. Some writers were critics who associated with influenced Western artists. Since Japanese art was a new phenomenon, it is very interesting to review its critical reception in the eyes of these Japanophiles. Many of their reactions were based on misconceptions of Japanese culture and artistic conventions.

Japanese art defied judgement upon accepted Western theories. There were no rules for dealing with it, no established set of criteria with which to judge it. A wide range of observations and judgements were expressed, but the writers confined themselves to a relatively uniform range of issues. In the process of writing these criticisms they unconsciously exposed their own ways of seeing and interpreting art. Many were unable to take an unbiased view of Japanese art because current and traditional Western art was their only means of comparison. Writers generally used the pictorial standards and practices of Western art to judge Japanese art, and sought Western parallels to gain access to aspects of Japanese art which were most difficult to accommodate.

All modes of Japanese art participated in the multifaceted assault on Western artistic assumptions and principles,

(Evett, 1982, p. 28)

The Western criticism of Japanese prints is generally confined to five areas. These areas are the Japanese depiction of the human form, the subject matter, the use of perspective, the compositional rules, and the colors used. The only area that the critics found noteworthy was the masterful manipulation of the techniques and material aspects of the Japanese prints. Since the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige were the most popular and available prints at this time, one can easily relate the criticisms of these writers to their prints. In fact the critical judgements about the Japanese response to natural subject matter are based largely on Hiroshige's landscapes.

Critics were most disturbed by the shorthand indications of people. The simplified facial features and anatomically incorrect arms, legs, hands, and feet were direct assault on the Western ideals of a perfectly rendered human figure. The French painter-critic, Arý Renan, talked about the "monotonie conventionelle" of Japanese figures. Most critics thought that these conventions were devised to make up for ignorance of anatomy or for the purpose of caricature. Jarves said that;

Instead of Attempting to idealize forms... there is an irresistible artistic impulse to see life on its humorous or ridiculous side. Their pictorial standard of the human figure seems based on the savage taste of transforming the natural into the unnatural, if not by the direct mutilation of separate features, by giving to them as a whole a deformed or impossible aspect.

(Evett, 1982, p. 91)

When one looks at Hiroshige's representations of people it is obvious that he abided by the Japanese conventions of depicting man. The Japanese artist is not ignorant of human anatomy, nor does he have an irresistible artistic urge to see life on its humorous side. The human form has never been of paramount importance in Japanese art, especially in Ukiyo-e. Hiroshige does not go into great detail when representing figures because, if he did, the landscape would become subservient to them. By making the figures generalized, Hiroshige has made them representative of the actions they are performing. Ultimately they become a part of the landscape through; which they move. Hiroshige's figures are often humorous because that is the bent of his artistic nature, and that was one of the reasons for the great popularity of his prints in Japan. Hiroshige's figures represent types of people, not specific individuals as in the Western ideal. It is unfortunate that critics readily ascribed to ignorance the Japanese conventions behind their depiction of the human form.

Another pervasive topic of discussion was the Japanese attitude toward portraying nature. Many of the critics noticed the prevalence of plants and animals as pictorial subjects, being considered equal in importance to landscapes and human subjects. All were impressed by what they perceived to be an intense sympathy with nature. Critics and most Westerners imagined the Japanese as a primitive people, simple souls who intuitively understood and were in tune with nature. This criticism, although quaint, relates to the Western ethnocentric notion that the Japanese (and others) were inferior in intelligence to the Western nations. It is also true that the Japanese have a greater respect for nature than the West: Even today they prefer to build around mountains than to tear them down to make room for urban expansion.

Hiroshige's landscapes relate this Japanese respect for the beauty of his native land. Hiroshige based and sustained his art on the direct observation of nature. He remained true to the Japanese traditional imperatives which aimed at an unmediated vision of all creation,

In a sense it was Hiroshige who really taught us to see the inherent poetry of nature.

(Lane, 1962, p. 269)

The criticism of Hiroshige's landscapes in the West is generally glowing. Mr. Happer, a collector and researcher of Ukiyo-e says:

Before Hiroshige there was no Japanese landscape master- after him there is none.

(Amsden, 1905, p. 57)

Hiroshige's innate love of the Japanese landscape, and his style of depicting that landscape, caused one critic to remark;

If the lovely land of the Rising Sun should, during one of those volcanic throes which threaten her extinction, sink forever beneath the depths of the ocean, she would yet live for us through the magic brush of Hiroshige.

(Amsden, 1905, p. 73)

Other writers agreed, adding their opinions about Hiroshige's choice of subject matter and his approach to landscape;

Ando Hiroshige was the most poetic designer of landscape prints that Japan, or perhaps any country, has ever produced.

(Tokaido, 1980, p. 91)

He is the "Poet Peregrine' for he is an artist of travel and travellers and his sensitive and compassionate approach is that of a poet.

(Narazaki, 1968, p. 3)

More realistic than abstract, more lyrical than strong... a master in catching the atmosphere of the mist, the moonlight, the rain, the snow. There is something soft and rather sentimental about his work, and though his quality is uneven- at his best he is really great, and no-one who has lived in Japan can fail to recognize in him the supreme artist of the Japanese landscape.

(Munsterberg, 1957, p. 158)

The Japanese system of perspective troubled several critics, who did not acknowledge it as a conventional system. Most critics dismissed the Japanese as being ignorant of perspective; later, when they did recognize that the Japanese had their own system for suggesting space, they judged it deficient, if not flawed. Once again this is an example of the ethnocentric Western artistic ideals being applied to Japanese prints. Critics also protested the lack of shadows and shading in prints. Some writers felt that this was due to a different "quality of light" in Japan. In fact the lack of shading in Hiroshige's prints is due to the influence of the Yamato-e style, which chooses to emphasize the movement of shapes by the spatial ambiguity created by lack of modeling and exaggerated perspective. It is ignorance of the writers about Japanese traditional styles, not the ignorance of the artist, which accounts for the difference in shading.

Hiroshige was aware of Western perspective and showed in his early prints that he was well-versed in its rules, but he never formally tied himself down to its conventions. He used Western perspective when he felt it necessary, but often the logic of Western perspective would not enable us to see certain actions taking place. Hiroshige also used perspective to enhance the lyrical qualities and emotional impact of his landscapes, understanding that the total emotional effect was most important and that all technical considerations must be subordinate to the immediate artistic impact of the design. Jarves said;

No scientifically taught artist can get into as few square inches of paper a more distinct realization of space, distance, at mosphere, perspective, and landscape generally, not to mention sentiment and feeling.

(Evett, 1982, p. 59)

Besides the conventions of Western perspective, Hiroshige was also a master at implied perspective. He used mist and fog to produce effects of distance and bird's-eye views. In this case too, he never diminished or obstructed the sentiment of the scene.

Japanese compositional rules did not abide by Western notions of balance, symmetry or hierarchy of elements. Hiroshige was criticized for not designing his landscapes realistically, critics objecting to their highly decorative compositional patterns.

Hiroshige's prints are usually more seductive and more realistic with their low horizons and atmospheric effects. Still today they seem primarily decorative, especially in their simple silhouettes, carefully placed and varied in tone.

(Lee, 1972, p. 110)

This decorative design quality is certainly noticeable in Hiroshige's prints. Once again he used a strong sense of design in order to emphasize the emotional effect of the print. The more Hiroshige attempted to design realistically, the less successful were his overall compositions.

Finally, critics thought that the use of color was regulated by a Japanese artistic dictum because it did not conform to Western notions of naturalness. Fredrick Dickens, a British lawyer who studied Japanese art and literature, said:

In the choice of color (excepting generally their crude blues and greens) and in their harmonized coallocation of these, the painters deserve high commendation, but this this gives their productions artistic value from a decorative point of view.

(Evett, 1982, p. 68)

The colors were strong and bright and contained few of the subtleties present in Western realistic paintings. Many of Hiroshige's emotional effects were obtained by the use of color. Some theorists say that the lines of a design represent the intellect, while the colors represent the emotions. Hiroshiges colors are what would be called "high level", rich and bright, and their use in his prints adds to the emotional appeal by creating an almost musical arrangement within the print.

His eyes are sensitive to color harmonies which, applied to landscape, at first seem unreal, impossible, until we realize that though they present objects in hues intrinsically foreign to them, yet the result justifies this arrangement, and it's integrity is recognized, for the impression we receive is a true one.

(Amsden, 1905, p. 66)

Hiroshige's coloring is one of his acknowledged charms, yet shades of black, grey, and white predominate in many of his finest compositions. He used colors with the intention of giving pleasure to his viewers and to heighten the expressive energy of his prints.

After his death, those who followed Hiroshige were vulgar in design and garish in color.

(Munsterberg, 1957, p. 158)

Hiroshige influenced the modern art of Europe and America. He opened the door to new interpretations and reconstructions of Western art. Some of the artists influenced by his prints were Whistler, Manet, Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Toulouse Lautrec, The impressionists interpreted the artistic principles of these prints and utilized these ideas in their paintings,

The landscapes of Hiroshige, though confined to the narrow range of woodcut, have all the qualities of Impressionism, the details are subordinated, only the salient points of the scene being represented, but the atmosphere supplies what is lacking.

(Amsden, 1905, p. 73)

Van Gogh made several copies of Hiroshige's prints, and said that he regarded Japanese printmakers as equal to the best of the European masters. Pissaro admired Hiroshige very much, and his views of Paris as seen from above clearly reflect this influence. The early development of the poster, in terms of definite outline, strong composition and planes of color also owes its influence to woodblock prints.

Hiroshige has taught at least some of our poster designers the virtue of simplicity; and how to select the essential features of a great landscape and interpret them in terms easily to be understood by the people.

(Strange, 1925, p. 125)

In this essay I have examined the writings on Hiroshige in both Japan and the West. The elite in Japan criticized Hiroshige because he did not conform to the traditional styles of painting. The critics in the West also attempted to judge Hiroshige's work against traditional Western styles and conventions. The methods of these criticisms are similarly flawed because the writers in Japan and in the West judged Hiroshige's works by comparison to prior standards, therefore few of them judged his work objectively. It is very difficult to evaluate art without referring to some standardized aesthetic value system, especially if one is caught up in the mood of the times. This is why it is necessary to take a second look at Hiroshige's prints, so that one can check the influences of the writers and critics and re-evaluate the validity of their assumptions.

Today the Japanese regard Hiroshige as the supreme master of landscape: some critics go as far as to call him the greatest of all Japanese printmakers. In the West almost every major museum has examples of his prints - in fact, most of the leading collections of his prints are in the U. S. and Europe. Hiroshige captured the essence of what he saw and turned it into a strikingly effective composition. His deft handling of natural elements, refreshing spontaneity and humor are as vibrant today in his prints as they were nearly 150 years ago. He is surely one of the greatest landscapists that ever lived. I feel that Hiroshige's art has a timeless quality that will stand the test of the years and will remain popular for as long as man appreciates the qualities of his natural environment.


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  3. Bowie, Henry, On the Laws of Japanese Painting, Dover Publications - New York 1911,

  4. Evett, Elisa, The Critical Reception of Japanese Art in Late Nineteenth Century Europe, UMI Research Press- Oregon 1983.

  5. Jenkins, Donald, Images of a Changing World, Portland Art Association- Oregon 1983.

  6. Kondo, Ichitaro, Hiroshiges 53 Stations of the Tokaido, Heibonsha Ltd. Publishers- Honolulu 1960.

  7. Lane, Richard, Masters of the Japanese Print, Thames and Hudson London 1962.

  8. Lee, Sherman, Japanese Decorative Style, Harper and Row- New York 1972.

  9. Munsterberg, Hugo, The Arts of Japan, Charles, E. . Tuttle Company Vermont 1957.

  10. Narazaki, Muneshige, Masterworks of Ukiyo-e, adapted by Richard L. Gage, Kodansha International Ltd. - Tokyo 1968,

  11. Neuer, Roni, Ukiyo-e 250 years of Japanese Art, Mayflower Books New York 1981.

  12. Strange, Edward, Hiroshiges Woodblock Prints, Dover Publishing Inc. - New York 1925.

  13. Terukazu, Akiyama, Japanese Painting, The World Publishing Com pany- Ohio 1961.

  14. Tokaido, A Catalogue of Essays, University of Kansas Printing Service Kansas 1980.

  15. Webber, Lucille, Japanese Woodblock Prints, Brigham Young University Press- U.S. 1905.

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