Hiroshige's father, Tokuaki Tanaka, was the third son of Tokuyemon Tanaka, a teacher of archery in Edo (Tokyo), who was formerly a chief page in waiting on the daimyo's of the Tsugaru clan. Later he was adopted into the family of Ando, taking the new name Genyemon Ando. A few of Hiroshige's prints bear the name old family name of Tanaka in seal form. Genyemon held an official appointment in the fire-police, which appears to have been of a kind confined to the members of particular families.
The duties of the fire-police had become almost nominal in the general slackness which characterised the last phase of the Tokugawa regime. It is related that these firepolice occupied most of their time in amusements, in gambling, or in the practice of easy arts. Some achieved quite a reputation as amateur artists, makers of surimono, carvers of netsuke, practitioners of the tea-ceremony, or members of the clubs of artisan-poets.
Into this environment Hiroshige was born in 1797. In the normal course of events Hiroshige - Tokutaro Ando as he was then - would have followed his father's occupation, but in 1809 both his father and mother died. He had, almost from infancy, displayed his inclination towards art; and his father had already arranged for him to have lessons from a friend and neighbour, an amateur painter named Okajima Rinsai. In his fifteenth year he desired greatly to become a pupil of Toyokuni but the studio of the great man could not accomodate him and he joined that of Toyohiro. Here he progressed so rapidly that within the short space of a year his master formally admitted him to membership of the Utagawa fraternity. His diploma, in Toyohiro's own writing, gave him the artist-name Utagawa Hiroshige and was dated March 9, 1812.
Hiroshige did not immediately begin to produce landscape prints. Up to about 1830 his main output consisted of prints of beautiful women (bijinga) and actors (yakushae). At the same time he tried his hand at deluxe prints and book illustrations.
Landscape prints, which had been out of favour for some years, was returning to popularity and recieved a boost from the publication of Katsuchika Hokusai's 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji'. Hiroshige became aware of the possibilities and around 1826 he released the series 'Famous Views of the Eastern Capital', a simple landscape series which illustrated the various sites in Edo.
Sent on a Shogunal delegation to Kyoto in 1830, Hiroshige travelled along the Tokaido Road. He stayed at the 53 overnight stations along the road and made numerous sketches of everything he saw and in 1833-4 he published the series of 55 single sheet prints 'Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido' (1833-4). The series was a resounding success and Hiroshige attained a status on an equal footing with the other famous print designers of the period.
The success of the Tokaido series encouraged Hiroshige to become increasingly a landscape artist. He executed such print series as 'Eight Views of Omi' (1834), 'Famous Views of Kyoto' (1834) and 'Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido' (c.1839).
At the same time, Hiroshige was also producing prints of birds and flowers. For these works he used principally a long compositional format.
During the late 1840's and early 1850's, over production took it's toll of artistic quality. Hiroshige's works became mediocre and repetitive. It was not until about 1853 that he began again to produce work of note and quality. From this period date compllations of landscape prints in the vertical format, such as 'Famous Places of the Sixty Provinces' (1853-6) and 'One Hundred Famous Views of Edo' (1856-8).
Hiroshige also produced a number of nikuhitsuga (ukiyoe paintings) in his later years.
Hiroshige died in 1858, two years after his retirement, during a cholera epidemic and is buried in a Zen temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Hiroshige significantly influenced European, especially French, artists from the 1870's onwards, notably van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet and Manet. The American painter Whistler also borrowed elements of Hiroshige's style.