Ukiyo-e "pictures of the floating world" is a Japanese school of art that flourished for over 250 years covering a range of subjects within the genre; beautiful women; kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, erotica, scenes from history and landscapes along with flora and fauna. Abstract concerns of line, color, compositional arrangements and a unique point of view inform the realistic scenes portrayed in these woodblock prints. During the 17th to 19th Centuries the woodblocks evolved from monochrome to full color prints that required up to 10 carved blocks for their production.
Utagawa Hiroshige (aka Andō Hiroshige) was one of the last masters of the Ukiyo-e school with his romantic landscape series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo being the best known and most influential. With the decline of the genre on his death in 1858 this influence spread to late 19th Century European painting as Japan re-entered the world after 200 years of self imposed exile.
The arrival of Hiroshige prints, amongst others, had a profound impact on the Impressionists in general and Vincent van Gogh in particular. He made two paintings based upon prints from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series in 1887. A year later he wrote to his brother Theo about moving to Arles in the South of France saying “About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.”
The Ukiyo-e and Utagawa Hiroshige prints influence on Van Gogh’s work from this period onwards is unavoidable. The everyday subject matter, the distinctive cropping, assertive outlines, unique perspective and use of color Van Gogh clearly adopted for his own use.
An exhibition of Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road depicting his expression of weather, light and season will be on show at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum from the 9th of December to the 15th of February next year.