The exhibition, Along the Eastern Road: Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido is on view in the Bill L. Harbert Gallery until January 10, 2016.

From "A Little Art Talk" on November 4, 2015

Written by Andrew Kozlowski, assistant professor in the AU Department of Art & Art History.

When I first heard that this exhibition was coming to the JCSM I was very excited. Hiroshige has been a favorite artist of mine since I discovered his 100 Famous Views of Edo years ago. Admittedly though, upon first seeing 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road I was a bit disappointed. This series, often admired as one of Hiroshige’s best, is also very early in his career and at first glance feature some remarkably standard compositions. The pictures themselves do service to the story presented, but for me fail to showcase what I think are the more adventurous pieces found in his later works.

However knowing Hiroshige’s importance historically and his importance as an influence on my work, I wanted to give this collection a chance. As I looked I started to find the hints that to me stand out as the precursors of the oddness found in his Views of Edo that I so admire. A composition of snow, a man bending over, a mythical bolder, his sensitivity to light, and an ability to stuff a picture full of carefully selected details all creep out if you give them time.

What I found curious about this series isn’t exactly found in the pictures, but in the accounts of the work itself. What we know about Hiroshige and his relationship to the trip down the Tokaido is a little faulty. We know that Hiroshige was born in Edo in 1797, his family were in the fire brigade, and when he was 13 his parents died and he assumed his role as part of the brigade. However at 15 he began to apprentice with the artist Toyohiro, who passed away in 1828. After Toyohiro’s death Hiroshige began to play around with the landscape and “flower and bird” pictures for which he would eventually be famous for. In 1831 he produced a small series of landscapes that was received favorably, but didn’t lead to mass recognition, that would come later with the publication of the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road. 

While researching the Tokadio road prints I found several scholars who placed his trip in the Summer of 1831 or 1832 when Hiroshige is permitted to tag along with the annual gift of horses from the shogunate to the Emperor. This seems to be the accepted story, despite apparently there being no written account of the journey. Hiroshige III stated 60 years after the series first being published in 1832–3 that the drawings did in fact come from sketches Hiroshige made during the journey, but scholar Andreas Marks contends, “most of [Hiroshige’s] designs are undoubtedly inspired from illustrations in guide books like the Tokaido meisho zue” (Marks, 132).

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 - 1858), 26th Station: Kawegawa, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 – 1858), 26th Station: Kawegawa, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

Regardless, the story goes that upon returning with a case full of sketches from the trip, Hiroshige teams up with two publishers, refines his sketches into the 55 designs for the suite, and they begin to be published throughout 1833, and appear as a complete set for the first time in 1834. When you read the scholarly descriptions of the works, including the didactic wall texts found here in the JCSM, they are often written in a kind of deflating manner. What I mean is that their language suggests the pictures are true, that they are faithful recreations of the scenes depicted. And yes, these prints can be attached to real places, to actual stops along this well known route. But when you really look at these pictures, they become so much more than just a pictorial recreation of one of these stops along the Tokaido Road.

What I find fascinating is the conflict of the story itself. The sources I found that promote the story of Hiroshige taking the trip begin to expand upon the inventiveness of the pictures almost immediately:

Ichitaro Kondo as translated by Charles S. Terry states, “Since the entire series was drawn from sketches made in the summer, it is certain that Hiroshige was relying to a large extent on his imagination…. In drawing such events as the horse market at Chiryu and the horse chasing festival at Miya, he must have relied on published accounts, such as those in the illustrated guidebooks” (Kondo, 7).

Muneshige Narazaki as translated by Gordon Sager adds: “Meisho-e… expressed a strong interest in the beauty of the four seasons….consider what Hiroshige did… It was summer… when he completed his journey…They should all…be imbued with the beauty of that single season, but such is not the case. As with meisho-e he incorporated into his drawings the ever changing beauty of the various seasons to do which he had… to draw on his imaginations. Thus although the prints based on his sketches must be classed as realistic, they are at the same time highly imaginative” (Narazaki, 12).

As a westerner, raised in a western tradition of art making, I can understand the sentiment that expects Hiroshige to have made the trek, seen the sights, drawn them with his own hands, and then translated those drawings from life into prints that fall in line with a mimetic sentiment that faithfully representing the natural world is the highest form of beauty. But as an artist and a teacher who is compelled by art that tells a story I find it critical to remember that Hiroshige’s training and culture is far from my own. His world is poetic, more about feeling and memory to create a sense of place, than on constructing a world based purely on how it looks. Now when I look at these prints what I see is a young man who for the first time is experiencing a world outside of everything he has ever known, whether done through experience or imagination, but most likely some combination of both. He wants it to be filled with beauty, and he moves mountains and rivers to accomplish this, he turns the sun and moon on and off at will, he brings the wind and snow and rain like movie props. Hiroshige drops us into the scene not at the point at which we actually experience it, but the one from which it is best experienced. Looking at these pictures in the 21st century, we have the benefit of photography and satellite imaging to understand the landscape as it is, but as viewers we gain something from them if we recognize that 1) they are pictures and 2) they are idealized.

Science has shown that human memory is faulty. Perhaps that is what makes these pictures so strong. Each one is inhabited by at least a soul or two, the figures propagate our memories with tales and stories. The scenes are small, and the figures often take precedent over the grand vistas. These people are not swallowed whole, as was occurring at nearly the same time on the other side of the world, in violent canvases like Turner’s. Nor are Hiroshige’s people overwhelmed by isolation like Friedrich’s Monk by Sea, rather they are taking part in the journey. Unlike those poor fellows caught in Romanticism’s epic riots of nature, these common, nameless folk are found in a continuum. These pictures can stand alone, but more effectively they link together. This isn’t the grand European tradition of landscape painting, all single formidable images swaddled in gold frames, this is the more common world as we see it, as we try to remember it.

I like thinking that the activeness of the figures in the prints suggest that as much as we might like to linger among the beauty of the landscape, time is

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 - 1858), 10th Station: Hakone, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 – 1858), 10th Station: Hakone, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

relentless and urges us on. It pays to notice the organization of the prints in the gallery, to read them first to last we walk from right to left around the space. In Japan the right was traditionally associated with the east and the rising of the sun, and the west with the left, where Paradise is, so albums and books in Japanese culture are read right to left, rather than our western left to right. Unlike Hiroshige’s later 100 Famous Views of Edo, the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road forms a group fixed in a particular order, for me it heightens an understanding of the landscape during Hiroshige’s time.

As Narazaki states, “To the Japanese, Hiroshige speaks in their own language, for he was the first artist to give full expression in print form to the Japanese awareness of the mingled sadness and beauty of life” (Narazaki, 13). So while individual prints from the 100 Famous Views of Edo might stand out more prominently than others, Tokaido Road as a whole does something a bit more solemn through its pacing, depicting literal resting points, but always pushing the viewer along with the figures in the pictures who make their way through these landscapes. Again from Narazaki, “For a Japanese then, whether he is looking at a painted scroll or at a series of prints, his aesthetic appreciation is inevitably mingled with a subconscious sense of time. The Westerner on the other hand views each picture or print as a separate entity: for him time does not move from right to left, either in a single work or in a collection of works” (Narazaki, 12).

The connection between Impressionism and post-Impressionism and the popular ukiyo-e prints is well documented, we see the inspiration in flatness, color, pattern, and idealized picture making, in exploring the 2D plane as a playground. However I like to consider the Romantic movement occurring at nearly the same time as Hiroshige was working. Those Romantic painters work to remind us that we are small in the face of the sublime, they act to terrify us, to have us stand in awe of nature. Ukiyo-e and Hiroshige in particular work to sooth us, to place us as part of the landscape, while at the same time reminding us that our time moves on quickly, imparting a more quiet contemplation of the sadness and beauty of the landscape. But they are similar in spirit right? Landscapes aimed at bringing back some sense of what it is to be human. While Turner and Frederick both offer canvases that also feature figures, a way to encourage the projection of the viewer into the scene, I wonder about the connections between Hiroshige’s landscapes and someone like Albert Bierstadt’s paintings.   Only some 30 years after the Tokaido road is first published, Bierstadt is painting Looking Down Yosemite Valley and soon after taking tickets from the general public to see it. You can see it free of charge today at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 - 1858), 16th Station: Yui, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 – 1858), 16th Station: Yui, circa 1833-4 from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, woodblock print, courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

So I imagine two people. One standing in a tent to see the magnificence of Yosemite, an unfathomable wild of a still relatively undiscovered America made more extraordinary by the radiant brush of Bierstadt. They are totally and completely overwhelmed by the vastness of the picture, by how small it makes them feel, knowing that this kind of grand scene exists, but for all it’s space the painting fails to leave room for anyone to inhabit. Even if you could step in it seems like you would perish momentarily on the surface of an alien world. On the other side of the world, in fact in a world still in a self imposed isolation, another person falls into an album of the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, at once both possessed with the difficulty of the terrain, and the stark beauty of the landscape, but all the same seeing a figure pushing hard against the rain, hat in hand, blinded by the wind as he attempts to walk up the mountain clutching their shirt closed to try and stay warm, and remembering the scene perfectly in their mind, even though they themselves had never left Edo.

I wonder if Hiroshige ever left Edo. When I teach, when I ask students to write stories, I ask them to write about something they know. People recognize the richness of a story from a life that was lived. In fiction we have a need to recognize the real world in an imagined one so that we might be able find our way in. I like to imagine that the practical compositions that make up the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road are Hiroshige’s attempt to take the stories, poems, and guidebooks, and perhaps his own experiences and translate them into something that seemed real because they tapped into a kind of wanderlust, a false memory we invent of an ideal place. That his desire to capture that sense of both sadness and beauty is what makes these pictures great, and not their dedication to simply representing the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road.

When you look at his 100 Famous Pictures of Edo, you can see a number of pictures that are just… well, boring. I always imagine Hiroshige, at that time an established name in the ukiyo-e business, as realizing that he bit off a bit more than he wanted to chew. 100 pictures of this familiar place, a place he was from, that we know he traveled in and around, what was he thinking? And then you see those odd moments that make 100 pictures so amazing, a turtle dangling from a string, a branch twisted in a circle to frame Mt. Fuji in the distance, the view of a landscape between a boatman’s legs. In my story I like to imagine that when Hiroshige got stuck with what to do next in his 100 Famous Views of Edo he looked to the early lessons he learned in creating the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, his knowledge that sometimes you have to move a mountain, or curve an otherwise straight river, to make a picture tell a good story, and put it to use to reimagine those famous views of his Edo.


Kondo, Ichitaro. The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido by Hiroshige. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center Press, 1965. Print.

Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints, Artists, Publishers and Masterworks 1680-1900. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010. Print.

Narazaki, Muneshige. Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tokaido. Tokyo: Kodansha Int. Ltd., 1969. Print.

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