Cats in Hiroshige Blue – Utagawa Hiroshige was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, considered the last great master of that tradition. Hiroshige is best known for his landscapes, such as the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō; and for his depictions of birds and flowers. Also, he left some cats paintings as well. Let’s see how he perceived cats and rendered on paper.
Cats in Hiroshige Blue
There you can see a folding screen with Sparrow patterns on the left as a partition. And a glimpse of a tissue along with rake-shaped Japanese hairpins. This is a typical souvenir from the festival of the rooster; the fairs held in November at Shinto shrines.
We can expect there is a pillow beside those gifts. Those stuff tells us this room is for a prostitution in the most famous and high-class red-light district, Yoshiwara Yukaku. And a pussy cat is a metaphor for a prostitute. Here you can enjoy Hiroshige’s taste, not showing directly but, by implying what it is about. He evokes us to imagine sensual image with merely a cat in a room.
Secret of Hiroshige Blue
Hiroshige Blue, which color is known as Prussian Blue in general, was produced in Germany. It’s also called Berlin Blue. This deep blue color was synthesized by an accident by Johann Jacob Diesbach who was a Swiss pigment and dye producer.
Around 1706 Diesbach was working in the laboratory of Johann Conrad Dippel in Berlin. Using an extract of crushed cochineal insects, iron sulphate and potash to create cochineal red lake, he used potash that was mixed with Dippel’s animal oil. The result was a very pale red which he concentrated to purple, later a deep blue. That was the first modern synthetic pigment while both of them were not knowing what happened at the time.
It was the first stable and relatively lightfast blue pigment to be widely used following the loss of knowledge regarding the synthesis of Egyptian blue.
European painters had previously used a number of pigments such as the indigo dye, smalt, and Tyrian purple, which tend to fade, and the extremely expensive ultramarine made from lapis lazuli.
Japanese painters, woodblock print artists likewise did not have access to a long-lasting blue pigment until they began to import Prussian blue from Europe. We can see this blue in Rurihata, fish kind of like a grouper by Ito Jakucyu.
This blue color began widely spreading in Japan around 1826. Merchant from Qing Dynasty exported and resold this blue pigment in Japan which is an excess of huge stock imported from the United Kingdom.
In 1831, Hokusai, another genius master of Ukiyo-e and drawing used this blue pigment in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
Why Hiroshige blue is outstanding while the color itself produced in Germany? The key lies in the different way of dissolving colors.
Painters in Europe use oil to dissolve colors, it is a usual thing the color varies due to oil and glue.
On the contrary, Japanese counterparts use water to dissolve colors, which make it possible to bring out the true color of its pigment, hence the Hiroshige Blue is so clean and amazingly impressive.
Hence, the cats in Hiroshige blue look fresh and lively.
Bathing in Edo
This is one of the cats in Hiroshige blue, which acts like a man. The cat in this painting washing himself pleasantly with water. But what about human?
Although there was water infrastructure in Edo, most people didn’t have a private bath at their home since fire-wood was very expensive.
Regardless of their status, everybody goes to the public bath to keep themselves clean. From rich to poor, samurai to merchants, everybody enjoyed the bathing experience at Sento (public bath house).
Workers in Edo loved bathing dearly, they went to Sento at least twice a day. Some even went four or five times!
It’s because they often had a strong wind due to its topographic effect which made them covered with a lot of sandy dust mixed with a lot of moisture, they went there before work and after work.
Same Ol Cat Behavior
Yes, you can see what’s cat behavior in various poses.
Cats in Hiroshige blue are stretching freely and taking a nap, playing with a toy and a bag, watching out something intentionally and grooming… classic!
Cats love Bonito so do we human. It’s a rare case a cat ignore bonito and even step on them like in this painting! But when Bonito was invented?
Bonito was already invented in the Muromachi period, before Edo. Bonito was produced naturally by heat and smoke from cooking in the kitchen. At the early age of Edo, bonito which was produced in Kyusyu area were exported to Min Dynasty and Siam via Ryukyu by vessels of Portugal and United Kingdom.
As pot and soup dishes gained popularity, people desired for more delicious taste, that’s why bonito became so popular. In this period, a lot of cooking books were published and almost all of them featured bonito. Bonito still plays an important role of Japanese cuisine today since its quality of rich taste.
Influence on Other Artists
Hiroshige died of cholera at the age of 65. However, Hiroshige’s work came to have a marked influence on Western painting towards the close of the 19th century as a part of the trend in Japonism.
Painters of Art Nouveau, French impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were greatly inspired by Hiroshige’s works. Gogh tried to learn by painting copies of Hiroshige’s prints. Monet even built an arched bridge in his garden inspired by a painting with arched bridge out of 100 Views Of Edo.
Hiroshige, undoubtedly one of the great artists, never cease to inspire other artists and people regardless of race, culture, or times.
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Hokusai: Cats in Ukiyo-e of A Man “Mad” about Drawing
Also published on Medium.