Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2009
Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo Köln: Taschen, 2008. 294 pp.; many color ills. Cloth $150.00 (9783822848272)

Although the prints of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) may be among the most appreciated (and reproduced) images in Japanese art, rarely have they been treated with the care and attention exhibited in Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler in a masterful production by Taschen. The subject is Hiroshige’s well-known set, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei ), dating from 1856 to 1858. The volume opens with an essay by Trede setting the period context, purpose, and reception of the prints, and is followed with illustrations and descriptions by Trede and Bichler for each of the 118 prints designed by Hiroshige. Throughout, the text is presented in English, French, and Japanese, running as three parallel columns down each page. The prints reproduced here are all from the Ôta Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo; they comprise one of the rare complete sets of the first printing. With these superb works as source material—and with the high standards achieved by Taschen in reproducing them—the volume presents a near facsimile of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints. This is a very large book—weighing in at eleven pounds, measuring 20.6 × 14.9 × 2.2 inches—sold in its own luxurious case. It is printed and bound in fukurotoji, or “bag binding” style, string binding and all, the standard format for books in Hiroshige’s time. It is, simply, a remarkable printing achievement and a significant contribution.

In her opening essay, “Edo: Images of a City between Visual Poetry and Idealized Reality,” Trede lays out the essentials for understanding Hiroshige’s project. This group of prints was a sustained endeavor, beginning in the second month of 1856, initially intended to represent one hundred distinct views of famous sites around the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). By its completion in the tenth month of 1858, it numbered 118 landscapes (with a table of contents added thereafter), issued in installments. In these, Hiroshige achieved what was arguably the most sustained and comprehensive examination of the city to appear in single-sheet prints. His was not a venture undertaken alone, but was supported throughout by the publisher Sakanaya Eikichi (also known as Uoya Eikichi) who produced the prints. Sakanaya commissioned the designs from the artist, cleared them with the censors, and hired the block cutters and printers. A set on this scale represented a significant financial risk, but Sakanaya’s investment paid off: the set became a bestseller. As Trede recounts, the pictures of places in Edo “fascinated the local clientele to such an extent that each print had to be reprinted between ten and fifteen thousand times” (7). The result was, of course, that the woodblocks wore down and suffered damage so that later examples lacked the intense sharpness and clarity of the first printings. In addition, later printings often were made with fewer color blocks to reduce cost. Many of these subsequent examples have been collected, exhibited, and reproduced; but the “magnitude of the discrepancy between first and later impressions became apparent to a broader public only when high-quality color reproductions became available in the second half of the 20th century” (8). Previous scholars have also addressed this problem, most notably, Matthi Forrer, Henry Smith, and Suzuki Jûzô (Matthi Forrer, Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings, London: Royal Academy of Arts, Munich: Prestel, 1997; Henry D. Smith and Amy G. Poster, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, New York: George Braziller, 1986; Suzuki Jûzô Hiroshige, Tokyo: Nihon keizai shinbunsha, 1970), but none have had the opportunity presented here to reproduce a set of images entirely from what seems to have been the first group of prints. Scholars, viewers, and collectors may now encounter the prints in the manner intended by the publisher and artist.

Hiroshige’s and Sakanaya’s purpose in this series was to represent the famous locales (meisho) around the city of Edo. These locales were landscapes replete with cultural associations. As Trede explains, landscape was one of the later subjects to emerge in ukiyo-e, or the “pictures of the floating world,” an artistic genre that from its start included both painting and printed matter (sheet prints and books). In its early period of development, from the second half of the seventeenth century, ukiyo-e mainly had the leisures and pleasures of urban life—the kabuki theater and its actors, sumo and its athletes, the pleasure districts and its indentured courtesans—as its major themes. Although landscape was typically treated as a backdrop to these scenes of city life, by the late 1770s prints by Utagawa Toyoharu showing temple precincts and familiar sites around the city (as well as imagined views of Holland and China) established the “famous place” as another theme for ukiyo-e prints. By the nineteenth century, the theme had become more popular in sheet prints, catching up with trends in travel as leisure and in promotions of city identity, and with the longstanding production of gazetteers, illustrated books, and maps.

In making the “famous place” a theme, ukiyo-e producers were also appropriating the long tradition (dating from the tenth century onwards) of the meisho in literature, where poets relied upon convention and observation to make associations to seasons, places, and related allusions. The relocation of that literary practice to Edo was well established by Hiroshige’s time, but as Trede points out, Hiroshige was not replicating a canon or subscribing to convention; in fact, nearly forty percent of the places depicted had not previously been replicated as meisho (8). Rather, this is a series of images about Edo, the city built by the shogunate as its political center and held by its inhabitants to be modern, prosperous, and sophisticated, worthy of having its own famous sites to compete with those of the past. Trede accurately describes the ways in which the shogunate, ever anxious over the power of images, restricted ukiyo-e’s ability to represent certain aspects of the city, as well as acknowledges how much Hiroshige’s images served to promote Edo as a destination replete with its own places to see and in which to be seen.

Trede briefly discusses two precedents for these prints, Hasegawa Settan’s Illustrated Guide to the Famous Views of Edo (Edo meisho zue (1834)) and Hiroshige’s own Illustrated Souvenirs of Edo (Ehon Edo miyage) (1850–53). This reader wishes Trede had been allotted more space to delve further into the connections between Hiroshige’s prequel (a seven-volume tour of one hundred sixty sites around the city, in which nearly half of the same designs shown in the print set appear); while Trede and Bichler make note of connections to this book in the later section illustrating individual prints, it is a lost opportunity that comparative illustrations from the earlier work were not included throughout (perhaps due to reasons of cost, layout, and marketability). But neither was this book’s important precedent, Smith and Poster’s Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, able to take on such a study; as in the Taschen volume, Smith and Poster’s study replicated a complete set—that held in the Brooklyn Museum of Art—in full page and in full color with a scholarly introduction, entries summarizing scenes, and allusions to precedents. (Indeed, the Taschen volume seems in overall format to be modeled on Smith and Poster’s.) But unfortunately neither took the bold step of making a more complete study of Hiroshige’s process from illustrated book to print set, or considered the market forces that made such a move viable. There is clearly more work to be done on this important set.

Yet the purpose of both projects was, after all, not to engage these kinds of issues. Instead, the goal of the present volume is to make available the exquisite first printing held at the Ôta Museum and to tease out the meanings of each scene. Trede and Bichler admirably introduce each print, drawing attention to special printing techniques, compositional devices, the history of the locales, and the activities shown within. The prints are presented in the sequence given in the table of contents by Baisotei Gengyo, made upon request by the publisher after Hiroshige’s death. Instead of organizing the prints by date, Gengyo reordered them by season: forty-two images for spring, thirty for summer, twenty-six for autumn, and twenty for winter. However, as Trede and Bichler point out, this sequencing does not replicate Hiroshige’s own process—he did not design individual images as representations of specific seasons at particular sites. Given that each print includes the appropriate date seal employed by the censors at the time, the authors note that Hiroshige submitted thirty-seven designs in 1856, seventy-one in 1857, and seven in 1858. Three additional designs were approved for publication after his death (likely adapted by his student, Shigenobu, from sketches) (see pages 15–16). As Trede and Bichler argue, “if the series were to be ordered chronologically, by the date seals of the censors, a quite different picture would emerge, namely one that focused on the historical background of the creation of the series” (50). Yet, Gengyo’s sequence has remained the standard used for all later publications. While it is unfortunate that a reconstruction with thumbnail images, or a conversion chart, was not included here (nor were these tools included in Smith and Poster), using Gengyo’s sequence does preserve the publisher’s marketing scheme for the set as a whole: not only was such a table necessary to list all “famous places,” reorganizing them into seasonal sequence produces allusions to the literary traditions of “famous places.”

The entries by Trede and Bichler for each print are too numerous to review, but throughout it is clear that Trede and Bichler sought to add to the body of information available for each scene, often moving beyond previous descriptions of the same image. For example, in plate 38, Dawn in Yoshiwara (Kakuchû shinonome), they connect the darkness of the scene of the great gate of the Yoshiwara licensed district to the fact that two prostitutes had committed suicide about the same time Hiroshige submitted his design. In others, we learn of the costumes, goods, and services; of the shops, restaurants, temples, shrines, theaters, gardens, and other sites of interest; of the replication of famous buildings from other locales (particularly Kyoto) and the building of Mount Fuji in miniature to create meisho; of the cannons on earth ramparts built in Edo Bay following Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853; of the rebuilding of parts of Edo and of the print trade following the devastating earthquake of 1855; and a great deal more. With such insights included throughout their text, Trede and Bichler indicate how much images such as these were endowed with specific references to current events, and how much more we might understand through careful, close study of these images of early modern Japan. This sumptuous production adds significantly to our understanding of Hiroshige and his work.

Julie Nelson Davis
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

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