“Fireworks at Ryogoku (Ryogoku Hanabi)”
No. 98 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 8th month of 1858.
By Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando)
Woodblock print, Sheet: 14 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (36.2 x 23.5 cm)
About the Art
This festive image shows pleasure boats on the Sumida River, with Ryogoku Bridge in the center. Elegant restaurants (north of the bridge) traditionally co-sponsored the major fireworks displays at the site, together with the boathouses. The large boat in the center is the “palace-boat,” the only one of its kind to appear in this series. These grand pleasure craft were up to fifty feet in length and held as many as twenty “tatami” mats; they were hired out for parties by rich merchants. Next in size and most numerous here are the “roof boats;” the smallest are the uncovered “chokibune.” Finally, there are the four boats which wandered among the pleasure boats to sell food and drink. Until 1659, all fireworks used in Japan were imported from China, but then an enterprising youth (Yabei) came to Edo and began to make his own. In 1733 he was commissioned by the shogun Yoshimune to mount a special fireworks display at the Ryogoku Bridge as a purification rite to dispel the evil spirits of the plague and famine then sweeping Japan (the first Kawabiriki- “opening river” ceremony). Only since the Meiji period have summer fireworks been reduced to a single spectacular display at the time of Kawabiriki. This particular print is very dark compared to other impressions of the image, particularly those found in the Hirose collection (“Ukiyo-e taikei’).
During summer and early fall, the Sumida River was the scene of a custom known as “taking in the cool of the evening.” Activity centered at Ryōgoku Bridge, where an endless variety of entertainment was offered on both land and water. The ideal place was not in the crowded stalls of the bridgehead plazas but rather in one of the nearby restaurants or in an individually chartered pleasure boat on the river.
Fireworks were an indispensable feature of evenings on the river. By the mid-seventeenth century, they were so popular that the threat of fire led authorities to issue decrees restricting their use to the Sumida River.
About the Artist
Utagawa Hiroshige, also Andō Hiroshige, 1797 – 12 October 1858, was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, considered the last great master of that tradition.
Hiroshige is best known for his landscapes, and for his depictions of birds and flowers. The subjects of his work were atypical of the ukiyo-e genre, whose typical focus was on beautiful women, popular actors, and other scenes of the urban pleasure districts of Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). The popular Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series by Hokusai was a strong influence on Hiroshige’s choice of subject, though Hiroshige’s approach was more poetic and ambient than Hokusai’s bolder, more formal prints.
For scholars and collectors, Hiroshige’s death marked the beginning of a rapid decline in the ukiyo-e genre, especially in the face of the westernization that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Hiroshige’s work came to have a marked influence on Western painting towards the close of the 19th century as a part of the trend in Japonism. Western artists closely studied Hiroshige’s compositions, and some, such as van Gogh, painted copies of Hiroshige’s prints.
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