The Bohemian vs The Bureaucrat

Hokusai and Hiroshige

An old man mad about painting vs a master simply true to life

by Sandy Kita and Takako Kobayashi

Hokusai:  South Wind,  Clearing SkiesHiroshige:  The Satta Pass at Yui

Nineteenth-century Japanese "Ukiyo-e" woodblock prints are often called "pictures of the Floating World"--that is, pictures of the transient world of the actors, courtesans and rich merchants of the brothel and theater district of the city of Edo, now called Tokyo. However, Ukiyo-e were far more than scenes of Edo, especially in the hands of masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-- 1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760--1849), who applied Ukiyo-e's "fleeting world" perceptions to landscape scenes as well. When the world of the Ukiyo-e master was confined to Edo's brothel and the theater district during Japan's Tokugawa Period (1615--1868), that is what they drew, but as their reality broadened, so did their art, until it finally came to portray the life of the common people of Japan as a whole.

The different approaches of Ukiyo-e artists is nowhere more apparent than in the development of landscape prints in the 19th century, which reveal how differently reality could be perceived by masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai was a prime example of the independent and bohemian artist, and Hiroshige, 37 years younger, typified the artist of the establishment point of view. They might view the same scene, but they would see different things.

Legends about Hokusai tell how he would live in a place, never cleaning it, until it became so dirty he would have to move. One report describes how an official came to his house to offer him a commission for a painting, only to find no clean place to sit. Far from being embarrassed by his wretched housekeeping, Hokusai scolded the fellow for his lack of manners in not ignoring the mess, and then told him he would not paint for him unless he apologized and told all who met him that the house of Hokusai was a model of cleanliness. Legend ascribes over a hundred residences to Hokusai.

He also used nearly a hundred different names. He sometimes signed himself "Old Man Mad About Painting," and he must have seemed crazed to some who knew him. Told to paint red maple leaves floating on the Tatsuta River, Hokusai supposedly drew a few blue lines on a long sheet of paper and then, dipping the feet of a chicken in red paint, chased it across the scroll, making the bird's red footprints his maple leaves. Japanese art historian John Rosenfeld of Harvard University argues that Hokusai is the epitome of the eccentric Japanese painter--the artist as outsider and loner.

Hiroshige was much less tempestuous. Born Andô Tokutarô, he was the son of low-ranking samurai. During the Tokugawa Period the samurai were the middle class, below courtiers in rank but above commoners. In the stability and peace of the Tokugawa Period the lesser samurai, like the Ando, ceased to be warriors and became scribes, administrators and bureaucrats. Hiroshige's family worked for the fire-fighters league, a job that Hiroshige inherited at the age of 13 when his father died.

As a low-level bureaucrat, Hiroshige would have found it hard to support himself. Thus, in 1811, his family apprenticed him to the Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyohiro (1773--1828). In 1812, Hiroshige received the name Utagawa Hiroshige from Toyohiro, marking his acceptance into the Utagawa school, the largest in Ukiyo- e. Later, as Hiroshige's artistic career developed, he supported himself by selling his art, but even as he ceased to be a bureaucrat officially, he remained an establishment man, a joiner, one whose tastes and sensibilities matched those of the group he represented. No other artist of his time and stature contrasts so strongly to the outsider and loner Hokusai.

Hiroshige himself summed up the distinction between his style of print-making and that of Hokusai in his inscription on his set of The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji:

"Katsushika Manji-o [Hokusai] earlier published a set of The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. In this [work], the old man [Hokusai] had drawn grasses, trees, birds, animals, and other things in his usual talented brush. Also, he had drawn people and places and their customs. Filled with power of his brush, his work focused upon making things interesting. For instance, he manipulated Fuji as he liked. My work differs. I simply reproduce sketches of what I had seen before my eyes.

"This small set of prints is too limited to draw everything in all its details. So there are many places where I had to abbreviate things, but as much as possible I made the compositions true to life. For those who can take long trips, please bring this book along and compare my scenes to the actual scenes. Please forgive the clumsiness of my technique."--Ryusai [Hiroshige]

What Hiroshige meant is evident in Hokusai's print South Wind, Clearing Weather from his set The Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji. The large triangular mass of Mt. Fuji occupies fully three-quarters of the composition, and it seems all the larger against the tiny trees below it. The long left slope of Mt. Fuji increases the illusion of massive scale, as does the mountain's distinctive, dusky brown color, which gives the print its popular name, The Red Fuji.

In contrast to that simple, bold image is Hiroshige's own The Returning Sails at Yabase from The Eight Views of Lake Omi. Hiroshige's view contains a complexity of objects that Hokusai's The Red Fuji lacks, and the many things to look at in The Returning Sails allow the viewer's eye to wander freely through the composition, moving from one object to the next.

This liberty Hokusai does not accord his audience. The simplicity of Hokusai's The Red Fuji forces a focus on the great volcano. He manipulates his audience in a way that Hiroshige does not.

He also manipulates his subject matter. In some compositions Hokusai relegates Mt. Fuji to the background, as in The Great Wave off Kanagawa, where a tiny, triangular Fuji peeks out from beneath the curve of the massive breaker. In other works from the set a diminished Mt.Fuji appears beneath a bridge, behind trees, or through the arch of a huge wooden tub that an artisan is constructing.

By contrast, Hiroshige claims that he himself simply reproduced in sketches what he saw before his eyes, and made his compositions true to life. But this requires further analysis, for Hiroshige was much more selective than that in arranging his compositions. In fact, the landscape prints of Hiroshige do not depict exactly what was before his eyes, although they are a serious attempt to base his composition on a confrontation with reality. His writings make it clear that he emphasized a direct experience of the sites that he portrayed, but he does not exercise the "power of his brush" as Hokusai does. Rather, he is more subtle and passive, sensitively responding to reality and allowing nature itself to shape the imagery and mood of his compositions.

Hiroshige does not make "life sketches" in the usual meaning of that term. In The Satta Pass at Yui from his Fifty-three Stages of the Eastern Sea Road, he correctly depicts Mt. Fuji rising out of the Izu peninsula with Suruga Bay in front--but this view is actually impossible to see because of the great distance between Mt. Fuji and Suruga Bay. Hiroshige's diaries of his trips to Kazusa, Kai and Mt. Kano make it clear that he did not design the compositions of his prints on the spot as a pleine aire painter might. Rather, he sketched as he traveled, using the sketches like notes to aid his memory later as he designed prints in his studio.

And yet his landscapes are a more revealing record of reality than had been previously attempted in Japanese art. Many of the places shown by Hiroshige were the "famous places" (meishô) of Japan--the sites known through history, poetry, literature and lore. Such meishô often had standardized images to symbolize them, much as the Eiffel Tower represents Paris. Before this time, Japanese landscape artists regularly concentrated on the symbols, rather than on the places themselves. For that reason, it was not necessary for them to actually see the sites that they would draw, for it was not the geographic reality of a place that counted, but its image in history, poetry, literature and lore.

Ukiyo-e artists were among the first to break with this tradition of conventionalized and symbolic portrayals of unseen famous places. The reputed founder of Ukiyo-e, Iwasa Matabei (1578--1650,) for instance, traveled the Eastern Sea Road, and in his journal stressed the importance of seeing the meishô for himself. Hiroshige was heir to Matabei's method of seeking out the legendary beauty spots of Japan and confronting them in reality. Diaries of his trips to Kazusa, Kai and Mt. Kano show how seriously he did that.

Many of his works show an understanding of local customs and lore that he could only have obtained by examining the sites personally. His Atsuta Festival at Miya from The Fifty-three Stages of the Eastern Sea Road depicts a horse race--an activity not mentioned in guidebooks or other writings about Atsuta prior to Hiroshige's time. Consequently, many scholars believe that the race was added to the festival only in Hiroshige's day.

Similarly, if Hiroshige's landscapes are not entirely "true to life," they are nevertheless geographically instructive. His 1847 triptych The Whirlpools at Awa, for instance, was considered so precise a rendering of these straits that the reproduction of this print was forbidden during World War II when the area around Awa was deemed strategically important for the defense of Japan.

Hiroshige's accuracy is evident again in The Fifty-three Stages of the Eastern Sea Road. This set depicts the journey from Edo to Kyoto, reversing the usual order of the presentation of these sites in travel diaries. The sequence in which the prints are to be seen is clear, despite the fact that they are not numbered, because Hiroshige subtitled one image Kanaya: The Far Bank of the Oi River. Kanaya is the distant bank of the Oi only to those going towards Kyoto.

Thus Hiroshige's more sensitive and passive responses to recording landscape allowed nature itself to shape the imagery and mood of his compositions. Whereas Hokusai insisted on depicting the world in his own individual way, and controlled the viewer of his compositions, Hiroshige took the public and more common route, and added his genius to the traditional imagery and actual reality of the Japanese landscape.

Who is to say which Ukiyo-e artist confronts the world with more skill or to greater effect--an independent Old Man Mad About Painting or a master simply true to life? Together they show how Ukiyo-e printmaking accommodated contrasting artistic personalities--two different artists who confronted the "Floating World" and saw different things.


John M. Rosenfield, "Hokusai and Concepts of Eccentricity, "Gian Carlo Calza, with the assistance of John T. Carpenter, ed., Hokusai Paintings: Selected Essays, The International Hokusai Research Center, University of Venice, Venice, 1994, pp. 17-30.

Hiroshi Matsuki, Hiroshige, Hokusai. Tokyo, 1991, p. 64.

The correspondence between Hiroshige's prints of The Hundred Famous Views of Edo and the actual sites was recently explored in the exhibition: The Hundred Famous Views of Edo: Now, Present, and Past (Meishô edo hyakkei shin, ima, mukashi taisho), The Ota Memorial Museum, 1992.

Takahashi Seiichiro, ed., The Fifty-three Stages of the Eastern Sea Road (Tôkaidô gojû san tsugi), vol. 14 in Ukiyo-e taikei, Shueisha, Tokyo: 1976, p. 106.

Sandy Kita is assistant professor of Art History at the University of Pittsburgh, where Takako Kobayashi recently completed her M.A.