Report on the talk “Drawings by Hokusai and His Students at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston”

I was delighted to attend the Sainsbury Institute’s Third Thursday Lecture on 15th June 2023, held by Sarah Thompson, Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Her lecture focused on “Drawings by Hokusai and His Students at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston”. Thompson highlighted one of the most promising areas of Hokusai research by discussing the objects through which artistic knowledge was transmitted from master to student.

Thompson held this lecture in connection with the exhibition “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” (March 26–July 16, 2023, Museum of Fine Arts Boston). She focused on Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760–1849), his pupils Hokuga 北鵞 (1771–1844) and Hokusen 北僊 (fl. from 1810s) and two of his artistically active daughters, Ôi 応為 (c. 1800–c.1866) and Jofû 如風 (life dates unknown). Carefully selected works from the MFA’s collection reveal the enormous potential for improving understanding of Hokusai’s work process and the mechanisms of artistic knowledge transmission through close viewing.

Woodblock printing is a collaborative activity (as illustrated by the parody print in Fig. 1 – normally, the artisans were male). Insights into applied printing processes continue to fascinate listeners, as was evident from the Q&A following Thompson’s lecture. The  understanding that to create a printing block, the artist’s hanshita-e 版下絵 (block-ready drawing) had to be destroyed struck a chord with the attendees of this lecture. Creating a print means losing a drawing but gaining its multiple, often multi-colour printed counterparts.

Fig. 1: Utagawa Kunisada. 1857. Triptych Print. Series: Imayo mitate shi-no-ko-sho 今様見立士農工商 (A Modern-day Match-up with the Four Estates). Colour woodblock print on paper. 1907,0531,0.204. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

People who surrounded Hokusai were the ones to whom his brush’s movement and words mattered directly. Thompson’s discussion of Hokusen’s, Hokuga’s and Hokusai’s daughters’ works showcased that much of Hokusai’s creative activity occurred within a group of people. By contextualising the drawings, Thompson highlighted the dichotomy of joint and individual decisions in the creative process of Japanese woodblock printmaking. Her focus on the students as individuals permits a broad range of questions. Who were these recipients of artistic knowledge? How did they govern their own learning process? Whom did they seek out as teachers, and why?

Particularly Hokusai’s pupil Hokusen is important in the drawings’ arrival at the MFA. Until 1911, the drawings belonged to William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926), who had acquired them in Japan. Thompson reconstructs this lineage by analysing an inscription on the back of the Chinese general “Han Xin 韓信” drawing (MFA no. 11.46038): “Bought of Hokusai’s last living pupil – Tokio – 1885-6 / Hokusai / WSB”.

According to Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), the MFA’s first curator of Japanese art, Bigelow presumably bought the drawings directly from the Hokusen studio in the 1880s while he and Bigelow were in Japan. Thompson extends this provenance by showing how Hokusen might have gotten these drawings from Hokuga. She supports this argument with evidence from the preface to the hand-painted Shaka goichidaiki zue 釈迦御一代記図会 (The Life of Shakyamuni Illustrated, an album of preliminary drawings with a preface signed Manjirô Hokuga 卍楼北鵞 (?–1856) in 1835).

In it, Hokuga notes that he received the drawings from Hokusai upon moving out of their shared accommodation in Tokyo by 1835. This Edo escape might be owed to Hokusai’s presence in Edo having become problematic. As a possible reason for the need to escape, Thompson points to the debts that the son of Shigenobu and Omiyo, Hokusai’s grandson, amassed. Such argumentation – combining material time witnesses with biographic elements – shows that behind Hokusai’s stardom hides a man who had a family life and all the joys and troubles that come with it. Thompson’s analysis that research on Hokusai’s ideas and style should address biographical elements is important.

The drawings, especially the ones with explanatory notes in the margins or auxiliary visuals (for example, geometric lines to construct a shape), are a treasure trove through which to explore the mechanisms of knowledge transmission at the time. Contrasting individual drawings against larger compilations such as the “Chicken-Rib Picture Book” (MFA no. 1998.670.1-3, see also: Thompson, S. Hokusai’s Lost Manga, 2016) or Banmotsu ehon daizen zu 万物絵本大全図 (The Great Picture Book of Everything, BM no. 2020-3015, see also Clark, T. Illustrations for the Great Picture Book of Everything, 2022) likely will lead to a more interwoven picture of how and why Hokusai created his works, which continue to fascinate today.

The lecture deeply resonated with my research on Hokusai’s early painting manuals. I look forward to the research findings on Hokusai school drawings at the MFA Boston and on additional materials related to Hokusai, his pupils and his modern-day followers.

Dr. Stephanie Santschi completed her doctoral degree at the University of Zurich in spring 2023, researching and translating two of Hokusai’s earliest painting manuals. She is currently preparing this research for publication.