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Year:
2014
Publisher:
Parkstone Press International
Language:
english
Pages:
512
ISBN 10:
1783105143
ISBN 13:
9781783105144
Series:
Essential
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ESSENTIAL

Hokusai

Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) and Jules de Goncourt(1830-1870) spent the majority of
their lives in Paris. Having attended the finest schools, the Goncourts formed one of the most
famous literary partnerships. After an unsuccessful novel and some attempts at drama, they
began publishing books on various aspects of art and society in 18th-century France. Between
1860 and 1869 the brothers published six novels which they described as “history which might
have taken place” and which were as carefully documented as their historical works.

Edmond de Goncourt

T

hrough his elegant brush paintings and masterful woodblocks, Katsushika Hokusai
(1760-1849) became one of Japan’s most internationally-renowned artists. A master
of Ukiyo-e art, he single-handedly transformed the art form from a simple style
focused on courtesans and famous actors into a grander style depicting the beauty of nature
seen through landscapes and wildlife. His style of art and subject evolved as many times as
he changed his name, but Hokusai’s talent as an artist remained constant and his influential
role in later art movements such as Art Nouveau and Impressionism remains eternal.

Hokusai
Edmond de Goncourt

Author:
Edmond de Goncourt
Layout:
Baseline Co. Ltd
61A-63A Vo Van Tan Street
4th Floor
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam
© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA
© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
Image-Bar www.image-bar.com
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission
of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright
on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers, artists, heirs or
estates. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish
copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.
ISBN: 978-1-78310-514-4

Edmond de Goncourt

Hokusai

Contents
Foreword
7
I. Life of Hokusai
9
II. Surimonos, Yellow Books, and Illustrated Novels
81
II; I. Manga and Sketchbooks
237
IV. Poetry Albums, Plates, Panels, and Other Works
387
Biography
496
Glossary
500
List of Illustrations
504

6

Foreword

H

okusaiÊs talent travelled across land and sea
to Europe long ago. But his work, so original,
so diverse, and so prolific, still remains misunderstood. It is true that, even in the artistÊs homeland,
though he has always been immensely popular, his
work has not been received with the same fervour
by the academy and by the elite as by the Japanese
people. Was he not reproached, in his own time,
for only doing Âvulgar paintingsÊ? Then, however, few
artists knew how to delve into the potential of
drawing techniques and methods as he did. What
artist can vaunt his ability to draw with his fingernails,
his feet, or even his left hand (if right-handed) or
inverted, with such virtuosity, that it seems to have
been drawn in the most conventional way?
Hokusai illustrated more than 120 works, one of
which, the Suiko-Gaden, consisted of ninety
volumes. He collaborated on about thirty volumes:
yellow books and popular books at first, eastern
and western promenades, glimpses of famous
places, practical manuals for decorators and
artisans, a life of Sakyamuni, a conquest of Korea,
tales, legends, novels, biographies of heroes and
heroines and the thirty-six women poets and one
hundred male poets, with songbooks and multiple
albums of birds, plants, patrons of new fashion,

books on education, morals, anecdotes, and
fantastic and natural sketches.
Hokusai tried everything, and succeeded. He was
tireless, multitalented, and brilliant. He accumulated
drawings upon drawings, stamps upon stamps,
informing himself very specifically about his compatriots, their work, and their interests, and about the
people in the streets, those in the fields, and those on
the sea. He opened the gates to the walls that hid
brilliant courtesans, their silks and embroidery, and
the large belt knots spread across their chests and
stomachs. He frightened observers with apparitions
from his most awful and stirring, fantastic imagination.
To understand the art of a very particular, distant
people, it is not sufficient to learn, more or less
well, their language; it is necessary to penetrate
their soul, their tastes – one must be the obedient
student of this soul and these tastes. It is, after all,
founded on love, the profound ecstasy that artists
feel in expressing their country. They love it passionately, they cherish its beauty, its clarity, and they try
to reproduce its life from the heart. A happy
affliction, Hokusai was an eminent representative
of those who work incessantly.
- Léon Hennique

Self-Portrait of Hokusai at Eighty-Three, 1842.
Ink on paper, 26.9 x 16.9 cm. Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
Women with a Telescope, from the series The Seven Bad Habits (Fu-ryu- nakute nana kuse), late 1790s.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 36.8 × 24.8 cm. Kobe City Museum, Kobe. (p. 8)
7

I. Life of Hokusai

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

H

okusai was born in 1760, sometime in
October or November. He was born in
Edo in the Honjo neighbourhood, close
to the Sumida River and to the countryside, a
neighbourhood to which the painter was much
attached. He even signed his drawings, for a
time, „the peasant from Katsushika‰, Katsushika
being the provincial district where the Honjo
neighbourhood is located.
According to the will left by his granddaughter, Shiraï Tati, he was the third son of
Kawamura Itiroyemon, who, under the name
Bunsei, would have been an artist of the new
profession. Near the age of four, Hokusai,
whose first name was Tokitaro-, was adopted by
Nakajima Ise, mirror designer for the Tokugawa
royal family.
Hokusai, whilst still a child, became the assistant
to a great bookseller in Edo where, whilst
contemplating illustrated books, he carried out his
duties as assistant so lazily and disdainfully that
he was fired. Paging through the booksellerÊs
illustrated books and life in images for long
months developed the young manÊs taste and
passion for drawing.

In 1774, he began an apprenticeship with a
woodcutter and in 1775, under the name Tetsuzo-,
he engraved the last six pages of a novel by
Santchô. Thus, he became a woodcutter, which he
continued until the age of eighteen.
In 1778, Hokusai, then named Tetsuzo-, abandoned his profession as a woodcutter. He was no
longer willing to be the interpreter, the translator
of anotherÊs talent. He was taken by the desire to
invent, to compose, and to give a personal form
to his creations. He had the ambition to become
a painter.
He entered, at the age of eighteen, the studio of
Katsukawa Shunsho-, where his budding talent
earned him the name of Katsukawa Shunro-.
There, he painted actors and theatre sets in the
style of Tsutzumi Torin and produced many looseleaf drawings, called kyoka surimono. The master
allowed him to sign, under this name, his compositions representing a series of actors, in the
upright format of the drawings of actors by
Shunsho-, his master.
At this time, the young Shunro- began to show a bit
of the great sketch artist who would become the

Kintoki the Herculean Child with a Bear and an Eagle, c. 1790-1795. Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 37.2 x 24.8 cm (o-ban).
Ostasiatische Kunstsammlung, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.
The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo IV, 1791.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 30.8 x 14 cm (hosoban). Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo. (p. 12)
11

12

13

HOKUSAI

great Hokusai. With perseverance and relentless
work, he continued to draw and to produce, until
1786, compositions bearing the signature of
Katsukawa Shunro-, or simply, Shunro-.
In 1789, the young painter, at twenty-nine years
old, was forced to leave KatsukawaÊs studio
under peculiar circumstances. As a matter of fact,
Hokusai would keep the odd habit of perpetually
moving and of never living more than one or two
months in the same place.
This departure took place under the following
circumstances: Hokusai had painted a poster
of a stamp merchant and the merchant was so
happy with the poster that he had it richly
framed and placed in front of his shop. One
day, one of his fellow students at the studio,
who had studied there longer than he, passed
the shop. He thought the poster was bad and
tore it down to save the honour of the Shunshostudio. A dispute ensued between the elder
and the younger student, following which
Hokusai left the studio, resolving to work only
from his own inspiration and to become a
painter independent of the schools that
preceded him.

In this country where artists seem to change names
almost as often as clothes, he abandoned the
signature of Katsukawa to take that of Mugura,
which means shrub, telling the public that the
painter bearing this new name did not belong to
any studio.
Completely shaking off the yoke of the Katsukawa
style, the drawings signed ÂMuguraÊ are freer and
adopt a personal perspective.
Hokusai married twice, but the names of his two
wives are unknown. It is also not known whether or
not his separation from them was due to death or
divorce. It is certain that the painter lived alone
after the age of fifty-two or fifty-three.
By his first wife, Hokusai had a son and two
daughters. His first son, Tominosuke, took over the
house of the mirror designer Nakajima Ise and led
a disorderly life, causing his father many problems.
His daughter Omiyo became the wife of the
painter Yanagawa Shighenobu. She died shortly
after her divorce and after having given birth to a
grandson who was a source of tribulation for his
grandfather. His second daughter, Otetsu, was a
truly gifted painter who died very young.

The Actor Sakata Hangoro- III, 1791.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 31.4 x 13.5 cm (hosoban). William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (p.13)
The Actor Ichikawa Yaozo III in the Role of Soga no Goro- and Iwai Hanshiro IV in the Role of His Mistress, Sitting, 1791.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), hosoban. Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto.
14

15

HOKUSAI

Suehirogari, 1797-1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 20.7 x 31.9 cm. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
16

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Two Women Puppeteers, c. 1795.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Private collection, United Kingdom.
17

18

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

By his second wife, Hokusai also had a son and
two daughters. His second son, Akitiro, was a civil
servant of the Tokugawa rule and a poet, and
became the adopted son of Kase Sakijiuro. He
erected HokusaiÊs tomb and took on his name.
The grandson of Akitiro, named Kase Tchojiro,
was the schoolyard friend of Hayashi, a great
collector of Japanese art. HokusaiÊs other
daughters were Onao, who died in her
childhood, and Oyei, who married a painter
named Tomei but divorced him and lived with her
father until the end of his life. She was an artist,
who illustrated Onna Chohoki, an educational
book for women covering etiquette. Hokusai had
two older brothers and a younger sister, all of
whom died in their childhood.

It is plausible that, following commitments made by
the grandfather to keep his grandson from going to
prison, commitments that he could not keep, he
was forced to leave Edo in secret.
He took refuge more than thirty leagues away in
the Sagami province, in the city of Uraga, hiding
his artistic name under the common name of
Miuraya Hatiyemon. Even upon returning to Edo,
he did not dare, at first, give out his address and
called himself the Âpriest-painterÊ, moving into the
courtyard of the Mei-o-in temple, in the middle of a
small forest.

His life was filled with pitfalls. Thus, near the end
of 1834, serious problems arose in the old
painterÊs life.

Some interesting letters from the painter to his
editors remain from this exile, which lasted from
1834 until 1839. These letters attest to the old
manÊs trials caused by his grandsonÊs mischief, and
to the destitution of the great artist, who
complained, one harsh winter, of having only one
robe to keep his septuagenarian body warm.

HokusaiÊs daughter, Omiyo, married the painter,
Yanagawa Shighenobu. The child from this
marriage was a veritable good-for-nothing, whose
swindles, always paid for by Hokusai, were the
cause of his misery during his last years.

These letters unveil his attempts to soften his
editors, through the melancholy exposition of
his misery, illustrated with nice sketches. They
also unveil some of his ideas on translating his
drawings into woodcuts, initiated in the language

The Actor Ichikawa Omezo- in the Role of Soga no Goro-, 1792.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 27.2 x 12.7 cm. Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
Depiction of a Grand Kabuki Performance in the Eastern Capital,
by the Originator of Perspective Pictures (Uki-e genso Edo kabuki o-shibai no zu), c. 1788-1789.
Uki-e, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 26.3 x 39.3 cm. British Museum, London. (pp. 20-21)
19

20

21

HOKUSAI

marked by crude images with which he was
able to make the workers charged with printing
his works understand the way to obtain
artistic prints.
The year 1839, which followed three years
of poor rice harvests, was a year of scarcity
during which Japanese restrained their spending
and no longer bought images. Editors refused
to cover the publication costs of a book or a
single plate.
During this editorsÊ strike, Hokusai, counting on the
popularity of his name, had the idea of composing
albums from „the tip of his brush‰, and he earned
about what he needed to live during this year from
the sale of these original drawings, undoubtedly
sold very cheaply.
It was in 1839 that Hokusai returned to Edo, after
four years of exile in Uraga. But this was another
miserable year for the artist. He had only just
moved in, again settling in Honjo, the country
neighbourhood that the painter loved, when a fire
burnt his house; it destroyed many of his drawings,
outlines, and sketches, and the painter was only
able to save his brush.

22

At the age of sixty-eight or sixty-nine, Hokusai had
an attack of apoplexy, from which he emerged
by treating it with Âlemon pasteÊ, a remedy in
Japanese medicine, whose composition was
given by the painter to his friend Tosaki, with
sketches in the margin of the prescription representing the lemon, the knife for cutting the lemon,
and the pot.
Here is the composition of this Âlemon pasteÊ:
„Within twenty-four Japanese hours [forty-eight
hours] of the attack, take a lemon and cut it into
small pieces with a bamboo knife, not an iron
or copper one. Put the lemon, thus cut, into a
clay pot. Add a go [one quarter of a litre] of
very good sake and let it cook over low heat
until the mixture thickens. Then, you must
swallow, in two doses, the lemon paste, after
removing the seeds in hot water; the medicinal
effect will take place after twenty-four or
thirty hours.‰
This remedy completely cured Hokusai and seems
to have kept him healthy until 1849, when he fell
ill at ninety years old, in a house in Asakusa, the
ninety-third home in his vagabond life of moving
from one house to another.

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Concert under the Wisteria, c. 1796-1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 25.2 x 38.4 cm (o-ban). Musée national des Arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris.
Actor Ichikawa Komazô III as Shirai Gonpachi and Actor Matsumoto Kôshirô IV as Banzui Chôbei, c. 1791.
Diptych, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 31.8 x 13.7 cm; 31.8 x 14.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (pp. 24-25)
23

24

25

26

27

HOKUSAI

Depiction of a Grand Kabuki Performance in the Eastern Capital,
by the Originator of Perspective Pictures (Uki-e genso Edo kabuki o-shibai no zu), c. 1779-1793.
Uki-e, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). British Museum, London. (pp. 26-27)
Crossing a Bridge, from the kyo-ka album The Stamping Song of Men (Otokodoka), 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 20.6 x 36 cm (aiban). Musée national des Arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris.
28

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

This is, undoubtedly, when he wrote to his old
friend Takaghi this ironically allusive letter: „King
Yemma is very old and is preparing to retire from
business. He has built, to this end, a pretty country
house and he has asked me to go and paint him
a kakemono. I am thus obliged to leave, and when
I do leave, I will take my drawings with me. I will
rent an apartment at the corner of Hell Street,
where I will be happy to have you visit if you have
the occasion to stop by. Hokusai.‰
At the time of his last illness, Hokusai was
surrounded by the filial love of his students, and was
cared for by his daughter Oyei, who had divorced
her husband and was living with her father.
The thoughts of the dying, Âcrazy artistÊ, always
trying to defer his death to perfect his talent, made
him repeat in a voice that was no longer more than
a whisper, „If heaven would only give me ten more
years⁄‰ There, Hokusai broke off, and after a
pause, „if heaven would only give me five more
years of life⁄ I could become a truly great painter.‰
Hokusai died at the age of ninety, on the eighteenth
day of the fourth month of the second year of Kayei
(10 May 1849, or according to some on 18 April).

The poetry of his last moment, as he left in death,
is almost untranslatable: „Oh! Freedom, beautiful
freedom, when one goes into the summer fields to
leave his perishable body there!‰
Another tomb was erected for him by his granddaughter, Shiraï Tati, in the garden of the Seikyoji
temple of Asakusa, next to the gravestone of his
father, Kawamura Itiroyemon.
One can read on the large gravestone,„gakyo-jin
Manjino Haka‰ (Tomb of Manji, crazy old artist)
and, on the base, „Kawamura Uji‰ (Kawamura
family). On the left side of the gravestone, at the
top, are three religious names: Firstly, Nanso-in
Kiyo Hokusai shinji (the knight of the faith, Hokusai
in colourful glory), Nanso (a religious figure from
the South of So); Secondly, Seisen-in Ho-oku Mioju
Shin-nio, the name of a woman who died in
1828, who may be his second wife; Thirdly, Jô-un
Mioshin Shin-nio, the name of a woman who died
in 1821, that of one of his daughters.
It is uncertain as to whether or not there is an
existing authentic portrait of the master. The portrait
of Hokusai, together with the novelist Bakin, after
a stamp by Kuniyoshi, is no longer a portrait

An Artisan’s Shop, from the album The Mist of Sandara (Sandara kasumi), 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 20 x 31.6 cm (aiban). Clarence Buckingham Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. (pp. 30-31)
Ushigafuchi at Kudan (Kudan Ushigafuchi), from an untitled series of landscapes in Western style, c. 1800-1805.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 18 x 24.5 cm (chu-ban). William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (pp. 32-33)
29

30

31

32

33

HOKUSAI

as the sketch represents him kneeling, offering
the editor his little yellow book, „The Tactics of
General Fourneau‰, or of „Improvisational Cuisine‰.
Of the great artist, there are no childhood or
adult portraits.
The only existing portrait is the one given by Iijima
HanjuroÊs Japanese biography, a portrait of him as
an old man, preserved in the family and which had
been painted by his daughter Oyei, who signed
ÂOhiÊ. One sees a forehead furrowed by deep
wrinkles, eyes marked by crowÊs feet with swollen
bags beneath them, and there is, in the half-closed
eyes, some of that mist that sculptors of netzukes
place in the look of their ascetics.
The man has a large, bony nose, a thin mouth
tucked under the fold of his cheeks, and the square
chin of a strong will, connected to his neck by
wattles. The colouring of the image, which matches
fairly closely the tone of old flesh, renders well the
anaemic pallor of the bags under his eyes, around
his mouth, and of his earlobes.
What is striking about the face of this man of
genius is its length, from his eyebrows to his
chin, and the low height and dented top of his

head, with, at the temples, a few rare little hairs
resembling the young grass which appears in
his landscapes.
Another portrait of Hokusai, of which a facsimile
was published in the Katsushika den, represents
him near the age of eighty, next to a pot, crouching
under a blanket, showing the profile of an old
head shaking and of thin legs. The origin of this
portrait is as follows: the editor Szabo ordered the
illustration of the ÂHundred PoetsÊ, from Hokusai.
The artist, before starting his work, sent a sample
to determine the format of the publication and on
this sample, his brush left this ÂcaricatureÊ.
The style called Hokusai-riu is the style of true
ukiyo-e painting, naturalist painting, and Hokusai is
the one and only founder of a painting style, based
on Chinese painting, which is the style of the
modern Japanese school. Hokusai victoriously lifted
up paintings of his country with Persian and
Chinese influences, and by a study one might call
religious in nature, rejuvenated it, renewed it, and
made it uniquely Japanese.
He is also a universal painter who, with very lively
drawings, reproduced men, women, birds, fish,

Chinese Goddess Taichen Wang Furen and a Dragon with Qin, 1798.
Diptych, ink, colour, and gofun on paper, 125.4 x 56.5 cm each. Private collection.
34

35

HOKUSAI

Act I (Sho-dan), from the illustrated book Chu-hingura (Shinpan ukie Chu-hingura), c. 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 32.7 cm (aiban). British Museum, London.
36

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

trees, flowers, and sprigs of herbs. He completed
30,000 drawings or paintings. He is also the true
creator of the ukiyo-e, the founder of the Âécole
vulgaire Ê, which is to say that he was not content
to imitate the academic painters of the Tosa school,
by representing, in a precious style, the splendour
of the court, the official life of high dignitaries, the
artificial pomp of aristocratic existence; he brought
into his work the entire humanity of his country in a
reality that escapes from the noble requirements of
traditional Japanese painting.

fact that Hokusai was one of the most original
artists that prevented him from enjoying the glory he
merited during his life.

He was passionate about his art, to the point of
madness, and sometimes signed his productions,
„the drawing madman‰.

In fact, Hokusai painted everything from his most
common images, called kamban, which is to say
Âvisual advertisementsÊ for travelling theatre
companies, all the way up to the most sophisticated compositions.

However, this painter – outside of the cult status
given to him by his students – was considered by
his contemporaries to be an entertainer for the
masses, a low artist of works not worthy of being
seen by serious men of taste in the Land of the
Rising Sun. Hokusai did not receive from the public
the veneration accorded to the great painters of
Japan, because he devoted himself to representing
Âcommon lifeÊ, but since he had inherited the artistic
schools of Kano and Tosa, he certainly surpassed
the Okiyo and the Buncho. Ironically, it was the

He used his painting and drawing talents in the
most varied of domains. The artist declared: „After
having studied the painting from the various
schools for a long time, I penetrated their secrets
and I took away the best parts of each. Nothing is
unfamiliar to me in painting. I tried my brush at
everything I happened upon and succeeded.‰

At first, Hokusai was often both the illustrator and
the writer of the novel he was publishing. His
literature is appreciated for its intimate observations of Japanese life. It is even sometimes
attributed, as was his first novel, to the wellknown novelist, Santo- Kyo-den.
The painterÊs literature also has other merits; the
mocking spirit of the artist made him a parodist

A View of Honmoku off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki Honmoku no zu), from an untitled series of landscapes in Western style, c. 1800-1805.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 23.3 x 35.3 cm (aiban). David Caplan Collection. (pp. 38-39)
37

HOKUSAI

of the literature of his contemporaries, of their
style, of their conduct, and above all, of the
accumulation of affairs and of the historical
jumble. This double role of writer and sketch artist
only lasted until 1804, when he devoted himself
exclusively to painting.
During the Kansei era (1789-1800), Hokusai
wrote many stories and novels for women and
children, novels for which he did his own illustrations and novels that he signed as the author
Tokitaro- Kako- and as the painter gakyo-jin Hokusai.
It was thanks to his spiritual and precise brushstrokes that the popular stories and novels
began to become known to the public. He was
also an excellent poet of haiku (popular poetry).
Not having had enough time to transmit all of
his painting methods to his students, he
engraved them into volumes that would later be
highly successful.
During the Tempo- era (1830-1843), Hokusai
published an immense number of nishiki-e, colour
prints and drawings of love, or obscene images,
called shunga, with admirable shading, that he
always signed with the pseudonym Gummatei.

40

He was also highly skilled in the painting called
kioku-ye, fantasy painting, done with objects or
tableware dipped in Indian ink, such as boxes
used as measuring cups, eggs, or bottles. He also
painted admirably well with his left hand, or even
from bottom to top. Those of his paintings done
with his fingernails are especially surprising and if
one did not see the artist at work, one would think
them done with brushes.
His work had the good fortune not only of exciting
the admiration of his fellow painters, but also of
attracting the masses because of its special novelty.
His productions were highly sought-after by
foreigners and there was even a year in which his
drawings and woodcuts were exported by the
hundreds, but almost as suddenly, the Tokugawa
government banned this export.
An anecdote attests to this fame. In fact, at the end
of the 18th century, HokusaiÊs talent not only made
him popular with his compatriots, but he was also
appreciated by the Dutch. One of them, believed
to be Captain Isbert Hemmel, had the intelligent
idea of bringing back to Europe two scrolls done
by the illustrious masterÊs brush. They represent, in
the first, all the stages in the life of a Japanese man

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

An Oiran and Her Two Shinzo- Admiring the Cherry Trees in Bloom in Nakanocho, c. 1796-1800.
Double-length surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 47.8 x 65 cm. Musée national des Arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris.
Spring at Enoshima (Enoshima shunbo-), from the series The Threads of the Willow (Yanagi no ito), 1797.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 24.9 x 38 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London. (pp. 42-43)
41

HOKUSAI

A Mountainous Landscape with a Bridge, c. 1799.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 12.6 x 17.1 cm. Matthi Forrer Collection.
44

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Asters and Susuki Grass, c. 1805.
Double-length surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 41.1 x 55.8 cm. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
45

HOKUSAI

Women on a Veranda Stretching Cloth to Dry, c. 1799.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 23.4 x 35.2 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
46

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

from birth to death, and in the second, all the
stages in the life of a Japanese woman. Hokusai
received, from a Dutch doctor, an order for two
scrolls and for two more for the captain.
The price, agreed upon between the buyers and
the artist, was 150 ryo-s in gold (the gold ryo- being
worth one pound sterling). Hokusai brought all his
care and technical knowledge to the creation of
these four scrolls. They were completed by the time
of departure of the Dutchmen. When he delivered
the scrolls, the captain, enchanted, gave him the
agreed price, but the doctor, on the pretext that he
was not treated as well as the captain, only
wanted to pay half of the price. Hokusai refused to
accept this.
However, the sum that the painter should have
earned was already slated to pay off some debts
and HokusaiÊs wife scolded him for not having
given one scroll to the doctor, since that sum would
have saved them from deep poverty. Hokusai let
his wife speak and, after a long silence, told her
that he had no illusions about the poverty that
awaited them, but he would not stand for the greed
of a stranger who treated them with so little respect,
adding: „I prefer poverty to having someone walk

all over me.‰ The captain, when he heard of the
doctorÊs behaviour, sent his interpreter with the
money and bought the two scrolls ordered by the
doctor. Hokusai continued to sell some of his
drawings to the Dutch, until he was banned from
selling details of the intimate lives of the Japanese
people to foreigners.
The 300 ryo-s in gold paid to Hokusai by Dutch
Captain Isbert Hemmel, for the four makimonos on
Japanese life, was certainly the largest payment the
painter had ever obtained for his works. In fact, his
book illustrations – the artistÊs principal revenue –
were poorly remunerated by editors, even at the
time when the artist enjoyed his greatest celebrity.
One can take as evidence this fragment from a
letter sent from Uraga in 1836 to the editor,
Kobayashi: „I am sending you three and a half
pages of „Poetry of the Tang Epoch‰. Of the fortytwo mommes [one ryo- is equal to sixty mommes]
that I have earned, keep one-and-a-half mommes
that I owe you; please give the rest, forty and one
half mommes, to the courier.‰
This story also shows the great poverty in which the
artist lived, even into his old age. Thus, we also

47

HOKUSAI

Three Ladies in a Boat, from the kyo- ka album The Elegance of Spring (Haru no miyabi), c. 1797.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 16.7 x 39.2 cm. Peter Morse Collection.
The Semi-Legendary Hero, Asahina Saburo-, c. 1797. Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 10.4 x 18.5 cm (koban).
Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
48

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Fuji, from Four Famous Names (Shisho no uchi), c. 1822.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 20.9 x 18.4 cm.
Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
49

HOKUSAI

know that Hokusai borrowed miserable sums to
pay for his daily needs from fruit sellers and
fishmongers, and see the request the painter made
of an editor to borrow one ryo- , pleading with him
to pay this meagre amount in the smallest change
possible in order to pay his petty debts to his neighbourhood merchants.
Also attesting to this poverty is another letter in
which Hokusai complains of having only one robe
to keep his seventy-six-year-old body warm during
a harsh winter. The artist lived all his life in deep
poverty because of the low prices paid in Japan
by editors to artists, because of his independent
spirit, in the name of which he would only accept
work that he liked, and also because of the debts
that he had to pay for his son, Tominosuke, and for
his grandson by his daughter Omiyo. Moreover,
he had a certain vanity about his poverty.
In 1834, Hokusai sent the following letter to his
three editors, Kobayashi, Hanabusa, and
Kakumaruya: „As I am travelling, I do not have
the time to write to you individually, and am
sending to the three of you this one letter that I
hope you will all read in turn. I do not doubt that
you would like to grant an old man the requests

50

that he makes of you, and I hope that your
families are all doing well. As for your old man,
he is still the same, the strength of his brush
continues to build, and to, more than ever,
exercise care. When he is one hundred years
old, he will become one of the true artists.‰
The old painter signed at length, „old Hokusai, the
crazy old artist, the beggar priest,‰ but his letter is,
in so many words, entirely in this postscript: „For
the book of ÂWarriorsÊ [undoubtedly Ehon
Sakigake, ÂThe Heroes of China and JapanÊ,
printed and engraved by Yegawa], I hope that the
three of you will give it to Yegawa Tomekiti. As for
the price, arrange that directly with him. The reason
I am adamant that the woodcuts be by Yegawa is
that, whilst both the Hokusai Manga and the
ÂPoetryÊ are certainly two well-engraved works,
they are far from the perfection of the three volumes
of ÂMount FujiÊ that he engraved. Now, if my
drawings are cut by a good engraver, that will
encourage me to work, and if the book is a
success, that is also to our advantage because it
will bring you greater profit. Do not think that it is
to earn a commission that I recommend Yegawa
to you so highly; what I seek is clean execution,
and that would be a satisfaction you could give

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Longing for My Hometown (Kaikokyo-), 1798-1810.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 57.2 x 76.2 cm (nagaban).
Clarence Buckingham Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
51

HOKUSAI

Girls Picking Blossoms, c. 1796.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19 x 36.1 cm. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
52

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Three Ladies by a Well, c. 1795-1796.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19 x 35.7 cm. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
53

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

to a poor old man who has not much farther to go
[here the painter drew himself, as an old man
walking, supported by two brushes instead of
crutches]. As for The Life of Çakyamouni [Shakuson
Ilidaïki Zuye, an illustrated novel published in
1839], Souzanbô promised me to have it
engraved by Yegawa, and I drew it based on this
choice: the curly hair of the Indians being very
difficult to engrave, even the forms of the bodies,
and there is absolutely no one but Yegawa who
can execute this work. Hanabusa, after his visit
some time ago, told me, when he ordered the
ÂWarriorsÊ from me, that he would not leave me
unoccupied and I remind him of his good word.
„You ordered from my daughter an illustration of
the ÂHundred PoetsÊ, but I would rather illustrate this
book, which I will undertake myself after having
finished the ÂWarriorsÊ. As for the price, we will
come to an agreement, as for a poet. But however,
can we agree in advance that it will be Yegawa
who will engrave the book?‰ The letter ends with a
sketch in which he salutes his editors.
Another letter from Hokusai was sent to the editor
Kobayashi, dated 1835: „I did not ask about you,
but I am happy to know that you are in good

health. As for myself, I saw the delinquent, the
incorrigible who will always fall back on me. Since
then, I have had to ask for the advice of friends
and family.
„Finally, I found a respondent [someone who
would take responsibility for watching over him].
We will make him manage a fish store, and we
have also found him a wife who will arrive here in
two or three days. But all that is still at my expense.
It is due to these obstacles that I am behind in illustrating the Suikoden and Toshisen [Tang poetry],
for which I have only started the sketches. I will,
however, send you some drawings and in that
case, I am counting on⁄‰ Here, the painter drew
a hand holding a silver coin.
Another, undated letter was also sent to the editor,
Kobayashi: „With the clear tones of Indian ink, I
delete all the vignetting. Since, whilst done all by
itself with the tip of the brush, the worker printing
the plates could at least make 200 vignetted
copies for the painter; beyond that number is
impossible. For the light ink tone, make it as light as
possible; the trend towards dark tones makes the
print hard on the eyes. Tell the worker that the light
ink tone should be the same as that of scallop

A Mare and Her Foal, 1795-1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 35.5 x 24 cm (aiban). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
55

56

Nocturnal Scene, c. 1798.
Long surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
57

HOKUSAI

soup, which is to say very light; now, for the
medium ink tone, if it is printed too lightly, it will
take away the power of the tint, and you need to
tell the print worker that the medium tint must have
a thick texture, somewhat like bean soup. In any
case, I will examine the proofs, but at present, I
recommend these details because I want to have
my drawings well executed.‰
A last letter by Hokusai, written at the beginning of
the year 1836, was sent to the editor Kobayashi
from Uraga. This letter, written about New YearÊs
Day, is headed by a sketch in which the painter,
in official garb, is taking a deep bow between
two fir branches. „There are several doors at
which I must express my wishes for the New Year,
so I will return another day, and goodbye,
goodbye⁄ But, until then, concerning the
drawings to be engraved, please discuss the
details with Yegawa.
„However, a bit later you will find a recommendation
for the other woodcutters. Thank you for your frequent
loans. I think that by the beginning of the second
month of the year, I will have used up the paper, the
colours, and the brushes, and that I will be forced to
go to Edo, in person, so I will visit you secretly and

tell you all the details that you may need. In this harsh
season, above all during my travels, all things are
very difficult, such as living in this severe cold with
one lone robe, at the age of seventy-six. I ask you to
think of the sad conditions in which I find myself, but
my arm [here a sketch of his arm] has not weakened
in the least, and I work with determination.
„My only pleasure is becoming a good artist.‰
At the end of the letter, he represents himself in a
microscopic sketch, humbly saluting between his
hat and his drawing set on the ground. Hokusai
loved postscripts, and so his letter continues: „I
recommend that the engraver not add the lower
eyelid when I do not draw it; for the noses, these
two noses are mine [here a drawing of a nose in
profile and from the front] and those that one is
accustomed to engraving are UtagawaÊs noses,
which I do not like at all and which counter the
rules of drawing. It is also fashionable to draw eyes
this way [here, drawings of eyes with a black dot
in the centre], but I do not like these eyes any more
than the noses.‰
Hokusai ended his letter with this sentence: „As my
life, at this moment, is not a public one, I will not
give you my address here.‰

Returning Sails of Tsunagoro- (Tsunagoro- no kihan), from Eight Views of Classy Chivalrous Men (Furyu otokodate hakkei), 1789.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 21.6 x 16 cm (chu-ban). British Museum, London.
58

59

Finally, in a letter from 1842, sent to editors
Hanabusa Keikiti and Hanabuza Bunzô after his
return to Edo, he remained in hiding: „A thousand
thanks for your latest friendly visit and also for not
abandoning an old man, and yet again for your
nice New YearÊs gift. Since last spring, my prodigal
grandson has behaved deplorably; I have had,
every day, to occupy myself with cleaning up the
results of his filthy life, and I am at the point of
sending him away.
„But he has found, as always, characters much
too indulgent who have made me wait until the
day he commits a new, more serious error.
However, at the beginning of this year, I had to
have his father Yanagawa Shighenobu take him
to the Montzu province [a northern province], but
he is easily capable of escaping along the way.
Until then, I can breathe a little. Here are the
reasons that have kept me from coming to thank
you for the book by Soga Monogatari [an old
book loaned to him].
„This New Year, I had neither money, nor clothing,
and I am only able to feed myself poorly and am
not seeing my real New Year start until the
middle of its second month. In the second month

Fisherman, 1802-1805.
Kakejiku, black and coloured ink and gofun on paper,
73.8 x 28.4 cm. Hokusai Museum, Obuse.
60

of last year, when Yeibun came to see me, I had
already finished two volumes of Suiko [a ninetyvolume novel started in 1807], but I have not been
able to advance any further.
„In sum, I lost an entire year because of my
mischievous grandson and I regret this precious
year lost. I have kept your Soga Monogatari for
a long time, but I hope that you can leave it
with me until the second month when I will
come to visit you. Another recommendation:
send me the silk for painting the goddess
Dakiniten [the goddess represented mounted on
a fox] as soon as possible, because time
passes as quickly as an arrow and you had
asked me to deliver this painting to you in the
second month. If the text of Gaden is ready,
send it to me when you send me the silk and
also send the price for the illustration of the two
volumes of Gaden.
„When you come, do not ask for Hokusai, no one
will know how to answer you, ask for the priest
who draws and who recently moved into the
building owned by Gorobei in the courtyard of
the Mei-ô-in Temple, in the middle of the woods
(the small forest of Asakusa).‰

Young Girl with Parasol under a Willow in Moonlight, c. 1798.
Kakejiku, ink and colours on paper, 99.7 x 28 cm.
Hosomi Museum, Kyoto.
61

Fisherman Smoking a Pipe on a Rock, 1835.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 21.7 x 18.3 cm. British Museum, London.
62

Two Women and Flowering Plum Tree, 1810 (impression from the original from 1799).
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 14.3 x 32.3 cm (koban). Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
Woman and Child with Vase and Flowers, 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 14 x 27.8 cm (koban). Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
63

64

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

As capricious as all the great artists, Hokusai was
not always in good humour and took a malicious
pleasure in being disagreeable towards people
who did not show him the deference he thought
was due to him or who were, quite simply,
unpleasant, as these anecdotes show.
Onoe Baiko, a great actor of the time, recognised
HokusaiÊs very particular talent for inventing
ghosts, and asked the painter to use his imagination to draw a being from another world to
serve as a representation of a character on a
theatrical set.

drawing. It is not clear what displeased Hokusai,
but we do however know that the painter took
some lice from his robe and roughly threw them
on the visitor, saying that because he was very
busy, he was not available. The visitor resigned
himself to waiting and obtained the drawing he
wanted. But this latter had barely left when
Hokusai, running after him, yelled at him in a
jeering voice: „Do not forget, if people ask you
how my studio is, to tell them that it is very
beautiful! Very clean!‰

The actor invited the painter to come see him,
which Hokusai avoided doing. The actor then
decided to visit him. He found the workshop so
dirty that he did not dare sit on the ground. He had
his travelling blanket brought to him, upon which
he greeted Hokusai. The painter, offended, did not
turn around but continued to paint and, unhappy,
the illustrious Baiko left. But he wanted his drawing
so much that he had the ÂweaknessÊ to apologise
to Hokusai in order to obtain it.

The same fantasy is expressed in his work. In
1804, Hokusai completed, in a public improvisation, a large format painting of a darma. This
event made great waves, and piqued the curiosity
of the Tokugawa shogun, who had wanted to see
the master at work, even though under the
Tokugawa, and to this day, no commoner could
present himself before the shogun. Thus, one
autumn day, upon returning from a hunt with his
falcon, the shogun had Hokusai summoned and
entertained himself by watching the painter execute
his drawings.

At the same time, Hokusai received a visit from a
supplier to the shogun, who came to ask him for a

Suddenly, Hokusai covered half of an immense
piece of paper with indigo and made roosters run

Young Woman Washing, c. 1797.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 14.3 x 10.7 cm (koban). British Museum, London.
65

Mount Fuji behind Cherry Trees in Bloom, c. 1800-1805.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 20.1 x 55.4 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
66

Courtesans and a Cuckoo, c. 1796.
Double-length surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 39.1 x 55.8 cm. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. (pp. 68-69)
67

68

69

HOKUSAI

across it, after plunging their feet into purple ink.
The prince, surprised, had the illusion of seeing the
Tatsuta River with its rapids sweeping up purple
momiji leaves in its waters.
In 1817, during one of HokusaiÊs trips to
Nagoya, the painter received an order for many
book illustrations. Since his students vaunted the
accuracy of the representation of beings and
things in his drawings, particularly those in small
formats, critics of Âvulgar paintingÊ retorted that the
little things produced by HokusaiÊs brush were
crafts and not art.
These words hurt Hokusai and led him to say that,
if a painterÊs talent was measured by the size of
his strokes and his works, he was ready to
surprise his critics.
This was when his student, Bokusen, and his friends,
came to help him execute a tremendous painting in
public, a darma of very different proportions than
the one he painted in 1804. It was completed on
the fifth day of the tenth month of the year, in front
of the temple of Nishig-hakejo. The Japanese
biography of Hokusai tells of this, from a story in
drawings by Yenko-an, a friend of the painter.

70

In the middle of the north courtyard of the temple,
protected by a fence, was spread a sheet of
paper, specially made several times thicker than
ordinary paper. On this piece of paper, Hokusai
would paint a surface equivalent to the area of
120 mats. Knowing that a Japanese mat measures
90 cm wide by 180 cm long, this gave the artist
a painting area 194 m long!
To keep the paper stretched out, a very thick
bed of rice straw was made, and at points,
pieces of wood were set to serve as weights to
keep the wind from lifting the paper. A scaffold
was set up against the council chamber, facing
the public.
At the top of the scaffold, pulleys were attached
to ropes in order to lift the immense drawing,
fixed to a gigantic wooden beam. Large
brushes had been prepared, the smallest being
the width of a broom. Indian ink was stored in
enormous vats, to then be poured into a cask.
These preparations occupied the entire morning,
and from the first light of day, a crowd of
nobles, yokels, women, old men, and children
gathered in the temple courtyard to see the
drawing produced.

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Young Woman with Origami, 1798-1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 12 x 19.1 cm (koban). Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
71

HOKUSAI

Misty Landscape, 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 12.8 x 17.3 cm (koban). Museo d’Arte Orientale – Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
72

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Hotei, God of Fortune, and Two Young Boys, 1798.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Private collection.
73

HOKUSAI

Gokuin Sen’uemon, One of the Five Thieves of Osaka, from the Five Thieves of Osaka, c. 1798.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 13.5 x 18 cm (koban). Private collection.
74

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

In the afternoon, Hokusai and his students got to
work in almost ceremonial garb and with bare
legs and arms, the students carrying ink in the
cask, putting it into a bronze basin and accompanying the painter at work moving across the
giant page.
Hokusai first took a brush the width of a sheaf of
hay. After dipping it in the ink, he drew the nose,
and then the left eye of the darma. He took
several strides and drew the mouth and the ear.
Then, he ran, tracing the outline of the head. That
done, he completed the hair and the beard,
taking, to shade them, another brush made with
strands of coconut that he dipped in a lighter
Indian ink.

buckets and spread it with shovels, whilst others
mopped up the excess colour with wet towels.
It was not until dusk that the darma was
completed. It was lifted up with the pulleys, but
part of the paper stayed in the middle of the
crowd, who, as the Japanese expression says,
resembled an Âarmy of ants around a piece of
cakeÊ. It was not until the next day that they were
able to extend the scaffold sufficiently to lift the
entire painting into the air.
This performance made HokusaiÊs name spread
like wildfire. For some time, one saw darmas, this
saint who had been deprived of sleep, everywhere
throughout the city, drawn on frames, screens,
walls, and even in the sand by children.

At that moment, his students brought, on an
immense platter, a brush made of rice sacks
soaked in ink. To this brush was attached a rope.
The brush was placed at a place indicated by
Hokusai. He attached the rope around his neck
and pulled the brush, with small steps, to make the
thick lines of the darmaÊs robe.

According to the legend, indignant at having fallen
asleep one night, he cut off his eyelids. He threw
them far away, as if they were miserable sinners.
By a miracle, his eyelids took root where they had
fallen and a tea plant grew, providing the fragrant
drink that drives away drowsiness.

When the lines were complete, he had to colour
the robe red. Some students took that colour in

This was not the only huge painting that Hokusai
executed. He later painted a colossal horse, in

75

HOKUSAI

A Ferry on the Sumida River, from the kyo- ka album Birds of the Capital (Miyakodori), c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 23 x 34.8 cm. Mr and Mrs Martin A. Ryerson Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
76

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Women Struggling in the Wind, from the kyo- ka album Birds of the Capital (Miyakodori), c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22.8 x 34.8 cm. Mr and Mrs Martin A. Ryerson Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
77

Honjo. Later still, in Ryogoku, he completed a giant
hotel, which he signed, „Kintaïsga Hokusai ‰,
„Hokusai of the house of the brocade sack‰, alluding
to the canvas sack carried by the gods.
The day he painted the horse the size of an elephant,
we are told that he laid his brush on a grain of rice,
and when the grain of rice was examined under a
magnifying glass, one had the illusion of seeing,
in the microscopic stain from the brush, the flight of
two sparrows.
The greatest honour that this artist obtained during
his life was that his fame reached all the way to the
Tokugawa court, and that he was able to display
his talent before the great prince without rival.
Name and signature changes are typical in the life
of a Japanese painter. But with Hokusai, these
changes were more frequent than with any other
painter from Japan. Each one has a history. Thus, at
one point, the master handed down his signature of
Hokusai to one of his students who owned a
restaurant in Yoshiwara, a neighbourhood of public
houses. This student made paintings of 16 ken (32 m)
in his establishment, each time that Hokusai made an
overture to the artistsÊ guilds to adopt a new signature.

78

LIFE OF HOKUSAI

Flowering Plum, 1800.
Ink and colour on silk, 115 x 41.9 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
Monkey, 1848.
Ink, colour, and gofun on silk, 27.7 x 42 cm. Private collection.
79

II. Surimonos, Yellow Books,
and Illustrated Novels

HOKUSAI

Parody of Seven Gods of Fortune, 1797.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 24.4 x 36.1 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London. (p. 80)
Duck and Abalone, c. 1800.
Surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
82

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

H

okusaiÊs work was of staggering quantity
and diversity, an oeuvre inscribed in the
Japanese tradition, of course, but that the
master made his own. Japanese painting traditionally
takes three major forms: the kakemono or the
makimono, the fan and the drawing for woodcuts
which look like an engraverÊs drawing, done by
the master in a size for a woodcut. The drawing
itself is always done in Indian ink, the painter only
trying colour versions on a few proofs printed in
private for himself and his friends. Kakemonos are
large-format works, destined to be hung on walls;
makimonos are small-format works made to be
held in one hand; surimonos, finally, are luxury
versions of stamps.

All these works are executed according to a
complex printing technique, developed and
improved throughout the history of the Japanese
print, brilliantly used by ukiyo-e artists, who reach
a height of beauty and sophistication. Midway
through the 18th century, techniques allowed the
production of these prints in colour.
HokusaiÊs oeuvre is composed of writings (texts and
poetry) and, above all, pictorial creations in
various forms: kakemonos, makimonos, surimonos,

and illustrations for books and albums, printed in
black or in colour, of which the most famous are
erotic books (shunga).

1. Surimonos
Surimonos are luxurious stamps, made in a very
careful fashion, with high quality paper, exceptional pigments often enhanced with gold and
silver, parts en relief, embossing, and great
delicacy in the engraving. All defects during
printing were destroyed. The sales price was
very high. Surimonos, specially ordered from
editors or artists, were Âprivate printingsÊ of small
numbers; they were destined either to be given
as gifts on certain occasions (parties, the new
year, congratulations for a marriage, or to
honour a famous actor), or to poetsÊ or stamp
loversÊ clubs.
Surimonos are generally made in a small format,
shikishiban (about 20 x 18 cm), sometimes
smaller (15 x 10 cm), but large pieces do exist.
In general, one or more poems are written on
surimonos; they illustrate the scene and give it a
deep meaning, and their script is part of the beauty

83

Beauty Reading a Love Letter, from Seven Wise Men [of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi), 1800.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8 cm (koban tate-e). Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
Beauty Leaning on a Broom, from Seven Wise Men [of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi), 1800.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8 cm (koban tate-e). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
84

Beauty Lifting a Book over Her Head, from Seven Wise Men
[of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi), 1800.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8.5 cm (koban tate-e). Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
Beauty Seen from Behind, from Seven Wise Men [of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi), 1800.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8 cm (koban tate-e). Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
85

HOKUSAI

and balance of the drawing. Subjects are more
varied than on ÂtraditionalÊ stamps. These prints
are not made for commercial purposes. They are
sometimes New YearÊs cards that one gives to
friends, or concert programmes; they sometimes
commemorate a party honouring an academic or
an artist, living or dead. They are soft prints,
where the colour and the drawing seem tenderly
soaked up by the silky Japanese paper. They are
images with a beautifully-softened tone, artfully
blended and faded, with colouring similar to the
lightly-tinted clouds made by a brush full of paint
in a glass of water.

This surimono carries, on the back, the programme
for a concert organised in the month of July, to
introduce a musician under his new artistic name,
and is accompanied by the names of those who
sent out the following invitation:
Despite the great heat, I hope that you are in
good health. I wish to inform you that my name
has changed, and that, to celebrate this change,
on the fourth day of next month, I am organising
a concert at Kiôya de RyogokuÊs house, with the
participation of all my students, a concert from
ten oÊclock in the morning until four oÊclock in the
afternoon and, whether the weather is nice or it

These images are characterised by the silkiness of
the paper, the quality of the colours, the careful
printing, the gold and silver enhancements, and by
embossing, which is obtained by the weight of the
workerÊs bare elbow on the paper. These
engravings, so typically Japanese, are a large part
of HokusaiÊs oeuvre.
The first known surimono by Hokusai dates from
1793. It is signed: ÂMugura Shunro-Ê. It represents
a young drinking-water merchant, sitting on the staff
used to carry his two small barrels; at his side
are sugar bowls, and porcelain and metal bowls.

86

rains, I count on the honour of your attendance.
Tokiwazu Mozitayu.

In 1794, Hokusai painted several small sheets for
New YearÊs Day, the size of playing cards.
In 1795, the artist completed surimonos for
women, mixed with surimonos of personal objects,
such as the one that shows an embroidered towel,
a sack of bran, and an umbrella, hung on a gate.
These objects indicate that the lady of the house
has just taken a bath. These surimonos were signed
ÂHishikawa So-riÊ, or simply, ÂSo-riÊ.

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Man of Letters at His Desk, 1801-1805.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 13.9 x 18.7 cm (koban). Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
Beauty Holding a Robe, from Seven Wise Men [of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi), 1800.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8 cm (koban tate-e). Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden. (p. 88)
87

Beauty Holding a Cup of Sake, from Seven Wise Men [of the Bamboo Plantation] for the [Circle of] Sho-fu-dai (Sho-fu-dai shichiken no uchi),
1800. Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 8 cm (koban tate-e). Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.
Young Girl with Parasol and Child, c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19.5 x 9.2 cm (koban tate-e). Freis Collection, United States.
88

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HOKUSAI

Takasago Couple, c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 13.8 x 18.8 cm (koban).
Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
90

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

In 1796, Hokusai painted a fairly large number of
surimonos. The most remarkable ones are those
representing, in two long bands, a gathering of
men and women on Âtable-bedsÊ, with feet in the
river, upon which the group enjoys the cool
evening air.
One finds, in 1797, surimonos reproducing
objects from daily life, such as packages for
perfumes with a plum branch in bloom. On one of
them, a woman mocks the kami (spirit) Fokoroku,
on whose head she has placed a paper hen.
Another represents a boat, with a showman with a
monkey in it.
The artist also completed a series of ironic
surimonos of the gods, on yellow paper, with the
subjects coloured in violet and green. This year
was the year of the snake in the Japanese
almanac, which explains a pretty little surimono
that represents a woman who, upon seeing a
snake, has fallen on her back with a leg in the air.
Finally, one finds groups of large images, showing
women walking in the countryside.
In 1798, Hokusai produced numerous surimonos
representing a horse, which is, along with the

earth, one of the elements of the Japanese
calendar. This representation of a horse sometimes
takes the form of a horseÊs head, made by a childÊs
fingers across a frame.
Among the surimonos of note painted during that
year are: a toy seller walking on a mat whilst
children watch; two children, one of whom is
making a puppet dance above a screen, whilst the
other, squatting on the ground, watches with his
hands under his chin; a tea merchant in front of the
Uyeno temple in Edo with a group of women and
children; men and women disguised as the gods
and goddesses of the Japanese Olympus; a horse
race; a large landscape of the banks of the
Sumida with very small people represented.
Other surimonos show women: the chanoyu tea
ceremony for women; two women reading whilst
lying on the ground, one with her head resting on
the paper, the other reading with a pretty tilt of
her head to the side; two women rolled up
together on the floor, tearing at a letter. Among the
great surimonos of women from this year and
the years to come, Hokusai escaped from the
ÂpreciousÊ or Âdoll-likeÊ grace typical of his early
years. His creatures become more ample, more true,

Standing Courtesan with an Apprentice, c. 1802.
Kakejiku, ink and colour on silk, 76.5 x 41.2 cm. Hokusai Museum, Obuse. (p. 92)
Young Dandy, c. 1800-1801.
Coloured ink on silk, 33.9 x 20.3 cm. Rikardson-Kawano Collection, Tokyo. (p. 93)
91

92

93

94

95

HOKUSAI

and approach true feminine grace, as a result of
studying from nature.
The year 1799 was, in the Japanese calendar,
the year of the sheep in the zodiac and many
surimonos have a sheep in the corner of the
composition. One of these surimonos represents
a Japanese man holding a sheep in his arms.
It is important to note this story about the
sheep: in the past, the Japanese, surprised to
see the Dutch making the voyage to Japan
without women, believed that the sheep on
board took their place. They were so convinced
of this that, later, the Japanese women who
entered relationships with the foreigners were
called ÂsheepÊ by their compatriots.
Some of the surimonos from this year were curiously
composed. They include a woman selling toothpaste powder fashioning a piece of black
camphorwood to make a toothbrush, a manufacturer of wigs and mats, and a silk peddler and the
manufacture of silk in the countryside. There was
also a series of busts of women.
One also notes a series representing young
women, with a ÂsinuousÊ grace: a woman sweeping

snow or a woman standing, folding a piece of
fabric as tall as she is with an elegant undulation
to her body. One surimono also represents a toad
covered in warts. Finally, there is a large
surimono which is quite surprising: a half-opened
blind looking out on a flowering branch, part of
which can be seen, in shadow, through the
weave of the blind.
In 1800, the artist completed a series of fifteen
surimonos, The Childhoods of Historical Figures
and a series of seven surimonos, The Wise Men of
the Bamboo, in which old wise men are represented as modern women.
One series of twenty-four surimonos is entitled,
Filial Piety. In them, one sees a charming drawing
of a woman doing laundry, her upper body bare.
Her torso is studded with petals from a flowering
plum tree above her being shaken by the wind.
Another series represents the twelve months of
the year, as seen by women, where in one
graceful drawing, a young Japanese girl scours
a floor whilst her mistress watches lazily. Another
shows three pieces of music represented by three
female musicians.

Parody of a Courtesan in a Boat, c. 1804-1805.
Black and coloured ink and gofun on paper, 34.8 x 56.4 cm. Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto. (pp. 94-95)
Blue Kongo (Seimen Kongo), c. 1790.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 37.3 x 13.7 cm. Gift of James A. Michener, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.
96

97

HOKUSAI

Dawn of a New Year, from Mad Poems for Fresh Grasses (Kyo-kahatsuwakana), vol. I, 1798.
Kyo-kabon, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 16.3 x 22.5 cm. British Museum, London.
98

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

One series is entitled, Eight Bedrooms. It contains
eight representations of small women, one of
whom, with a bare torso, is washing herself in front
of a monkey onto which she has thrown her robe.
The monkey was, that particular year, the animal of
the year and reappears in several of the plates.
Another series is a caricature, in the O–tsu-ye genre,
of industrial imagery of the Japanese Epinal of
Otsu, near Kyoto.
In 1801 appeared a series of twelve little upright
works entitled, A Pair of Folding Screens. It shows
a series of small, modern women with old men
from another century at their feet. Some plates
represent women making marionettes play in a little
theatre, or actors and theatrical sets, with Daikoku
notably making pieces of gold rain down on a
woman getting water from a well.

children burst with joy welcoming them and
where one sees, behind the blinds, the shadow
theatre of princesses full of curiosity, but not
showing themselves.
A small series of three plates from 1802 represents a Japanese gesture game, with a judge, a
hunter, and a fox. On one of the plates, a
woman makes a fox, with her hands close to her
face and bent back in front of her. A series of
twelve plates simulates scenes of the ronin by
women and children.

This year, still life surimonos began to appear and
would furnish Hokusai with original compositions
and admirable prints. These were small works with
a dead duck and a porcelain bowl on a lacquered
tray, or a bird in a cage and a vase of flowers.

A series was completed in honour of the moon,
which is represented by women. One young
woman is particularly graceful. Her head turned
backwards,with one hand she holds a scarf of
black crepe flying around her, a boshi, and with
the other hand she holds a closed parasol against
her. Another series is on Edo, showing its industries
and small landscapes. Yet another series bears the
title, The twelve animals of the zodiac, with the
animals in the form of toys in the hands of elegant
young women.

On these large plates, one can see the arrival of
the manzai at a palace, where a group of

The year 1803 is marked by a series of thirtysix plates, The Thirty-Six Occupations of Life .

99

A Dance Performance, c. 1802-1804.
Double-length surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 38.2 x 52.8 cm. Peter Morse Collection.
100

101

HOKUSAI

Among these compositions is a charming print of
a young Japanese boy learning to write whilst his
mother guides the hand holding the brush.
The artist also painted another series of five plates,
The Five Forces, Represented as Women and a
series of ten plates, The Five Elegant Knights, also
represented as women.
A series of seven plates, The Seven Komatis,
shows the seven periods of the life of the poet
Komati. This female poet with a chequered life is
very popular in Japan. She had, at one time, the
ambition of becoming the emperorÊs mistress, so
even when she had feelings for an educated lord

of the court named Fukakusa-no-Shunsho, it is
said she made the following pact: he would
come to talk with her of love and poetry for
ninety-nine nights, and on the one hundredth
night she would be his. The lover fulfilled the
conditions imposed by the poet, but upon leaving
her house on the ninety-ninth night – it was a very
cold winter – he froze. The poet acquired the
reputation of having died a virgin.
Among the large plates that Hokusai produced
that year, one notes a young girlÊs dance with
a double parasol in a palace, with an
orchestra behind a blind, and princesses
behind another blind.

Gods and Poets, c. 1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 18.4 x 51.1 cm. Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
102

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

A series of 1804 bore the title,The Twelve Months
of the Year, and like all the other similar titles by
the artist, consisted of small drawings of women.
One series has no title. It represents women of
various classes: a noblewoman, a great courtesan,
and a yotaka, a bird of the night, wandering
among the construction sites and warehouses.
There is also a series of ten plates, entitled,
Contemplation of the Beautiful Scenes of Edo, and
another with the title The Ten Elements.
Plates also appeared separately, showing
variously: a game for young girls, where one

pronounces the names of animals and pinches the
top of the hand of the girl who makes a mistake;
flowering branches of shrubs on a paper resembling dimity; a curious still life that reminds one of
the simplicity of the subjects treated by Chardin, in
which a slice of salmon and a slice of katsuo rest
on a bed of bamboo leaves, a fish highly prized
by the Japanese. Some of the plates that appeared
this particular year were done in large formats.
1804 was a year during which Hokusai published
so many surimonos that it is not possible to list the
entire catalogue. Among the surimonos from the
Manzi collection, there are many very beautiful
works 50 cm wide by 18 cm tall, including:

Two Women and a Child on the Shore, c. 1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 18.9 x 51.6 cm. Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
103

Cup of Sake and Minature Plum Tree, 1805-1810.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19.5 x 19.2 cm (shikishiban). Chiba City Museum of Art, Chiba.
104

–
Okame and Flowering Cherry Tree, 1804-1808. Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 13.9 x 18.6 cm (koban).
Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Aviary and Miniature Plum Tree, 1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19.6 x 27.4 cm (yoko chu-ban). Chiba City Museum of Art, Chiba.
105

HOKUSAI

- A flight of seven cranes on a red background of
the setting sun.

- A pink-and-white landscape that, with flowering
fruit trees, is like the arrival of spring on a

- A flowering plum tree with two pheasants at its

winter scene.

foot and whose branches spread over a river,
showing a perspective of two boats under the
flowering greenery.

Among the surimonos in Mr. VeverÊs collection,
we can cite:

- Three women kneeling at the edge of a bay,
their eyes looking out to sea, whilst a servant

- A promenade in a temple by men and women

girl fans the fire of a stove heating some

examining paintings hung on the wall. A pair of

sake.

Japanese men has stopped in front of a

- Two red-throated swallows flying above a
flowering cherry tree. Nothing can give a

kakemono; one is looking at the painting, and
the other is looking at the women.

better idea of the softness of his work than

- A man, in a Âhouse of ill reputeÊ, is smoking.

this plate and the subdued charm of these

Next to him, his mistress is, for her loverÊs

flowers, in a cloud on the print where an

pleasure, making her kamuro, her servant girl,

almost-imperceptible embossing separates

try a dance step whilst the dance teacher

the pistils.

kneeling in front of her guides her movements.

We can cite, among the surimonos from Mr.
GonseÊs collection:

We should also note, among the medium-sized
surimonos belonging to Mr. Havilland:

- A copse of trees by a river and the façade of

- A god of thunder settling, amidst lightning bolts,

the interior of a house where two men work,

into the bath of a half-dressed woman.

making dolls. This is the home of Toyokuni,

- A wrestler or kami, for whom a woman is

HokusaiÊs neighbour in Katsushika, at the

refilling a sake cup as large as a dish whilst two

time when Toyokuni was not yet a painter but

other women crouching at his feet are laughing

a doll maker.

at his fat, hairy belly.

Two Kabuki Actors, c. 1803.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Private collection.
Two Women and a Servant on the Banks of the Sumida; a Man Sealing the Bottom of a Boat,
from the series Birds of the Old Capital (Miyakodori), 1802. Galerie Berès, Paris. (pp. 108-109)
106

107

HOKUSAI

110

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Among the large format surimonos:

This surimono, which is the union of two large

surimonos, is signed: ÂHokusai So-riÊ.
- A view of the Sumida full of boats.
- Silk weavers at work in the countryside, one of

1805:

whom is discernible through the threads of one

- A six-plate series on Women Poets.

section of the loom.

- A series on the Five Elements.

- Young Japanese men playing by a bridge. This
print is signed: „gakyo-jin Hokusai, whilst drunk.‰

- A print entitled Ténjin, after the name of a

kami; with a tender touch, a mother lifts a
child above her head to help him pick flowers

Finally, we cite, from the collection of Mr. Chialiva:

from a plum tree.
- A series, Springtime Distractions, in a slightly

- A unique surimono, the largest known surimono

larger format than the normal format for series of

by the artist (100 cm in length), representing a

women, and with a more sophisticated technique.

bridge in the style of the great bridge over the

- This year being the year of the bull, one finds all

Sumida by Utamaro, and in which it is

sorts of representations of this animal, such as a

believed that Hokusai is shown in profile in a

rock of this shape.

little black hat, with a bluish robe. On the
bridge, men and women walking take a

Among the large plates, one finds:

break to rest and contemplate. There is also a
group of three women, one of whom is leaning

- The entrance to a temple where at the door, a

her head over the railing, looking at the river.

man gives water to the faithful to make their

A group of men are holding forth. One man,

ablutions.

who has hung a flowering branch from a
shrub on a beam, is half-lying against the gate,

- A travelling merchant presents washing products
to some women at the door of a home.

whilst at the edge of the bridge a woman

- A dollÊs party with an exhibition of many

talks with a friend, her two hands pushing

figurines on a cardboard display shelf, in the

against the handrail in a charming, lifelike pose.

midst of which a taï is set for a light meal.

Gathering Herbs, c. 1796-1797.
Long surimono, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 19.7 x 53.1 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
Picking Grasses at New Year, c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
111

HOKUSAI

–
Okabe, from Fifty-Three Stops on the To-kaido- Road (To-kaido- goju-san tsugi), c. 1806.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22 x 16.5 cm (chu-ban). British Museum, London.
112

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Sho-no, from Fifty-Three Stops on the To-kaido- Road (To-kaido- goju-san tsugi), c. 1806.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22.4 x 16.9 cm (chu-ban). British Museum, London.
113

114

Tea House for Travellers, c. 1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 39 x 52 cm (yoko nagaban). Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
115

1806:
- A series of seven courtesans, among which one
plays the shamisen with very graceful movements.
- A series entitled The Various Countries. These
are imaginary countries. A stamp shows The

Kingdom of the Women, where on one day of
the year, under the influence of a west wind, all
the women become pregnant. All the women
are turned towards this wind.
- 1806 being the year of the tiger, women are
featured wearing robes embroidered with
tigers.

Among the large plates, one finds:
- The seven gods of the Japanese Olympus,
hidden under the pelt of an immense Korean
lion, which they make move.
- A landscape from the other side of the Sumida,
where one sees the Asakusa temple.
- A boat loaded with barrels of sake.

1807:
- Two children wrestling.
- Two lovers stretched out next to one another, the
woman smoking a little pipe whilst the man
rests besides her.

Tiger in the Rain, 1849.
Kakemono, Indian ink (sumi), and colours on paper,
120.5 x 41.5 cm.
–
Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo.
116

- Still lifes: two fish attached to a bamboo
branch, a cardboard mask seen from the front
and back.

1808:
- Produced a very small number of surimonos
during this period.
- A large plate represents a screen, a bowl and
a hairpin on a lacquered tray.

1809:
- The little surimonos in which one sees fish,
scallops and hawk feathers, used to dust
delicate things.

Among the large plates, one finds:
- The making of a standard, whose motto is
written in white on a blue background, on
which six women are working in pretty poses.
The standard will be given to Yenoshima, at the
temple of the goddess Benten.

1810:
- Some small still lifes were created, among
others a surimono representing sticks of Indian
ink and a stamp box.

Young Woman Applying Make-up Seen from Behind; above,
a Poem in Chinese by Santo- Kyo-den, c. 1800.
Paint on paper, 132.9 x 49.4 cm.
–
Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo.
117

HOKUSAI

1812:

- Curiously, the influences of Gakutei and

- A still life representing a cup and a lacquer
display shelf.

Hokkei, two excellent students of Hokusai, can
be felt in these works.

1813:

These include:

- Okame reading a letter
- A series of party floats, which are pulled

1816:

through the streets.

- Kintoki playing with animals.

- A series of five female poets.
- A series entitled Comparison of the Strength of

1817:

the Heroes of China and of Japan.

- Women dressed in checked fabrics, as was the

Among the single plates:

fashion that year.
- A noble lady, accompanied by a servant girl,
passes

before

a

gate

where

concert

programmes are posted.

- One finds a young girl printing a proof near
a woodcutter who is cutting a plate, and a
man holding to himself, posed on a go table,

1818:
- Two plates in a square format.

an elegant Japanese doll with marvellous
colours coming out of a background of gold,
harmoniously Âgreen-greyÊ.

1819:
- Daikoku walking on the banks of a river
populated with fantastic lizards.

- One also sees many still lifes, such as one
showing a black lacquer bowl and a box of
chopsticks, a large plate grouping a cask of
sake, a spray of iris and chrysanthemums,

1820:
- Reappearance of many surimonos, rarely reproduced in the preceding years.

118

and a basket of oranges.
- This surimono was executed for a banquet
given in honour of an academic.

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Yamauba and Kintoki, cover of Illustrated Work of the Kyo-ka Mountains (Ehon Kyo-ka yama mata yama), 1804.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 26.5 x 41.7 cm. British Museum, London.
119

HOKUSAI

Courtesan Resting, c. 1802.
Black and coloured ink and gofun on paper, 29.2 x 44.8 cm. Peter and Diana Grilli Collection.
Tanabata, c. 1804.
Kakejiku, black and coloured ink on paper, 95.8 x 28 cm. Seimeikyo, Fukuoka.
–
Young Girl from Ohara, c. 1805.
Ink, colour, and gofun on silk, 95 x 30.3 cm. Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
120

HOKUSAI

122

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

1821:

make one of his most perfect series of

- A series entitled The Brothers of the Warrior

horses. This series in honour of the horse

Subjects of China and Japan. It evokes the

combined a wide range of trinkets, such as

resemblances between the heroic acts of the

a bit or a saddle, which remind us of the

two countries.

horse; in this spirit, Hokusai went so far as

- A large series on trades, of an unknown
number.

to represent the street of the stirrups, where
the pictures were sold and the stable wharf,

- A series on trades at the seashore.

which except for the name, has nothing to

- Still lifes, including a series of scallops.

do with horses at all!

- An isolated page represents a large white
snake; this snake is a good luck charm that is
said to announce a happy event for he who has
the good fortune to see it.

1823:
- A series of actors in five plates; these are actors
in the style of Toyokuni, which Hokusai signed:
„I-itsu, the old man of Katsushika being a

1822:

monkey and imitating others.‰

- One print is curious. It represents two enormous
pearls emitting rays of some kind. They are
being carried to the queen, Jingo, by the

1825:
- Two cranes at the seashore.

goddess of the ocean, who has come from her
dragon palace. They are said to have the
power to lower the tides, which allowed the
goddess to seize Korea.
- A series of four plates entitled Four Natures; it
contains a drawing of a crow of great

1826:
- Princess Tamamo-No-Mae, who is a nine-tailed
fox metamorphosed into a woman, whose nine
tails are represented by the embossing of the
print in the train of her robe.

character.
- As this year was the year of the horse in the
Japanese calendar, this incited Hokusai to

1829:
- A woman riding a bull.

Fan with Tortoise and Crab, c. 1805-1809.
Ink and colours on paper, 16.3 x 43 cm (senmen). Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo.
Trained Monkey and Trainer, 1805-1809.
Ink and colours on paper, 23 x 49.4 cm (senmen). Hokusai Museum, Obuse.
123

HOKUSAI

1835:
A fisherman at the seashore, a pipe in his mouth,
a line between his legs crossed one over the
other. One might be tempted to see, in this old
bald man with a bony nose, a jeering mouth, and
the physiognomy of an ironic kalmouck, a portrait
of Hokusai.
Moreover, the legend behind this plate is as
follows: „What a novel thing to be able to grow
a young bride (the name of a Japanese species of
lettuce) in the sand at the beach!‰ This colour print
was made for New YearÊs Day of the year
following the one in which Hokusai was able to
arrange a marriage for his grandson, and with
this double entendre he was able to express his
joy at the entrance of his grandsonÊs young bride
into the house.

2. Yellow Books
HokusaiÊs compositions from 1780-1790, like the
first compositions by Utamaro, were engraved in
little books, those popular books printed in black
and white with a yellow cover from which they
take their name: kibyo- shi. They are small volumes,

17 cm tall by 12.5 cm wide, with text and
drawings. Each volume is typically composed of
five sheets.
The first yellow book that he illustrated, in 1781
at the age of twenty-one, was a small novel in
three volumes, entitled, With a Courteous Word,
Anything is Permitted ( Arigataï tsuno itiji ). No
copies remain of this novel, whose text was first
attributed, at the time it was published, to Kitao
Masanobu, and then later to the famous novelist
Santo- Kyo-den. However, the text and drawings
are by Hokusai, who had published this
pamphlet under the pseudonym of Korewasaï,
which means, „Is that the one?‰, the refrain of a
little song of that time.
The following year, in 1782, Hokusai published a
yellow book entitled, The Warriors of Kamakura
(Kamakura Tsushinden), two fascicules for which he
did the text and the drawings and that he
presented to the public under the name of
Guiobutsu for the text, and Shunro- for the
drawings. The difficulty of translating Japanese
thoughts into Western languages has sometimes
created differences in translations of the titles of
books and novels, improvised through tête-à-tête

Mount Fuji and the Old Pine, 1802.
Kakejiku, black ink, colours, and gofun on silk, 29.4 x 53.7 cm. Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto. (pp. 124-125)
Monk Selling Ceremonial Tea Whisks, c. 1802.
Kakejiku, ink, gofun, and pale colours on paper, 48.9 x 35.5 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
126

127

Portraits of Kyo- ka Poets, 1805.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 12.9 x 8.9 cm each (koban). Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Nagoya.
128

Portraits of Kyo- ka Poets, 1805.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 12.9 x 8.9 cm each (koban). Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Nagoya.
129

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

work and translations long-thought-out through
solitary work.
It is a story of historical fact, of an attempt by
Shosetsu to overthrow the third shogun in the 17th
century. One sees, in the succession of plates, the
ambitious young plotter, almost a child, giving
himself over to military exercises, learning from a
mysterious tactician the art of war and the magical
means to be seen by humans, with his image
repeated seven times.
He organises conspirators who cut the throats of
couriers, he dreams of the protection of a god
favourable to his designs, and has the illusion of
seeing himself in a mirror as the shogun with one
of his accomplices as prime minister. He keeps
council with his partisans and he battles bravely
with the soldiers sent to take him and, finally taken
prisoner, he opens his stomach whilst in the middle
of his chained accomplices.His mother, his wife,
and his children are subjected to torture, his mother
to the ÂsmokeÊ torture.
Hokusai published in the same year a yellow book
in two volumes, for which he composed the text
and the drawings: The Four Old Heroes (Shitenno

Daïtsu jitate, comparable to the kings of the
cardinal points) are dressed in the latest fashion.
The text, by Hokusai, is signed ÂKorewasaiÊ, and
the drawings, ÂShunro-Ê.
That year, Hokusai also published another
yellow book, The Life of Nitiren (Nitiren Itidaiki,
1782), which he signed, exceptionally,
ÂKatsukawa Shunro-Ê. It gives the history of
Nitiren, a Buddhist priest, the creator of a new
sect. It discusses his baptism, the beginning of
his studies, the contemplation of nature, the
ascetic life in a mountain cave and the revolutionary priestÊs expulsion from everywhere for the
novelty of his opinions.
The book then recounts his retreat to a temple,
the appearance of a comet announcing tragic
events, his defence with a rosary against a
warrior who wants to kill him and the power of
his mysterious influence bringing about the
shipwreck of the Mongolian navy. At his death
sentence, the executionerÊs sabre is broken by a
lightning bolt; he is then exiled on a distant island
and first his preaching and his pilgrimages, and
then finally his death surrounded by his tearful
disciples, are relayed.

–
Otomo no Kuronushi, from The Six Poets (Rokkasen), c. 1810.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 37.9 x 25.2 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London.
131

HOKUSAI

In 1784, Hokusai illustrated two yellow books, each
in two volumes:The Scent of the Fan Flowers (Kaiun
Oghino Hanaka) and Expedition in the Mountains
by Yoshitsune Seen in a Showbox (Nazoki Karakuri
Yoshitsune Yamairi). The text is by Ikujimonai
(literally, Âsuitable for nothingÊ) and the illustrations
by Shunro-; this Ikujimonai is most certainly Hokusai.
In 1785, Hokusai published two yellow books
where the authorÊs name is not given. However, the
illustrations are signed ÂShunro-Ê. They are Hate
Transformed into Fire by the Fireflies of Ouji (Onnen
Ujino Hotarubi, three volumes) and The Glory of
the Nose Inherited from a Parent (Oya Yuzouri
Hanano Komio, also three volumes). In the latter
work, Shunro- became Gummatei.
In 1786, Hokusai published the History before the
History of the Peace (Zenzen Taikeiki, about the
peace that followed the battle of the Taira and the
Minamoto), a fragment of the history of Minamoto
in which fearsome cavalcades began to appear
from the young artist, the piles of murdered bodies
of his future work.
In 1792, Hokusai, still under the name Shunro-,
illustrated The Origin of the Tale of Momotaro

(Mukashi-mukashi Momotaro Hottan Banashi),a
text by Santo- Kyo-den. The story connects to the
legend of Momotaro, and the drawings, which
show human life in the form of animals, have
something of the Scenes from the Private Lives
of Animals by Grandville. A mean old woman,
with a face as sour as vinegar, surprises a
sparrow who was eating the paste prepared to
weigh down her laundry; she cuts out its tongue
and it flies away wildly, fleeing as fast as it can
in blind fear. But, next to the evil woman, there
is a good family that loved this sparrow, and the
husband and wife run calling across the fields
and forests, „Who has seen the little sparrow
with its tongue cut out? Dear little sparrow, what
has become of you?‰
Finally, they find the poor, wounded sparrow in the
sparrowÊs house, where its mother had already
bandaged her sonÊs tongue and where its brothers
and sisters were caring for it with love. Oh! The
friendly welcome prepared for these good old
people: the father danced for them the Suzume
odori, the true dance of the sparrows, and when
they left, they were given a box in which they
found, upon returning home, a hammer that left a
piece of gold with every miraculous strike.

Apprentice Courtesan on an Evening Walk, c. 1800-1802.
Kakejiku, ink, and colours on paper, 99.1 x 26.3 cm. Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo.
132

133

HOKUSAI

Kisen Ho-shi, from The Six Poets (Rokkasen), c. 1810.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 37.7 x 25 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London.
134

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Ono no Komachi, from The Six Poets (Rokkasen), c. 1810.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 38.2 x 25.7 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London.
135

HOKUSAI

Scene at the Palace of Zhou Wang, King of China (Morokoshi Chu-o- no dan),
from The Legend of the Fox of Three Kingdoms (Sangoku yo-ko den), 1807.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 37.5 x 50 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London.
136

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Now, the evil neighbour saw this from her
window. She obtained an invitation from the
sparrows, and was given a box from which
came, when she opened the cover, a collection of
horned monsters that tore her to pieces. On the
other hand, the good woman found a peach, out
of which came Momotaro, the conqueror of the
monster kingdom.
In 1793, Hokusai illustrated a yellow book, Tale of
the Voyage on the Two Roads of Poverty and
Wealth (Himpuku riodo dot-chuki ). It is a strange
book with text by Kyo-den, and which is, side by
side, the exposition of two lives as the painter
Hogarth liked to represent them. The first plate
represents a father washing a poor child next to
the bed where his wife is sleeping; the plate
opposite shows a rich child being washed under
the eyes of a doctor, a midwife, and the servants.
Then, for the young rich boy and the young poor
boy, at fifteen comes the guen buku, the coming of
age or entrance into adult life, indicated in Japan
by the shaving of the face, which for the rich boy
is done by an important person; for the poor boy,
by his mother. Here begin the two different roads:
the rich manÊs road in his norimon, surrounded

by his servants, and the poor manÊs road, alone
and poorly dressed in the rain.
The rich manÊs road passes through landscapes
with flowering trees, his thoughts turned towards
the beauty of painting. The poor manÊs road passes
through desolate landscapes in the mountains, such
as those near Kyoto where excavations form rocks
like those of Ise, resembling the dried breasts of the
poor manÊs mother. His thoughts are filled with
memories of their hardships.
The allegories continue. The rich man is received at
an inn by charming mousme with, in the distance,
the outlines of landscapes that seem to form the
coat of arms of the wives of Yoshiwara. The poor
man becomes a salesman and is shown passing
over a bridge that is a soroban (a counting
machine), beneath temples with towers made of
coins, near a pagoda with a roof covered with a
cash book, following the harsh road of his life Âby
lighting the ends of his fingernailsÊ, which means,
in Japanese, Âby enduring horrible sufferingÊ.
At the end of the two roads, the poor man, now
rich and mounted on a horse led by a monkey,
meets the rich man, in a ragged state, ashamed

137

Various [Chinese] Poems for Jo-ruri [Plays] (Ehon jo-ruri zekku) (left and right), vol. II, 1815.
Ehon, nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 24.5 x 18 cm. British Museum, London.
138

Three Men Grating a Gigantic Sweet Potato, from One Hundred Fashionable, Humorous Poems (Furyu- odoke hyakke), c. 1811.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 11 x 17.2 cm (koban). British Museum, London. (p. 140)
139

HOKUSAI

to be seen in the otherÊs path. Disappearing in the
distance in beggarsÊ rags are two of his friends
from his time of wealth. As the apotheosis of the
poor man, the last plate shows him leaning against
chests full of gold, topped with bottles of sake.
In 1794, Hokusai, then under the name of
Tokitaro- Kako-, illustrated A GirlÊs Sash (Musumeno
Tomozuna ), a small yellow book with text by
Kiorori. It is a fairly obscure story in which a young
girl buys a newspaper, and upon reading it,
leaves her home, after having left a letter that
brings the man and woman of the house to tears.

On the road, she is attacked by evil samurais and
saved by a passer-by who takes her in. She leaves
with the idea of avenging her father who was
assassinated. Then, at the moment when she is
going to kill the assassin, she learns that he is the
father of her saviour, who is in love with her.
Hokusai represented her letting go of his hair that she
held in her hand, ready to kill him, content to make
him give up his warrior status. In 1798, Hokusai
published a yellow book under the signature Kakô,
The Natural History of Monsters in Japan
(Wakemono Yamato Honzô ), with text by Kyo- den.

Prostitute and Her Client, from One Hundred Fashionable, Humorous Poems (Furyu- odoke hyakke), c. 1811.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 11.4 x 17.4 cm (koban).
Ostasiatische Kunstsammlung, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.
Husband and Wife, from One Hundred Fashionable, Humorous Poems (Furyu- odoke hyakke), c. 1811.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 11 x 17 cm (koban). British Museum, London.
140

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

141

142

143

HOKUSAI

Act I (Sho-dan), from the series The Syllabary Chu- shingura (Kanadehon Chu- shingura), 1806.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 25 x 37 cm (o-ban). British Museum, London. (pp. 142-143)
Courtiers Crossing a Bridge, from the poetry album The Thirty-Six Women Poets in Brocade Prints (Nishikizuri onna sanju- rokkasen), 1801.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 25 x 37.6 cm.
Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
144

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

It is a book filled with ironic allusions, undoubtedly
to the publication of a serious work on natural
history. The artist takes great liberty with his imagination in creating his monsters, making them, by
turn, ridiculous or fearsome.
One thus sees in the work the fright of women
hiding their faces, men lying on the ground, a
monster with wings made of spider webs, a tail
formed by the elongation of a Japanese letter, and
a head made of glasses giving it the appearance
of a dragonfly. Also, a womanÊs head floats on the
water, her hairpins giving her the look of a crab.
We see a tree with gold coins for leaves and a
bird with two heads; this drawing alludes to the
legend of the two birds, so much in love with each
other that they seemed to be only one bird.
In 1800, Hokusai published a small yellow book,
with the very Japanese title, The Tactics of General
Fourneau (Kamado Shogun Kanriaku nomaki ), a
little book with both text and drawings by the
painter. It would be one of the last volumes for
which Hokusai would write the text.
This little book is strange in the sense that the
author is shown presenting his book to the editor

on his knees, with both hands on the ground
pleading, and in the modest attitude of the
preface by the writer and artist. Here is the
preface of this volume: „I have just finished an
awkward work, unless however, after examining
it, it works for you? And as I am not accustomed
to writing, have the awkward passages redone
by the master, Bakin. Now, if I am lucky enough
to have the least bit of success this year, I will do
better work next year.‰
An excerpt of the translation of this yellow book
gives an idea of the painterÊs literature: „In a
distant province to the west, there was a great lord
named ÂThe Big HeartÊ, with an income of one
million tons of rice.
He was given the nickname Dadara Daïjin, the
wild lord, because he was a great lover of sensual
pleasures and a heavy drinker of sake. Not content
with the pleasure of hunting in the mountains and
fishing in the sea, he entertained himself by making
people swim with heavy stones attached to their
bodies or making them run with bare feet on ice.
He had his entourage dressed in heavy cotton
wool in summer and in light linen in winter. Finally,
to entertain this lord, hens were made to sing,

The Deities Uzume and Saruta Hiko, c. 1825.
Kakejiku, ink, colours, and gofun on silk, 60 x 20 cm. Gift of Mr and Mrs Arnold Travis, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena. (p. 146)
Huang Shegong and Zhang Liang, 1798. Kakejiku, black ink and colours on paper, 114.5 x 47 cm.
Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto. (p. 147)
145

146

147

HOKUSAI

People on the Balcony of the Sazaido-, from the kyo-ka album Birds of the Capital (Miyakodori), c. 1802.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 22.7 x 34.7 cm. Huguette Berès Collection.
148

SURIMONOS, YELLOW BOOKS, AND ILLUSTRATED NOVELS

Chinese Children Watching a Tigress and Her Cubs Crossing a River, 1806.
Nishiki-e (polychrome woodblock print), 14 x 18.6 cm (koban). Freis Collection, United States.
149

HOKUSAI

and wheels were turned on their sides. That is to
say, silver and gold flowed through his hands like
water in a river. Now, in a neighbouring province,
there was another lord called ÂRice WaterÊ, living
in his creditorsÊ castle⁄‰ But here the translator
stopped, declaring that, the text being composed
from start to finish of puns and allusions only
comprehensible in Japanese, it was untranslatable
into Western rhetoric.
In 1801, Hokusai gave up the signature of
Shunro- to take on that of Gummatei and published
a yellow book, A Tengu Fallen From the Height
of His Nose into the Silly World Here Below
(Guekaino baka Hanano uyé Oiti-Téngu), a little
fantasy book with text by Jakusel.
It tells the story of a flying spirit, one of the genies,
either good or evil and with a long, pointy nose
and bat wings that are so often represented in
Japanese albums. From high in the sky, a tengu
notices a woman. He falls in love with her and
descends to earth. He disguises himself rather
poorly, with his nose under a scarf, and lives very
happily with her. In order to provide for the
womanÊs fancies, he is forced to sell his wings to a
feather merchant.

Finally, completely ruined, he becomes a seller of
sarasins (pastries shaped like macaroni and noodles)
and becomes ill. At that moment, he has a vision, in
a dream. He dreams of an actor, represented in a
kakemono, with a nose like a tengu. He gets the
actor to care for him, medicating him so that he can
regain the mysterious power of a tengu that he lost to
be with the courtesan. He finally returns to the tengus,
who, worried about his disappearance, had sent a
messenger to bring him back. The last plate represents him writing the memoirs of his life on earth.
At the beginning of the year 1803, Hokusai published
a little yellow book with the title: Improvisational
Cuisine (Butchôhô Sokusekiriôr ). It is a family story,
edited in three volumes, with both illustrations and
text by the painter. He wrote the following preface:
This year, you wanted to order a book from me,
but you know well that I am not very good and
it did not work, and even less so when you
pressed me for it. I started with the drawings,
and only after that did I write the text, which may
well have led to the disconnections in some parts
of the book. In any case, if you find the book
presentable for the public, I would be obliged if
you would have it printed.

Beauty behind a Mosquito Net, c. 1806.
Black and coloured ink and gofun on silk, 116 x 44 cm. Salon Matsumi, Tokyo.
Summer Bathing, c. 1808-1809.
Black ink, colour, gofun, and nori on silk, 86.2 x 32.5 cm. Sumisho Collection, Tokyo.
150

151

HOKUSAI

The Seven Gods of Fortune, 1810.
Ink, colour, and gold on silk, 67.5 x 82.5 cm. Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
Tiger among the Bamboo under a Full Moon, c. 1816.
Colour on silk, 104 x 33.3 cm. Museo d’Arte Orientale - Edoardo Chiossone, Genoa.
152

The volume is strange because it covers cuisine
in a whimsical manner: „Rice.‰ · „Soups.‰ ·
„Sake.‰ · „Tea and cookies.‰ · „Fresh
vegetables.‰ · „Dried vegetables.‰ ·
„Shellfish.‰ · „Eggs.‰ · „Pickled dishes.‰ ·
„Roasts.‰ · „Boiled meats.‰ · „Grilled fish.‰ ·
„Sarasins, macaroni, vermicelli.‰ It also covers
taro root, toasted sesame, salted eggplant,
yams, octopus, sea cucumber, bamboo shoots,
and lotus root.
Here is a humorous part, added by Hokusai, at the
beginning of the chapter on sake:
If there is a moralist who says that at the first
cup, it is the man who drinks the sake, at the
second cup, the sake who drinks the sake,
and at the third cup, the sake who drinks the
man, there are others, less severe, who say
that there is no limit to drinking sake, as long
as it does not lead to confusion. This is the
reason we have people who drink great
quantities of sake to boast of their tolerance,
just as we have people who restrain
themselves to boast of their moderation and
proclaim that a little bit of sake is the best of
medicines.

153

154

155

HOKUSAI

He adds:
We have people who succumb right away and
people who remain only tipsy indefinitely. At

with each couple producing twelve rats, there will
be 908. With births continuing in the same proportions, at the end of the second year, we arrive at
the colossal figure of 27,682,574,402.‰

root, the limit is nausea both for heavy drinkers
and for the apostles of moderation. The balance
of the drinker who stands upright when his

3. Illustrated Novels

stomach is empty of sake is the inverse of the
bottleÊs equilibrium, is it not? Upright when it is
full, and fallen on the ground when it is empty?

Hokusai then describes the different qualities of
alcoholic drinks, from distilled spirits that burn, to
mirin, which is as sweet as muscat.
That same year, Hokusai published, under the
signature of Tokitaro- Kako-, a yellow book, The
Inventor of Lies Tamed by the Killer (Muna-zanyô
Usono Tana-oroshi). It is an ironic book with both
text and illustration by the painter. He seems to
mock mathematical assertions, which may well be
exaggerated and go beyond the truth, whether in
surveying a field, measuring a tree, or weighing
an elephant. He does this as a joke. Here is a
sample about a plate covered with rats: „It has
been established that if a pair of rats give birth to
twelve rats in a month, after the twelfth month,

The Japanese novel is above all a novel of
adventure, most often tragic, brought on by
vengeance or jealousy, the two motives of these
works. The format is 23 cm tall by 16 cm wide.
Each volume contains thirty to forty pages and
three to five drawings of double plates, except the
first volume, always embellished with four or five
extra plates, which are printed with care on
sumptuous paper. It is not surprising then to find,
on almost every page, assassinations, scenes of
torture, suicides, hara-kiris (suicides by cutting open
the stomach), or descriptions of beheadings.
One finds, for example, the