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Utamaro print showing


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Attribution of Hokusai's Kachô-e


Hokusai kacho-e Katsushika Hokusai's landscapes are the most famous examples of his work. Less well known are his studies of birds and flowers (the genre is called kachô-e, although it also includes other scenes from nature, such as insects, reptiles, and animals).

Kachô-e were popular among the early eighteenth century Torii school of printmakers (for example, Kiyomasu), and during the 1720s-1750s prints of birds and flowers appeared more frequently (as in works by Nishimura Shigenaga). With the advent of full-color printing in the mid 1760s Harunobu and especially Koryûsai designed some splendid examples primarily in the chûban format. Late-eighteenth artists such as Keisei Masayoshi and Utamaro also produced excellent examples in album format, Utamaro's Momo chidori kyôka awase ("Chorus of Birds: A Playful Verse Competition") of circa 1790 being a masterpiece of its kind.

The theme also appeared repeatedly in privately issued surimono during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Still, it was Hokusai who seems to have fully developed kachô-e as a truly independent theme for the single-sheet print format. Soon after Hokusai, the artist Hiroshige also created some of the masterpieces of kachô-e and thus the genre reached its culmination.

Two kachô-e series include an untitled group of at least ten horizontal ôban-size prints with censor seals published by Eijudô circa 1833-34 (this is the so-called "large flower" series), and a vertical chûban-size untitled set of at least ten known designs (called the "small flower" series), also published by Eijudô with censor seals circa 1834.

The attribution of some other kachô-e designs signed by Hokusai has proved to be difficult. The "small flowers" series, for example, is known in variant impressions from different blocks and with different seals (the first edition prints have separate seals for the publisher and the censor, while the recut impressions have a single seal divided diagonally for the censor and the artist's manji seal). It is still being argued whether these were recut soon after the original editions or were late copies.

There is, in addition, a separate series of at least 14 horizontal ôban designs of controversial attribution, apparently based on original Hokusai sketches but possibly printed during the Meiji period. When not assigned to Hokusai, the group has also been credited to Hokusai's early pupil Katsushika Taito II (worked c. 1810s-1853). The Meiji attribution may be the most plausible, assuming no contradictory evidence is found. One example from this set is illustrated above. The signature reads zen Hokusai Iitsu hitsu and is without a publisher's seal. It depicts kingfishers among morning glories drawn in the carefully delineated manner that Hokusai based partly on Chinese painting models. Setting the two kingfishers aloft above the long sweeping branch and anchoring it with their perched companion provides an effective and lively balance against the tall vertical of the morning glories at the far left. The quality of line is reminiscent of Hokusai's rhythmic, slightly agitated style of drawing, but whether the print was based on his sketch or, even if it was, whether it was printed after his death remains an uncertainty in the opinion of some scholars.

For further discussion on Hokusai, see Waterfall. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Keyes, Roger: Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1984, pp. 58-61 & 178, plates 55-64 & figs. 350-351.
  • Lane, Richard: Hokusai: Life and Work. New York: Dutton, 1989, pp. 220-227 & 296.
  • Narazaki, Muneshige: Studies in Nature: Hokusai-Hiroshige (Masterworks of Ukiyo-e, volume 11). Tokyo & Palo Alto: Kodansha, 1970, pp. 17-18 & plates 1-11.
  • Kanagawa Prefectural Museum: Ukiyo-e Meihin 500 Sen ("500 Selected Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e"). Yokohama: Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History, November 1991 exhibition of the Tanpa Collection, plate 327, p. 144.
  • White, Julia, Brandon, Reiko, & Woodson, Yoko: Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 1998, pp. 142-153, plates 90-100.
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