Hiroshige’s most popular prints were produced in the tens of thousands and, after the opening of Japan post-1853, were also popular in Europe where they had a huge influence on Impressionist artists.
The ‘One Hundred Views of Edo’ [Tokyo] series was produced between 1856 and 1859, with Hiroshige II finishing it after the death of his father in 1858. The print below is the 30th in the series.
The Brooklyn Museum website says the image is of the most famous tree in Edo, the celebrated ‘Sleeping Dragon Plum’ of Kameido. Known for the purity of its double blossoms, which, according to one guidebook, were ‘so white when full in bloom as to drive off the darkness’, the flowers’ powerful fragrance were reputed to have lured in the 18th century the shogun Yoshimune as he passed nearby.
“The unusual pattern of the tree’s growth is seen by the low branches entering the soil and re-emerging at a distance to create new trunks, thus, the tree was constantly rejuvenated and had spread over an area of some 50 feet square [4.6 square metres]. The image of the ‘sleeping dragon’ came from the way the branches looped across the ground. It was surrounded by a low fence to keep people from pressing too near.”
The tree survived until 1910, when it was killed by a flood.
Wikpedia’s entry for this image notes: “The series was commissioned shortly after the 1855 Edo earthquake and subsequent fires, and featured many of the newly rebuilt or repaired buildings. The prints may have commemorated or helped draw the attention of Edo’s citizens to the progress of the rebuilding. The series is in portrait orientation, which was a break from ukiyo-e tradition, and proved popular with his audience.”
futamoto no ume ni chisoku o aisu kana
two ume trees in my garden
bloom at a different time;
how dear the difference!
Yosa Buson, tr Shoji Kumano
Ume is the Japanese word for both plum tree and the fruit it bears.
One of the painters upon whom this print had a profound effect was Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh who made this oil painting which is more a copy than an ‘inspired by’ homage.
The van Gogh Gallery website notes: “When van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 he was introduced to Impressionism and also explored Japonisme. Van Gogh admired the bold designs, intense colors, and flat areas of pure colour and also appreciated the elegant and simple lines. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre where Vincent was brought into contact with ukiyo-e [woodblock prints], and his apartment was next to the Bing Gallery where owner Samuel Bing had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh spent a great deal of time in the gallery admiring and studying the characteristics of Japonaiserie and became a collector of ukiyo-e.
“The influence of Japonaiserie and specifically Japanese prints is still evident in van Gogh’s later works reflecting the Japanese culture and tradition with his strong outlines; the use of black contours is an element typical of Japanese woodblock prints. Also his use of color contrasts and cropped compositions reveals the Japanese influence on his work.”
Dr Lawrence Marceau of Auckland University’s Asian Studies Department was kind enough (in 2015 when I inquired) to provide his thoughts about the Japanese characters van Gogh has added to the sides of the painting.
Van Gogh’s Japanese writing on the sides of several of his renditions of Japanese woodblock prints is quite famous in Japanese art historical circles … he had actually copied inscriptions of print titles and publisher data. The copies he made were from prints other than the one he was adapting into an oil painting.
I can’t read all of the text (some of it may be garbled), but along the right side of the image it says, “Shin-Yoshiwara hitsu dai chome Yagi (?)” (= the Shin-Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters, “by the brush of”, “great”, “city block” “establishment/shop” “wood/tree”). It seems that he starts out with a title, and then ends up with the character after the designer’s signature “hitsu”, and probably part of the publisher’s address. On the left it says, “Daikoku-ya Nishikigi Edo-machi itchome” (= The Daikoku-establishment, Nishikigi (personal name?), Edo-machi 1st block. I believe Edo-machi was one of the blocks of the Shin-Yoshiwara licensed quarter, and that the Daikoku-ya was the professional name of one of the bordello establishments there.
The cartouche in the upper right of the picture says “Shin-hyakkei” (New 100 Views) and some other characters in the yellow box that don’t make much sense to me. The red signature box in the lower left also doesn’t make much sense … In short, it seems to be a combination of words and phrases taken from other prints, and individual characters written just because Van Gogh liked them, apparently. They really have no meaningful relationship to the content of the image, the plum blossoms at Kameido.
perfuming the man
who broke its branch –
Chiyo-Ni (1701-1775), tr Jim Kacian