Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) ranks high among the greatest printmakers of all time. His ability to distill the moods and appearances of nature into compact, richly colored, and hauntingly provocative woodblock images made him the equal of his contemporary compatriot Hokusai, and places him in the company of such Western graphic masters as Rembrandt, Goya, and Whistler.
Only genius could have fashioned his 1833-34 woodblock series, ''53 Stations of the Tokaido Road,'' or his later ''100 Views of Edo.'' And only a great artist could make such magnificent prints as ''Shower at Shono'' or ''Sudden Shower at Ohashi.'' In both cases Hiroshige fused precise observation and a remarkable creative imagination to produce works that give dignity and universality to the most common natural and human events.
Much less widely known are Hiro-shige's more informal studies, especially those included in the sketchbooks he assembled as souvenirs or mementos of his various travels throughout Japan. Although two of the most handsome of these sketchbooks were presented to the Library of Congress in 1905 by Crosby Stuart Noyes, their existence has remained a dark secret except to a few specialists. Thanks to publisher George Braziller, however, they have now been brought to public attention in the form of a two-volume set that replicates the originals in size, color, format, and order.
''The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige'' is impressive and beautiful, and deserves a place in every art-lover's bookcase. The touch, sensibility, and imagination of the artist are communicated instantly through its extraordinarily faithful reproductions. Hiroshige's sparklingly free-spirited watercolor sketches of serene and majestic landscapes, people performing everyday tasks, scenes from Kabuki drama, examples of geisha culture, and folk tales and legends are duplicated with every nuance of color, texture, and detail intact. And great care was taken even to make certain the paper looked and felt like the paper used in the originals.
Daniel J. Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, expresses his appreciation of Hiroshige's art in his foreword: ''For our overphotographed age, these sketch-books of Hiroshige are a vivid reminder of what only the artist can do. . . . The economy of these pages, like the simplicity of the Japanese garden, reminds us of the Zen paradox of the redolence and fullness of empty space. Hiroshige exploits the narrow whiteness of these pages, by a few lines or brushstrokes, offering a kind of personal vitality which photographic detail could never supply. His sparse suggestions - a monk viewing Mount Fuji, the nighttime silhouettes of men, the hints of crows and cranes - all invite us to make the scene our own. No study of art history or chronology is needed to enjoy the shock and revelation of the blank page transformed.''
All that is needed is a relaxed frame of mind, and the willingness to savor the products of a creative sensibility that could distill a mountain landscape or a young woman catching fireflies into five or six exquisitely placed color washes and as many precisely placed lines.
The two volumes are accordion-bound, creating an easy flow from picture to picture. Movement is from front to back, in Western rather than Eastern fashion, with explicit explanations as to subject and historical context provided at the rear of each book.
The journey into Hiroshige's world begins with a view of Mount Fuji as seen from a lowlands marsh, and proceeds easily and comfortably until it ends 49 images later with a delightful sketch of a man walking home in the snow.
The artist's style is sparse, muted in color, and very much to the point. If three brushstrokes were all he felt were necessary to bring a scene or an object to life, then three were all it got. And he had no qualms whatever about leaving 90 percent of the pictorial space blank if it made the image more effective.
Particularly impressive is the ease with which Hiroshige modified and personalized a great Eastern pictorial tradition to accommodate his own unique and occasionally somewhat idiosyncratic personality and vision. Thus, while these sketches could only have been made by someone deeply steeped in the disciplines and formal ideals of Japanese - and therefore of Chinese - art, they also reveal the distinctive touches of a powerful individualist. Only a master rising above the strict rules of a traditional style could have dashed off waves , silhouettes at dusk, cats at play, and waterfalls with such directness and character, and in a manner that evokes the sketches of Goya and Turner almost as much as those of his compatriot Hokusai.
Much of this, however, would have remained unclear, had the reproductions in these two volumes not been so exactly attuned to the originals and had the publisher not taken the trouble to present us with the feel, the atmosphere, and the illusion of the actuality of Hiroshige's remarkable sketches in watercolor.