Born Ando Tokutaro in 1797 near Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige is more commonly known as Ando Hiroshige, a combination of his surname and his art name Ichiyusai Hiroshige. Despite inheriting his father's hereditary retainer of shogun and the position of fire warden at a young age, Hiroshige entered the studio of painter Ichiyusai Toyohiro where he attained an artist license and name within several years. It is Toyohiro who bestowed the artist name of Utagawa on Hiroshige, after himself. Later, Hiroshige took the name Ichiyusai in deference to his teacher. As a burgeoning artist, his initial output was unremarkable and only modestly successful, but in 1832 he traveled the Tokaido on a diplomatic journey with delegates of the shogun. Upon his return, he produced his most famous work, the 53 Stations on Tokaido.
The Tokaido is one of two roads between Kyoto and Tokyo. The Tokaido is roughly 319 miles long running along the eastern shore of Japan then inland between Yokkaichi and Ishiyakushi, It is the more heavily traveled route between the two cities and is now the path of several high speed rail lines and expressways. At the time of Hiroshige the road connected the two most powerful cities in the country, as well as several smaller cities in between. Prior to 1868, the emperor and the capital of Japan rested in Kyoto, but the power resided with the shogunate in Edo.
As in hand scrolls, and Japanese books in general, the text of a book is read in the opposite direction from a Western book. Thus, pages are turned from left to right. Besides the basics of how text is read, Japanese associate the East with the right and the West with the left. In terms of the landscape, this orientation places the sunrise to the right and the sunset to the left, and therefore birth to death, past to future, and a sense that to the left is eternity, paradise, the afterlife, thereby instilling the book with a sense of time. Time indeed plays a large role in the work. Hiroshige presents the views of the post stations at many different times of day. Most often, the setting is afternoon. However, morning and evening settings are seen a total of fifteen times.
In many ways, Hiroshige surpassed his contemporary, Hokusai, in renown by sheer volume. Hiroshige produced over nine hundred prints just on the Tokkaido, owing to the popularity of the series, but also due to the low commission paid by publishers. That said, it is notable that Hokusai published his most famous work, Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, in his seventies while Hiroshige published the 53 Stations on Tokaido in his thirties.
Hiroshige continued working for many years despite finding no greater success than the 53 Stations on the Tokkaido. He took several pupils, husbands of his daughter, who adopted his name, and are therefore referred to as Hiroshige II and Hiroshige III. But neither achieved the fame of the teacher. Before his death, he wrote a final farewell poem that in many ways speaks to the subject of his most well known work.
I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.
In this poem, we see that the East is in the past, and the afterlife is in the West. But scholars point to a reference in the poem, of a middle section on the Tokaido, in the phrase Western Land. It is as fitting an epigraph to the life of the artist.
Of Hiroshige's work, the Cleveland Museum of Art holds numerous prints, including 14 of the Tokaido series. A number of prints are also in the educational art collection, serving as examples of the Ukiyo-e technique for students. The Ingalls Library copy of the 53 Stations on Tokaido is one of many books on the artist, including several rare books and folio.