Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (Hoeido Edition) - Kanaya Station

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road:  Kanaya Station (Tokaido Gojusan no Uchi) Hoeido Edition, 1832. Oban.

This very nice print is from the first of the many editions of prints that Hiroshige made of the great Tokaido Road - the artery that connected Edo to Kyoto. A rambling and winding route, the Tokaido snaked up and down mountain passes, forded rivers where there were no bridges, skirted the sea and crossed inhospitable, marshy land. Much of it, even in 1832, we would not today recognise as a road, resembling more of an English bridleway in places. As in this print, many points could only be crossed by bearers, bodily carrying travellers across stretches of water. Even so, through necessity, the road was travelled by every class of person, including the biannual trips made by powerful Daimyo and their entourages of up to 20,000 men.

Basil Stewart, the first authority on Hiroshige, says of the series in his monograph of 1925:
On his return, in 1834, he completed his sketches of the Tokaido, which were then published in album form, and became an immediate success, landscape having never before, in the history of Ukiyoye, been so treated. Hiroshige himself took particular pains over their production, and supervised the engraving and printing. Hence it is that this "Great Tokaido" series, as it is known to distinguish it from other and later series, the first edition of which was produced under his supervision, constitutes, in the opinion of collectors, Hiroshige's most famous work as a whole.

There are, of course, other landscape series, some of which are rarer, certain of them much rarer, and which contain many masterpieces, besides his first Tokaido set, but the latter remains his magnum opus, as it was through this he made his fame as a landscape artist.

This print, broad and generous in its depiction, shows the crossing of the Oi river at Kanaya. A group of Samurai are being ferried by bearers across the water and sandbanks; some of them piggy back, others in Japanese sedan chairs. There is a marvellous brevity in the drawing and a natural effortlessness in the composition that pairs the left and right diagonals of the river with the straggle of people - dwarfed in scale by the towering mountains behind them. A feature of Hiroshige’s work is the minute scale that he gives to the travellers. In his work, man is (in a Buddhist way) insignificant to the majesty and terror of nature.

This print, from the first of many editions Hiroshige made of the route lacks the delicacy of early impressions. I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing… the cutout of the mountain strikes me as a fine device when set against the furious activity of the foreground. The sheet retains some borders, the condition and colour are very good, the impression is less so. Nevertheless a fine print from a collectible edition.

Published by Hoeido.

24cm x 36cm.