In 1835, the Japanese artist Keisai Eisen began a series of woodblock prints depicting an alternative route from Edo, the capital, to Kyoto. Two hundred years earlier, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled the fragmented country, installed post stations along the Kisokaido, which marked the length of the passage, and provided places to find lodging and entertainment for those traveling this central mountain road.
A few years after Eisen began the project, Utagawa Hiroshige took over to complete the series, titled, 'The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido.' For many Japanese, this print series served as a vicarious form of travel, since the roads could be treacherous. In our latest online sale, Iconic Prints from the Japanese Masters, Christie's is featuring works by Hiroshige and Eisen, as well as significant works by 20th century artists such as Kawase Hasui. Below, Anastasia Von Seibold, European Head of Sales, deconstructs the famous series, undertaken by two renowned artists.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Karuizawa, woodblock print.
The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido
This set of landscape woodblock prints consists of 70 prints in total. The set was completed by two of the major artists of the day — Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen, and is overall considered a triumph of artistic achievement, with each design providing a lively glimpse of daily life in 19th century Japan.
Eisen was initially commissioned to produce designs for the set by the publisher, Takenouchi Magohachi, and began work in 1835, producing 24 prints in two years. At this point, he was replaced by Hiroshige, who completed the series before 1843, working with the publisher, Iseya Rihei.
From Beautiful Women to Famous Landscapes
Eisen began the ambitious series, and Hiroshige finished it, but the project itself proved a challenge. Before beginning the series, Hiroshige took a trip on the Tōkaidō highway, but neither he, nor Eisen, ever traveled the length of the Kisokaido. Instead, both artists appear to have gleaned information from guidebooks and other related documents in order to depict the scenery along the arduous road.
Eisen is largely known for his prints and paintings of beautiful women, whereas Hiroshige is most famous for his landscapes. There is a distinct and recognisable difference in style between the two artists’ prints in the series, with some exceptional designs amongst them. Some of them are considered very experimental, combining new use of colour, technique and composition.
Lot 46, titled, Karuizawa, by Hiroshige, depicts a traveller on horseback arriving at the station of Karuizawa as evening is closing in. As he asks a passerby for a light, his servant bends over to light his own pipe in the fire beneath a cryptomeria tree. The fire dramatically illuminates a side of the tree. Lot 50, titled, Itahana, by Eisen, depicts travellers trudging through the snow along a road lined with pine trees, just outside the entrance to the Japanese village of Itahana.
Keisai Eisen (1790 – 1848), Itahana, woodblock print.
Passion for Travel
The Kisokaido, also known as the Nakasendo, was a road that connected the two major cities of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. As travel would generally be made on either foot or horseback, post stations with inns, shops and restaurants were built along the route to provide overnight accommodation, refreshment and entertainment for the travellers, which form the subject matter for many of the prints in this series.
Travel for leisure began to develop in Japan in the late 18th century, but was generally limited to those wealthy enough to be able to afford it. By the early 19th century, increased numbers of wealthy urbanites began to develop a desire to escape the cities and travel for pleasure. This in itself then inspired the production of guidebooks and woodblock prints, which became popular by the 1830s.
However, even by this stage travel was challenging, with rough terrain and poor weather keeping people from embarking on long journeys. Guidebooks and prints provided an insight for those either unwilling or unable to undertake such trips.
Iconic Prints from the Japanese Masters runs from 7-21 April.