Meisho ("famous places") are locations celebrated for their natural beauty and rich religious and literary associations, frequently expressed as highly conventionalized poetic attributes. The tradition of painting such sites -- originally in and around the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara -- is known from as early as the Heian period (794-1185). By the Edo period (1603-1868), the term meisho was used popularly to refer to locales visited for relaxation and pleasure. City dwellers flocked to suburban areas for restful outings, while the practice of traveling through Japan's more spectacular scenery also became widespread. The early 19th century saw the proliferation of landscape and cityscape subjects within traditional woodblock printing (ukiyo-e).
Two great printmakers are associated with the rising landscape genre: Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858). Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (actually fortysix in number) was the groundbreaking series (around 1829-33). This volcanic mountain with its characteristic conical form is still classified as active. The Japanese have always regarded Mt. Fuji as most sacred. Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido followed in about 1833-34. The Tokaido (Eastern Sea Route) connected Edo (modern Tokyo), the seat of the feudal warlord or shogun, with the ancient capital of Kyoto, where the emperor continued to reside. Tradition has it that Hiroshige traveled the Tokaido in 1832 with the delegation bringing the shogun's annual spring tribute to the emperor.
These series were succeeded by many others that expanded and developed the themes originated by Hokusai and Hiroshige. In this exhibition, prints from sets by Hokusai and Hiroshige may stand independently or may be contrasted with various renditions by other artists of the same or similar subjects. One group of Hiroshige's works focuses on the birdand-flower theme with sites in the background, while selections from four other of his series show how he varied his compositions and introduced new elements into familiar views. These engaging images illustrate the popularity of landscapes and cityscapes in 19th-century Japan.