Artists have a tendency to paint what they know, and Hiroshige was no different. Because he grew up in Edo, he developed an extensive body of work focused on his home. Towards the beginning of his career, he had painted flora and fauna near modern-day Tokyo. He eventually evolved into more of a landscape painter – most likely due to his influence from Hokusai, the artist behind the incredibly popular series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.”
Hiroshige decided to fully pursue his career in the arts years later. He left his job as the fire warden to his brother, Tetsuzo, and decided to travel outside of Edo to paint new landscapes. His first wife was very supportive of his endeavors and sold her clothes and ornamental combs to help pay for his travels. During his that time, he painted the collections, “Illustrated Places of Naniwa,” “Famous Places of Kyoto,” and “Eight Views of Omi,” but he would always come back home to Edo.
“View of Takanawa in Moonlight,” is a piece from Hiroshige’s series, “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital.” Here, Hiroshige designs a print of a familiar sight. “View of Takanawa in Moonlight,” is a view of present-day Tokyo Bay. This particular print is important because it depicts an early morning scene of the trading port. We know it’s early morning, rather than late at night because the sky is a hazy blue rather than a deep midnight color. Previous ukiyo-e prints depict nighttime with rich dark colors. In the bottom right portion of the composition, we see a Japanese marketplace, most likely specializing in fish due to its close proximity to the ocean. You see a number of fisherman sailing on their small boats in the water looking to get their early morning catch. Some people are carrying bountiful earnings from the boats to the market for preparation and distribution.
Hiroshige’s print has a few Japanese characters on it. The left side contains three different types of information. First, we see the artist’s signature. These are the three characters located on the leftmost side stacked on top of one another. To the right of them, there are two Kanji characters enclosed in circles. During the time the Tokugawas were in power, there was a strict system in place that determined what art was and wasn’t appropriate for the public. Everything needed a seal of approval before it could be released. This practice ended a few years after this print was approved. Underneath Hiroshige’s signature and the seals of approval, we see a Kanji character inside of a box. Though this character isn’t very common anymore, it signifies inner consideration and mindfulness. The ukiyo-e’s name is written in the red box to the right end of the print.
The most notable feature of Hiroshige’s composition is the larger boats on the horizon line. They’re much larger than the Japanese vessels used for fishing. Because the print was created in 1854, we know the ships in the horizon were most likely foreigner vessels. During the Edo period foreigners weren’t allowed to travel or trade with the Japanese. This was the case until 1853. Japan’s recent, though reluctant, choice to open their borders in certain ports, explains the European vessels in Tokyo Bay. Hiroshige’s work is mostly poetic and ambient, so it would make sense that he would portray this scene as an impartial observer. The foreign visitors don’t look threatening in any way, they just look as though they’re part of the quiet, early morning scene.
In 1600, Japan was unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate with emphasis on the reestablishment of order following one hundred years of civil war. It was the civil war that created the chaos that allowed the Tokugawas to take control in the first place, and their approach to governing Japan was militaristic, to say the least. Though they were incredibly strict, Japan did live in peace and stability during their rule. The military class was demilitarized – they kept all of their practices, except the warfare.
City people became more relevant, rather than the extreme polarization we had seen before where the leaders were rich, and the citizens lived in poverty. This new rule leads to the rise of the chonin, and a more comfortable middle class.
During the time, the Japanese became weary of Europeans spreading their ideas of Christianity to the Eastern nations. The Tokugawa Shogunate was suspicious of the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries that arrived in the Philippines looking to spread the word on Christianity only to dominate the country. Because of this, Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to end all Christian practice in Japan, as well as prohibit trade with western nations. This embargo was called the “Act of Seclusion” and was established in 1636. It remained active for the next 200 years until American Matthew Perry interrupted it.
In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led his fleet of ships into Tokyo Bay, looking to re-establish regular trade between Japan and the western world since Japan ended relations with persistent Europeans looking to convert them to Catholicism. Since America started using California as a trade port, pursuing trade with China and Japan would be easier and beneficial for the western nation. Not only that, but Americans were finding themselves stranded in Japan due to ship malfunctions on their way to China. They were usually greeted with hostility, and America was hoping to work out a deal where Japan offers coaling stations to Americans on their way.