Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō
In the Genroku period a new aesthetics emerged, the key feature of which was the notion of ukiyo, the ‘fluctuatuing world’. The Ukiyo-e, the painting of the fluctuating world, reflected the aesthetics of the new middle classes and took as its favourite subject-matter landscape and the worlds of theatre, actors and courtesans. This style is known to us through woodcuts produced by such great masters as Utamaro (1753-1806), Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (Tokyo 1797- 1858). The latter is responsible for the famous series of coloured woodcuts entitled Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, produced in 1833-1834.
That entire work is a sort of ‘travel diary’ in images, depicting the Tōkaidō (East Coast Road), which was the most important long-distance thoroughfare of the day and had been created at the behest of Tokugawa Yeysau, the first shogun of the feudal government. Stretching more than 500 kilometres, the road linked Edo (present-day Tokyo, then the new seat of government) with Kyoto (the old capital and still the residence of the emperor). The ‘stations’ were where travellers showed their travel visas and where they might find hotels, horses, cargo carriers, ferrymen and palanquins.
After travelling the road in the autumn of 1832, Hiroshige returned to Edo and began work on images that vividly portrayed what he had seen during his journey. The result was a series of 55 ukiyo-e prints. Reproduced in numerous series, these works would enjoy huge success and establish Hiroshige’s reputation as the most fashionable Japanese landscape artist of his day.