Hiroshige was orphaned in his twelfth year and succeeded to his father's post as fireman, studying painting all the while. For fourteen years, until he was twenty-six, he was both fireman and painting apprentice. In 1823, he gave up his fire brigade duties, passing them on to his brother Nakajiro, and devoted himself full time to painting.
At the age of eleven he produced a picture, "Ryukyuans in Edo" which attracted some attention. He aspired to enter the studio of the noted actor-portrait painter Toyokuni, but there were no vacancies in this currently fashionable school and Hiroshige had to be satisfied with studying at the studio of the less famous, less sought-after, Toyohiro. This turned out to be fortunate; had he studied under Toyokuni, he undoubtedly would have become just another portrait painter. Studying under the more versatile Toyohiro, Hiroshige became interested in landscape painting, a field which had no popular appeal at the time.
Despite the fact that landscapes were not in demand, and, furthermore, were not lucrative, Hiroshige did not go with the popular current of the time, but assiduously pursued the landscape. In 1831, he produced a popular series, "Famous Places in Edo", under the name Ichiyusai. He later also used the name Ichiryusai and Ryusai in addition to Hiroshige.
His fame increased when, two years later he painted, and Hoeideo, the publisher, printed, the notable series "Fifty-three Stages on the Tokaido". He had traveled the lenght of the Tokaido highway the previous year as a member of the retinue taking a tribute of horses from the Shogun in Edo to the Emperor in Kyoto. This was on the occasion of an anniversary of the first Shogun's entry into the Castle of Edo. Along the way on this journey, he sketched the scened which he later put into the fifty-five prints which made up this famous series portraying the official fifty-three post stations on the route. The series was revolutionary in its departure from the classic tradition in landscape painting. His scenes had a naturalness and sense of immediacy about them that provoked instant popular appeal. This established him as "the painter of Tokaido scenes" and, subsequently, he produced some thirty similar series on the same theme.
The first "Fifty-three Stages on the Tokaido" series was the masterpiece, and has since become known as the Hoeido edition after the publishing house that printed the complete series of fifty-five pictures. This effort, incidentally, was to have been a cooperative venture between both Hoeido and another publisher, Senkakudo, but the latter withdrew before production was completed. Two of the thirty or so series mentioned above have remained noteworthy: the "Gyosho Tokaido" and the "Reisho Tokaido", so called because of the Gyosho and the Reisho types of calligraphy used in the descriptive captions.
Hiroshige was at the height of his artistic ability from around 1834 to 1840; his art was then at peak of its popularity. During this period he produced the famous "Eight Scenes of Omi", "Famous Scenes of Kyoto", "Eight Scenes in the Outskirts of Edo" and the "Sixty-nine Stages on the Kiso Highway", among many others. A bit later he produced his well-known triptych "Snow, Moon, and Flowers" and the "One Hundred Noted Sited of Edo".
In his declining years, in addition to landscapes, he created an unique style in depicting birds and flowers and left many remarkable prints. His lyrical expression of nature and the elements reflected his gently romantic lifestyle and he brought Japanese landscape painting to its peak.
He died on September 9, 1858 at the age of 62.