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Hokusai’s Picture Book of Everyday Life in Edo-Era Japan

Nov 22, 2016

Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33) (all photos © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston unless otherwise noted)

Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33) (all photos © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston unless otherwise noted)


Katsushika Hokusai was a prolific draftsman. Although most famous for his landscapes in his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, he drew just about everything, from scenes of everyday life to the supernatural. He even published his own modern designs for combs and pipes, filling two entire volumes with 150 illustrations of solely the former. Printed in 1823, that title also advertised a list of its publisher’s other offerings, including another book of Hokusai’s drawings that has never been found. Known as Mister Iitsu’s Chicken-Rib Picture Book, it may exist only in manuscript form; many scholars believe those pages make up an untitled, three-volume album owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The museum has now published the manuscript of nearly 200 ink-on-paper drawings for the first time, following a major traveling exhibition it organized in 2014 on the famous Edo-period artist. Laid out to read from right to left, Hokusai’s Lost Mangareplicates the original three volumes, with individual prints set on their own pages. The paper works were likely intended as a continuation of Hokusai’s previously published, highly successful sketchbooks, which featured subject matter of all kinds, from sumo wrestlers to insects and snakes. First printed in 1814, they became guides for aspiring artists unable to afford drawing lessons, but people also purchased them to simply flip through for pure pleasure.

“Chicken-rib” is a “classical Chinese literary expression for something that is trivial but nevertheless worthwhile, like the small but tasty bit of meat on a chicken rib,” Sarah E. Thompson, the MFA Boston’s assistant curator for Japanese prints, writes in the introduction to this new release. She offers additional context, providing a brief summary of the development of Japanese woodblock printing as well as an overview of Hokusai’s career.