One of my favorite genres of art is the 19th century Japanese landscape print, especially the works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is best known as the creator of several series that showed famous scenes from Japan, like “53 Stations of the Tokaido” and “Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces.” The subjects of the prints in the series vary between the long and medium view — for example, a rainbow over a the sea, or travelers passing over a bridge. So when I saw a series of Hiroshige fish prints appear in a Creative Commons CCSearch result, my curiosity was piqued. What was the story behind the series?
It turns out that prints of animals, fish and plants were relatively rare in Hiroshige’s catalog: in his 40-year art career, he designed over 10,000 single sheet prints and several hundred book illustrations, with only around 500 having an animal or plant as the subject [the statistics are from Birds and Flowers, a book in the reference list below].
After reviewing a few books about Hiroshige at the local libraries, I found the answer to my question, and it turned out to be straightforward: a poetry guild called Kyokashi hired him to make ten fish illustrations to accompany their poems. During the design and printing process the poets gave their poems to the woodblock carvers, who added the lettering to a block so it would appear on the final print.