View 103 Discovered Drawings by Famed Japanese Woodcut Artist Katsushika Hokusai

When west­ern­ers first dis­cov­ered the work of Japan­ese wood­cut artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai, it was pri­mar­i­ly through his late-career print The Great Wave off Kana­gawa and the series from which it came, Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, after the open­ing of Japan to inter­na­tion­al trade and the mass con­sump­tion of Japan­ese art in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. Impres­sion­ists like Claude Mon­et and Vin­cent van Gogh went wild for Japan­ese prints; Claude Debussy com­posed La mer; artists, arti­sans, and archi­tects on both sides of the Atlantic fell for all things Japon­isme.

Hoku­sai died in 1849 and did not live to see this new­found inter­na­tion­al admi­ra­tion. When he com­plet­ed The Great Wave, he was in his sev­en­ties — a mas­ter of his craft who had him­self absorbed sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence from west­ern painters.

Dur­ing his “for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence of Euro­pean art,” John-Paul Stonard writes at The Guardian, Hoku­sai “learnt from Euro­pean prints brought into Japan by Dutch traders.” He took these lessons in direc­tions all his own, how­ev­er. His Mount Fuji prints “could not have been fur­ther from any­thing being made in Europe at the time.”

Hoku­sai’s Euro­pean and Amer­i­can enthu­si­asts saw only the barest glimpse of his body of work, which we can now ful­ly appre­ci­ate in exhi­bi­tions in per­son and online. And we can now appre­ci­ate a series of draw­ings that have been hid­den away for over sev­en­ty years and were hard­ly seen at all in the 200 years since their cre­ation. Made for an unpub­lished ency­clo­pe­dia titled Ban­mot­su eon dais­es zu (The Great Pic­ture Book of Every­thing), “The draw­ings were long thought for­got­ten,” Valenti­na Di Lis­cia writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “last record­ed at an auc­tion in Paris in 1948 before they resur­faced in 2019.”

Made some­time between 1820 and the 1840s, “the metic­u­lous, post­card-sized works are known as hanshita‑e, a term for the final draw­ings used to carve the key blocks in Japan­ese wood­block print­ing.” These are usu­al­ly destroyed in the process, but since the prints were nev­er made, for rea­sons unknown, “the del­i­cate illus­tra­tions remained intact, mount­ed on cards and stored in a cus­tom-made wood­en box.” The draw­ings depict every­thing from “the typ­i­cal inhab­i­tants of lands in East, South­east, and Cen­tral Asian and beyond” to one of the 33 man­i­fes­ta­tions of the bod­hisatt­va Aval­okiteś­vara, “Drag­on head Kan­non.”

At the top, cura­tor Alfred Haft walks us through his favorite draw­ings from the set, and you can see all 103 of the diminu­tive illus­tra­tions online at the British Muse­um. For­mer­ly owned by the col­lec­tor and Art Nou­veau jew­el­er Hen­ri Vev­er, the prints could have inspired many a west­ern artist, but it seems they were hid­den away and have been seen by very few eyes. Dis­cov­er them your­self for the first time here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa by Hoku­sai: An Intro­duc­tion to the Icon­ic Japan­ese Wood­block Print in 17 Min­utes

Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Mas­ter­piece, Includ­ing “The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa”

The Evo­lu­tion of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: See Four Ver­sions That Hoku­sai Paint­ed Over Near­ly 40 Years

Hokusai’s Icon­ic Print, “The Great Wave off Kana­gawa,” Recre­at­ed with 50,000 LEGO Bricks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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