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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

» Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)

Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Artist / Origin: Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo Period, 1856
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Woodblock print
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: H: 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.), W: 9 in. (22.8 cm)
Location: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Credit: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK/Bridgeman Art Library

Suijin Shrine and Massaki on the Sumida River is number 35 of the 118 woodblock prints constituting Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

Although the title refers to the “grove of the water god” nestled among the trees on the lower right edge of the print, the true subject here is the landscape. The image is divided into three sections devoted to the green earth, the river, and the sky, respectively. In the center of the work, Mount Tsukuba, its base surrounded by clouds or mist, aids the transition from water to sky. The trunk of a cherry tree with flowering branches frames the scene.

In Suijin Shrine, miniscule figures on the road to the left and boats on the river suggest activities undertaken during a particular time of year, and the open cherry blossoms that visually dominate the scene confirm that it is spring. Well-known places in and around Edo (present-day Tokyo) often had seasonal associations and the practice of linking certain motifs with certain seasons had a long history in Japanese art. Although Hiroshige followed these conventions in many of the scenes from One Hundred Famous Views, he reinvigorated them through his skillful rendering of atmospheric effects.

In the nineteenth century, landscapes emerged as a major theme in the print genre known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” a development that was concurrent with Edo’s rapid growth under the Tokugawa shogunate. Contributing to the city’s growing population (already over one million in the eighteenth century) was a law requiring daiymo, or regional military lords, to spend part of every year in residence at the de facto capital. At the same time, the city of Edo was cultivating a reputation as a hub of entertainment, urban culture, and leisure that made it a popular travel destination. In order to accommodate this influx of people (and perhaps to encourage more), five extensive highways leading into the city were constructed. Hiroshige dedicated an earlier print series to stations along one of these roads—the Tôkaido. The cheap cost of prints like those in the Tôkaido or One Hundred Famous Views series made them accessible to the masses. Although residents of Edo might have purchased such images, they probably held greater appeal for tourists and for those individuals who could not afford the trip at all, but were enticed by the city and its surroundings nonetheless.

Expert Perspective:
Karen Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum

“The term Japonisme was coined in 1872 by the French critic, Philippe Burty, and he used it to describe this intense fascination that European and American artists had with the arts of Japan.

One of the reasons why Western artists were so fascinated with Japanese art is because it represented a completely different pictorial tradition. The types of prints that were of particular interest in the West were what’s known as ukiyo-e prints. And that term ukiyo-e in Japanese it translates to, literally, ‘pictures of the floating world.’ And it refers to a pictorial tradition in Japan by which artists were depicting modern, contemporary leisure pursuits as well as well-known landmarks. So, artists were depicting actors from the Japanese kabuki theater; they were depicting geisha and their clients; they were depicting Mount Fuji and other well-known landscapes. And the heyday of ukiyo-e in Japan was the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. And some of the most famous artists in the West—most famous Japanese artists—who were creating ukiyo-eprints were artists like Hiroshige, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, those were names that became very familiar to Western fans of Japanese art. And Japanese art provided many innovative things to Western artists.

Some of the elements of Japanese art that were so intriguing to Western artists were the ways in which Japanese artists approached their compositions. And one way of thinking about how innovative the Japanese works would have seemed to Western artists—if you think about the Western pictorial tradition, dating back at least to the Renaissance, if not earlier—was the tradition that wanted to create illusionism in art and to represent the three-dimensional world illusionistically on a two-dimensional pictorial surface. Japanese artists did not have that tradition, so they weren’t interested in figuring out ways of creating atmospheric perspective and depth or creating careful modeling of figures through the shading of forms to suggest three-dimensional volume. Japanese artists came from a different pictorial tradition and adopted different pictorial techniques.

So some of these techniques and elements that were so intriguing to Western artists included an overall interest in design, compositional structures that were based on asymmetry or strong diagonal compositions, the treatment of the figure was very different in Japanese art—it was a more decorative treatment that flattened out the human figure into areas of linear design or flat planes of color. There were other elements of Japanese art as well, for example, Japanese artists’ attention to nature and the very close observation of nature, not only flora and fauna, but changes in atmosphere, shifting weather patterns and how that impacted the environment, and so forth.

Typical features of Japanese art in ukiyo-e prints that were so appealing to Western artists can be seen in Utagawa Hiroshige’s series of fifty-three landscape images he made showing different points along the Tôkaido highway which led from Tokyo to Kyoto. Hiroshige often depicted the same landscape at different times of the year to track those different atmospheric changes. That interest in close observation of nature was something that Western artists, say for example the Impressionists, picked up on from Japanese art.”

Additional Resources

Calza, Gian Carlo, et al. Ukiyo-e. London: Phaidon, 2007.

Forrer, Matthi. Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings. With essays by Suzuki Jūzō and Henry D. Smith II. Munich; New York: Prestel, 1997.

Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Introductory essays by Henry D. Smith II and Amy G. Poster. New York: George Braziller, in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 2000.

“Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” In Exhibitions. Brooklyn Museum Web site.

Mather, Cotton, P.P. Karan, and Shigeru Iijima. Japanese Landscapes: Where Land and Culture Merge. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998.

Oka, Isaburo. Hiroshige: Japan’s Great Landscape Artist. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

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