Metropolitan Museum of Art: “New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji”, Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1857. Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 12 13/16 × 8 5/8 in. (32.5 × 21.9 cm). Rogers Fund, 1925. Accession Number: JP1470.

In his book Beyond the Great Wave: The Japanese Landscape Print, 1727-1960, James King comments about this particular work:

Hiroshige, at the height of his powers, demonstrates his ease with the vertical format and takes it to new heights, as can be seen in the contrast between the darkness of the night and the white of the animals in New Year’s Eve Foxfires (…) (Peter Lang, 2010, p. 105).

In The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections, more information is provided about the symbolic meaning attached to the foxes (kitsune) in Japanese folklore:

In Japanese folklore the fox is considered to be a most mischievous animal. The wily fox is thought to have the ability to change form, usually into that of a beautiful woman, playing tricks and pranks on unlucky people. Foxes are also believed to be able to breath fire and to make fire by rubbing their tails together. Legends abound in Japan of men, oftentimes priests who wander through mist-filled moore late at night, and see a distant flicker of flame and think it is a lone hut that will provide a welcome refuge from the cold and dark. In truth, the flame is that produced by the fox to lure the hapless wayfarer to mischief or worse.

In this print, Hiroshige depicts a popular legend in which foxes gather on New Year’s Eve beneath the Nettle trees in Ôji, northern Edo (modern Tôkyô). Ôji is the site of a famous shrine, dedicated to Inari Daimyôjin, the Shintô god of rice. Inari is one of the most popular Shintô deities, and shrines dedicated to him are always guarded by statues of foxes, who are beleived to be the messenger of this particular god. (University Press of Mississippi, 2003, p. 133)

There are a variety of reproductions of this woodblock print available online: Brooklyn Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, Norton Simon Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The British Museum. The very useful site Ukiyo-e Search offers links to 21 different versions.

“New Year’s Eve Foxfires” Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1857 (detail)
“New Year’s Eve Foxfires” Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1857 (detail)

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