The work of Takahashi Shotei (also known as Hiroaki or Komei) paved the way for many other shin hanga designers. Takahashi was the first artist to work with the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo, and he designed prolific numbers of prints, more than any other shin hanga artist. Though many of Takahashi's prints were intended simply as inexpensive tourist souvenirs, some are high quality, memorable designs worth consideration by collectors.
Takahashi Shotei was born in January 1871 in the Asakusa section of Tokyo. His given name was Takahashi Katsutaro. Starting at the age of nine, he studied drawing with his uncle, the Japanese-style painter Matsumoto Fuko. As a young man, Takahashi worked for the Imperial Household Department of Foreign Affairs copying ceremonial designs. He also illustrated magazines, textbooks, and scientific articles. In 1891, he organized the Japan Youth Painting Society with fellow artist Terazaki Kogyo.
A turning point in Takahashi's career came in 1907, when he began to design woodblock prints for the Watanabe publishing company. His early prints were signed 'Shotei', the art name he took around 1902. Around 1921, Takahashi changed his artist's name to 'Hiroaki', occasionally using the name 'Komei'. His prints have a great variety of seals and signatures, which sometimes makes identification difficult.
Many of Takahashi's early landscapes were derived stylistically from ukiyo-e designs. They proved popular with Western customers, and Watanabe had great success selling them along with ukiyo-e reproductions, printed cards, and calendars. However, Watanabe wanted to publish prints in a more modern style and he decided to pursue collaborations with other artists, including Fritz Capelari and Kawase Hasui.
Unfortunately in 1923, Watanabe's business was devastated by the Kanto earthquake which hit Tokyo. Takahashi had designed around 500 prints for Watanabe before the earthquake, and the blocks for these were destroyed in the resulting fire. Over the following years, Takahashi continued to work for Watanabe, creating between 150 and 250 new designs. These prints included a variety of greeting cards and small landscapes remarkably similar to his earlier designs. However, Takahashi did create many striking prints in a more modern style, such as the lovely Fuji River, published around 1926.
During the 1930's, Takahashi began working with Fusui Gabo, a lesser known Tokyo publisher. It is speculated that this relationship allowed Takahashi more freedom, as Watanabe's business was limited by conservative Western tastes. Takahashi designed several seductive bijin-ga prints for Gabo, and he continued to focus on Mount Fuji in his landscape prints. Several sources report that he was killed by the atomic bomb in August 1945 while visiting his daughter in Hiroshima. However, Watanabe's 1962 catalogue indicates that he died in Hiroshima in April 1945. Perhaps because his designs vary so widely in their style and originality, Takahashi Shotei remains one of the most under-appreciated shin hanga artists.