Trial and Success: Variant Color Schemes in the Prints of Utagawa Hiroshige


April 22–July 18, 2021

HoMA has the largest collection of prints in the world by the iconic designer Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Hiroshige was prolific, and collectors of his work craved novelty. His publishers would sometimes issue the same design in a variety of different color schemes—one version of a landscape print might be a night scene rendered in dark tones, another might be a daytime scene depicted in pastels.

While the market forces behind these variants are clear, the creative vision that inspired them is less so. Traditional Japanese woodblock printing was a collaborative process that involved several steps and participants. The designer would sketch a composition; the carver would transfer the sketch onto a slab of cherry wood and make blocks from it; the printer produced the finished print. The publisher would finance the project and handle the distribution. We don’t know for sure which of these individuals was most responsible for selecting the color schemes. Regardless, the works displayed here reveal that Japanese woodblock prints could include a surprising degree of artistic experimentation.