spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)


Hokusai kanji Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) was an artist of such prodigious skill and imagination that it seems inadequate to discuss his achievements in anything less than a book-length exposition. Considered by many to be the greatest artist of the ukiyo-e school, he is said to have made over 30,000 designs (prints, drawings, and paintings) on subjects or in formats as diverse as landscapes; beautiful women; kabuki actor portraits; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono; sketch books; illustrated albums, books, poetry compilations, and novels; and didactic painting manuals.

Hokusai is celebrated, of course, for what might very well be the most famous print in the world — the iconic Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the wave off Kanagawa: 神奈川沖浪裏) from his series Fugaku Sanjûrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji: 冨嶽三十六景) circa 1831, which he signed "Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu" (Drawn by Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai: 北斎改爲一筆). The imposing composition is said to have inspired Debussy's symphonic sketch La Mer (The Sea) and Rilke's poem Der Berg (The Mountain),

Hokuei's composition presents a low horizon and exploits repetition and geometric forms as a means of focus and balance. The triangular Mt. Fuji, small and distant, is echoed in the wave below the larger cresting mass of water, itself an incomplete triangle. The upper curve of the rogue wave, poised to crash down upon three oshiokuri-bune ("fast boats": 押送船) transporting live fish in the early morning, invites the viewer's gaze along a diagonal toward the sacred mountain. Even the white space within the cloud form at the upper right seems to mimic the cresting wave.

Viewers will also note that the dominant color here is blue, or more accurately, shades of different blues. Scientific analysis has demonstrated that both synthetic imported Prussian blue (also called "Berlin Blue," bero-ai in Japanese: ベロリン藍 or ベロ藍) and traditional indigo or ai (藍 Polygonum tinctorium Ait.) were used in Hokusai's Kanagawa design to create gradations. Also, the fugitive yellow cloud is very well preserved, whereas most often, it is faded.

Hokusai waterfallOnly one other print is discussed here, arbitrarily selected from among an overwhelmingly large number of impressive landscape compositions. The scene is titled Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki ("Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road") from the series Shokoku taki meguri ("Journey to the waterfalls in all the provinces"), circa 1832. The name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the "round eye" (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. A servant at the far middle left heats a water kettle while two men converse and admire the view from their spectacular vantage point.

Compositions such as this reveal Hokusai's vivid draftsmanship along with his interpretive realism and wide-ranging imagination. This image of the Amida waterfall is simultaneously a figurative representation of a meisho or famous place and a transparent rendering of the basic forms underlying Hokusai's visual vocabulary. The nearly perfect circle of the hollow is a central decorative motif, a metaphorical "round eye" simplified as though intended for Hokusai's students to use as a model from one of his didactic treatises. The zig-zagging waves of water approaching the precipice are decoratively drawn in a stylized shorthand that could be suitable for transfer to other media, such painting on ceramics. The falling water first descends in branch-like arteries, and then drops precipitously in long, straight verticals. Grassy cliffs frame the scene, bulging inward toward the central pictorial space, with shapes almost wavelike, their underlying compositional structure not so different, perhaps, from the wave in Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The human presence is depicted poignantly, the men dwarfed by the surging falls and imposing cliffs, yet their presence is nevertheless a harmonious part of this magnificent view. © 1999-2019 by John Fiorillo


  • Forrer, M.,: Hokusai: Prints and Drawings. Munich, 1991, no. 42.
  • Lane, R.: Hokusai: Life and Work. New York, 1989, p. 202 and plate 260.
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.