This is one of the earliest introductions to the work of Hiroshige. It was published in edition 3 of The Dome: A Quarterly Containing Examples of All the Arts - Published at The Unicorn Press 26, Paternoster Square London Michaelmas Day MDCCCXCVII (1897).
The art of Japan in the eighteenth century, where it culminates in the work of Harunobu, Shunsho, and Outamaro, is pervaded with a reticence that could only be found in a race made classical by ages of civilisation. Towards the end of that period a new force appears in Hokusai; and, in a short time, under the spell of his extra-ordinary talent, the languid culture of the past is swept away by the impetus of a new generation, less delicate, less experienced perhaps, but certainly far wider in aim and more forcible in expression.
The early landscape draughtsmen all display a marked affinity with the fantastic ruggedness of the Chinese. Much of this influence survives in the first Meishos - the illustrated guide-books which appeared at the end of the eighteenth century - and in the topographical work of Hokusai. In the case of the latter, the fantastic element is modified by good taste and a love of realism. No doubt the principles of perspective, which seem to have reached Japan at the beginning of the present century, may also have acted, at times, as a restraint. In Hiroshige this Chinese influence is practically non-existent. Hokusai, to some extent, belongs to the old school as well as to the new, but there can be no doubt about Hiroshige. He is thoroughly modern, both in the matter and the method of his work.
His personal history is still a matter of speculation. It is said that in his youth he was a juggler, or, according to another account, a fireman, and that he only took to colour-printing late in life. This uncertainty, combined with marked variations in style, colouring, and signature, has led to the theory that the prints commonly attributed to Hiroshige were in reality the work of two artists; one of whom is responsible for the oblong compositions, the other for those that are upright. As yet, however, the criticism of Japanese art is far from being an exact science. We have not even the means of judging with any certainty between the prints issued under the artist's supervision and those that were subsequently taken from the blocks, while we have only to study the work of any single Japanese master to see that such reprinting is enough to account for all discrepancies of colour. The difference in style between the works signed by Hiroshige is often considerable, yet the variation is by no means so great as in the case of our own Turner - not to mention Millais. The Hundred Views of Yedo contains examples that seem identical in workmanship with the oblong prints, side by side with designs that have all the characteristics of his supposed imitator. In fact, until more positive proofs can be found, tradition seems to have the best of it.
Though his junior by nearly forty years, Hiroshige is a contemporary of Hokusai at the latter's most active and masterly period. Born just before the close of the eighteenth century, he began his artistic career as a pupil of Toyohiro, from whom, in accordance with national custom, he takes the first syllable of his popular name. Toyohiro, though not a great man, was an artist of some skill, who gained a considerable reputation as an illustrator of Kusa-zoshi - the melodramatic novels then so popular. From him, no doubt, Hiroshige got much of his knowledge of the human figure, but his preference for landscape as the matter of his life-work was no doubt largely due to the example of Hokusai. In the first period of his career he produced a certain number of figure subjects, - actors and the like, - some of which show traces of the influence of Outamaro. This influence was shortlived. Though figures play a large part in the earlier landscapes, - as in a series of prints illustrating the Tokaido, and in the views of Yedo, - they show few traces of any but realistic aims, verging at times upon caricature. Later, man seems to grow less and less prominent, till at last he becomes a mere speck, or disappears altogether. The bulk of Hiroshige's prints were published after the year 1845, though a book of his had appeared as early as I820. His period of really active production was short, for he died in the cholera epidemic of 1858 at the age of sixty-one.
His work is, in the main, that of a topographer. The Tokaido, the Kiso-kaido, and the scenery about Yedo, furnish him with the greater part of his subjects. He also produced more than one series of scenes in the provinces of Japan. Of his productions, the thirty-six views of the Kiso-kaido, the Tokaido series, the views of Yedo, and the sixty -nine views of the provinces (Dai Nippon Rokuju-yoshu Meisho Zuye) are perhaps the most noteworthy. This latter work must not be confounded with the set of sixty-eight smaller plates illustrating the same subject, which are greatly inferior in design and colour. An excellent print from the larger series forms one of the illustrations to the present article.
It is unfortunate for his reputation as a draughtsman and a colourist that a comparison with Hokusai is almost inevitable. Hiroshige drew well and vigorously, but has neither the grace, the instantaneousness, nor the fluency of the old man mad about pictures. His line is often stiff and monotonous, his form conventional or lumpy. His colour at the outset was almost uniformly good, as in the oblong views of noted places in Yedo. Later, schemes of indigo, Venetian red and yellow ochre give place to arrangements of Prussian blue, carmine and gamboge when, in common with most of the other artists of his time and country, Hiroshige fell a victim to the opening up of Japan. Now and then even those gaudy hues are combined into perfect harmony, with the most magnificent results. Too often, however, his finest conceptions are marred by spots of flaming red or acid yellow, while occasionally the discord is outrageous. As we have said, there is no means of telling how far Hiroshige was responsible for the prints signed with his name that have reached the European market. There is, however, an uniformity in their brightness which leads one to suspect the artist at least of indifference to the doings of his interpreters. It is only fair to add, that his drawings are very rarely open to criticism.
His composition is almost always striking. It is characterized by a preference for strong contrasts of tone, a high horizon, and for the long diagonal lines that result from playful experiments in perspective. He cannot, however, claim to be a designer of the highest rank. He has neither the instinctive taste of Hokusai, that makes art out of what is seemingly trifling, nor the subtle science of his aristocratic predecessors. Hiroshige has always something of the self-made man about him. Strong, shrewd, keen-eyed and fertile, he is at the same time rather assertive, rather lacking in refinement, in self-restraint. He is too fond of freaks that are only fantastic : as in the landscapes seen by the side of a big red horse, behind the arm and leg of a passing boatman, or around the great figure of the, symbolic carp in a view of the Feast of Flags. He is also too ready to take nature much as he chances upon her, and lacks the discrimination that made the success of his forerunners. Hiroshige, on the other hand, is less limited than they by tradition of method or material. Though in design and drawing he is inferior to Hokusai, he represents the tones and lighting of a landscape far more closely. Hokusai's colour is a noble, simple convention. Hiroshige attempts a complex realism of hue. He is the first of his countrymen to use perspective with freedom, if not always with accuracy. He is the first to defy established principles by drawing, if only rarely, cast shadows and reflections in water. Effects of night, of winter, and of mist are rendered with astonishing directness and skill. No elaborate painting could represent hopeless wet weather better than the print where the hills loom large through the pouring rain, and the water below gleams brightly by contrast with the shadowed country round it. So, when he draws Fuji, he shows us the severe outline that one sees in a photograph. With Hokusai, Fuji is a charming variable unit of pattern that can be put anywhere, and made this shape or that. The Fuji of Hiroshige is a portrait of the real mountain. In early life he made special studies of birds, flowers, and fish. Of these last the South Kensington collection possesses some admirable examples.
As a master of what may be termed romantic landscape, Hiroshige deserves his reputation. He is at his best in the presence of a wide expanse of country seen at twilight - the stern outline of volcanic craters set against a luminous sky - broad sheets or long channels of blue water - the silence of winter. Few landscape designs are more striking than that view from a hilltop over a chaos of tumbled snowclad mountains. Wonderful too, is that peep through a grated window of a Yedo suburb by the last light of evening, where the artist's freakish humour has provided a spectator in the person of a fat white cat dozing on the sill. With nature in motion he has little sympathy. Effects of storm at times inspire him, as in the print of the bridge and rain-lashed river - or the amusing cut of the sudden shower that overtakes the imprudent person who has gone out in an open sedan-chair; yet, with all their directness of feeling, they do not attain the epic grandeur of the great prints of Hokusai. Hiroshige could never have designed The Wave, or the magnificent sketch in the Mangwa where a storm bursts upon a crater overhanging a mountain lake. However, if we choose to overlook what is crude in colour or fantastic in design, we are fairly certain to find his work marked by a sense of spaciousness and repose. What better gifts could an artist bring to our cramped, uneasy generation?
Hiroshige can be of service to us in another way. He is perhaps the artist through whom the great Japanese masters may best be approached by Europeans. The originality and force of his design, the brilliancy of his colour, his fairly successful realism, and more than all, his evident seriousness, his open sympathy with what has seemed admirable to our romantic tastes, render him attractive at once. His great predecessors are more reticent, more abstract, more remote from us. It is hardly surprising, then, that the painter who, in our own times, has assimilated most perfectly the spirit of Japan should have received this inspiration in the main from Hiroshige. To have a share with Velasquez in the making of Mr. Whistler's style is no slight honour, and among the artists of modern Japan - the Japan of the last fifty years - there is no other who deserves it so well.