Hokusai Vs. Hiroshige, Japanese Woodblock Art

Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige are the top Japanese Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock print artists. Both of these Japanese woodblock print artists are known worldwide.

Hokusai and Hiroshige were two great Japanese Ukiyo-e artists. Even though they both lived during the same time in Japan and painted similar subject matter, how they painted and saw that subject matter is very different. Hokusai was considered a bohemian artist, while Hiroshige was the ultimate Japanese government bureaucrat.

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About Katsushika Hokusai Vs. Utagawa Hiroshige

Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 and died in 1849. Utagawa Hiroshige was born in 1797 and died in 1858. Even though Hokusai was much older than Hiroshige, they both worked with the Japanese Ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints.

Even though they are considered some of the most famous Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print artists, their approach to the art is very different. Nowhere does this approach show more differently than the personalities of these two great artists.

Hokusai – The True Japanese Bohemian Artist

Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai was an independent kind of bohemian artist. Legends tell us that Hokusai would live in a place that he never bothered to clean; when it became dirty, he would move to a new location.

Hokusai moved from house to house so many times as he was unwilling to clean any place where he lived. Hokusai is thought to have had over 100 different dwellings or places of residence throughout his life.

One story of Hokusai is told of how a government official came to visit Hokusai to offer him a commission. Hokusai’s house was so messy that there was no place for the government official to sit. Hokusai was not embarrassed, and in fact, he scolded the government official for his total lack of manners in not ignoring the mess.

Hokusai got so upset with this government official who was upset with the messy house and having nowhere to sit that he told him he would not paint anything for him unless he apologized and told everyone he met that the house of Hokusai was a “model house of cleanliness.”

Hokusai changed his houses frequently, but he also changed his artistic names. Sometimes, he would sign his name as “Old Man Mad About Painting.”

Hokusai must have seemed mad to the people who knew him during his time. But no one can doubt he was a brilliant artist.

A story was told about how Hokusai was asked to paint maple leaves floating on the Tatsuta River for the Shogun. He visited the Shogun and drew a few blue lines on a piece of paper and then he put red paint on some chicken’s feet and started to chase the chickens are they run around the paper.

Hokusai was a temperamental, eccentric outsider and loner – a Japanese Bohemian artist. But Hokusai was also a brilliant artist.

Utagawa (Ando Tokutaro) Hiroshige – The Government Bureaucrat

Memorial Portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige (1858)

Hiroshige was born Ando Tukutaro to a low-ranking middle-class Japanese Samurai family. His father was more of an administrator than a Samurai warrior. His father worked for the firefighter league, and this was a job that Hiroshige inherited at age 13 when his father died.

It was from his art teacher Utagawa Toyohiro that he received his new name of Utagawa Hiroshige.

Utagawa never ceased to be a Japanese bureaucrat, even after he was able to support himself with his art. He was the opposite of Hokusai, as Hiroshige was the same as those who commissioned his art as part of the Japanese bureaucracy and government system.

Katsushika Hokusai Vs. Utagawa Hiroshige Art Differences Explained

There probably could not be two Japanese woodblock print artists as different in style and personality as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hiroshige was said to paint what he saw in front of him, whereas Hokusai would adjust or manipulate things to fit his paintings and style.

We can see this best by comparing three similar subject matters that they both painted and how different they each are. Both Hokusai and Hiroshige painted Mount Fuji, Waterfall, and Birds and Flowers.

Tago Bay on the Tokaido By Katsushika Hokusai
First Tōkaidō or Great Tōkaidō By Utagawa Hiroshige

Mount Fuji (Fujiyama) – Hokusai Vs. Hiroshige

Both Hokusai and Hiroshige painted Mount Fuji. This would have been a popular subject for many Japanese artists.

Hokusai became famous for his Ukiyo-e “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” as he drew Mount Fuji from different angles and locations. His focus was not as much on Mount Fuji as was on the surrounding landscape, people and events. In his paintings, Mount Fuji is more in the background of daily life.

After Hokusai’s success, Hiroshige also released his own “Thirty-six Views of Fuji.” His style is very different as his illustrations are more realistic, and Mount Fuji is always prominently and much more significant. Our main focal view is Mount Fuji.

Waterfalls – Hokusai Vs. Hiroshige

After his woodblock prints of Mount Fuji were so successful, Hokusai decided to paint a series of waterfalls named “Waterfalls In Various Provinces.” He would show water falling by using swelling and splashing events. Hokusai’s fame increased after this series of woodblock prints.

Hiroshige’s style was making the woodblock prints seem as real as possible and making the viewer feel like they were right with the waterfall. His woodblock prints of the waterfalls are far more realistic than Hokusai’s woodblock prints.

Grosbreak and Mirabilis, 1843 By Katsushika Hokusai
Swallows and Budding Wild Cherry, 1835 By Utagawa Hiroshige

Bird and Flower Paintings – Hokusai Vs. Hiroshige

We can also see the difference in the paintings in how Hokusai and Hiroshige painted birds and flowers. The subject of birds and flowers was a popular subject for both artists. But even here, their works of art and how they handle the same subject matter are very different.

In the paintings above, you can see the difference in how they both painted flowers and birds, similar but at the same time very differently.

Hokusai and Hiroshige are considered two of the most significant Japanese artists ever to live, especially during the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print period. They were both brilliant artists who brought their unique personalities, observations, and understanding to their artwork.

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