The woodblock print series the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and first published in 1833–34, contains fifty-five images among the most recognizable in all of Japanese art. Capturing iconic landmarks and areas, these prints continue to offer viewers a form of vicarious travel and souvenir. Included in this exhibition are twelve prints from the series, which VMFA acquired in full for its permanent collection in 1952.
Born in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Hiroshige transformed the world of Japanese printmaking with his popularization of the landscape print. This genre spoke to Japanese audiences’ newfound curiosity for Western aesthetics like linear perspective and shading, as well as their interest in travel literature detailing famous sites around the country. The Tokaido Road has since become one of the most commercially successful print series of all time.
The Tokaido was a well-known pedestrian highway that connected Edo to Japan’s former capital of Kyoto, stretching roughly 320 miles along the eastern coastline of its central island of Honshu. First established in the 8th century, the Tokaido became increasingly trafficked in the early 1600s. This was due to the shogun’s requirement that hundreds of regional lords (daimyo) from across Japan travel annually to Edo where their families resided year-round, in effect centralizing his political power.
Fifty-three stations were installed along the route, each containing inns, restaurants, and stables. Traveling the Tokaido on foot typically took about fifteen days from beginning to end, and travelers ranged in status to include merchants, farmers, monks, daimyo, and samurai. Hiroshige himself once traveled the Tokaido, where he experienced firsthand the social climate and sprawling landscapes that he would later reinterpret in his fantastical prints.