Ever wonder what the favorite colors were of Japanese Woodblock artists? Well, for a while there, it did seem like it was Prussian blue, especially for Katsushika Hokusai – the ukiyo-e artist whom we’ve most fondly known for his Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
You might have known this, or you might not, but the Great Wave Off Kanagawa that you see here, isn’t about the wave at all. It’s either about Mt. Fuji overshadowing it in the background. Or, drum roll, please… Prussian Blue. So today, let’s talk about the latter.
The most dominant color that you see in this masterpiece by Hokusai is varying shades of blue, right? But the one color that’s the
flashiest here, is Prussian Blue. Now that might not strike you at first. But when we delve deeper into the Edo period, the ongoing Japanese era when this painting was being made, we’d realize that they never made Prussian blue on their own i.e. Prussian blue wasn’t really produced in Japan. The only shade they could possibly get was indigo from the extracts of Commelina and other plants . So the only way Hokusai got his hands on the dye was through the dye coming into Japan somehow. But back at the time, Japan had closed off from the rest of the world in terms of trade. So how in the world did they get this dye? Well, Hokusai was probably working with smugglers (gasp!). And where was Prussian blue being made at the time? Surprise, in Prussia (now Germany). This color was known as Berurin-ai (or Beru-ai; Berlin blue) in Japan at the time, and the term Prussian Blue came much later .
Looks like Japan still had its ties to Europe after all, even during the Edo period. And this brought forth an era of woodblock prints that had shades of blue as the dominant color – Aizuri-e.
The term Aizuri-e literally means “blue printed picture” and was commonly used to describe Japanese woodblock prints which were either all in blue or at least had blue as their dominant color. This movement was largely associated with the 1820s and onwards and was a key in the revamping of Japanese woodblock print landscapes for good, and for the better, I might add. And this was probably the first synthetic ink that made its way into ukiyo-e prints, followed by several others.
Early ukiyo-e artists who began to adopt this predominant blue imagery include, of course, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige Keisai Eisen, Utagawa Kunisada, and Utagawa Sadahide. So let’s look at some of these aizuri-e prints, shall we?
As mentioned earlier, Hokusai was one of the first artists to have incorporated Prussian Blue into his works, and two of these masterpieces belong to his iconic series Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji [to see this iconic series in its entirety, click here]. You probably guessed the first one, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The second one was a print made in 1831, Kajikazawa in Kai Province . This print is the second most famous print in this series by Hokusai,
owing to the perfect blend of shapes in both the foreground and the background, and how Hokusai managed to detail a print so flawlessly with just the color blue .
Moving on to Utagawa Hiroshige [see original Hiroshige woodblocks for sale here], once Hokusai had dared to use this pigment, Hiroshige also incorporated it into several of his landscapes. One of Hiroshige’s Prussian blue-dominant works includes the Full Moon at Tsukuda that you see right here, made with none other than one color in several shades. Pretty cool, right?
Now it wasn’t just the artists who were already into landscape drawings that took up Prussian Blue and ran with it. In fact, it almost seems as though the blue is what made the category of ukiyo-e landscapes so popular . Confused? Let me elaborate. Here’s a print by Utagawa Kunisada, who primarily drew kabuki actors and courtesans in his woodblock prints. But in 1830, right around the time when the blue era had come to the public eye, he brought forth this landscape, a very uncharacteristic print for his genre . So the blue era of woodblock art really did fuel landscape prints quite a lot when you look at it from a correlational point of view.
There are many more household names, especially from the Shin Hanga movement of the 1900s, like Hasui Kawase [click see original Hasui prints for sale], who actively made prints that were all blue and brought life to ukiyo-e prints through aizuri- e at a time when photography was taking over . In fact he even made two prints at times with the same imagery but one in azuri-e. One such print is the Edo River as you see below.
When it comes to blue and aizuri-e prints, you could just go on and on about the prints that you can find. So if you’re a fan of Prussian blue, you’d definitely find ukiyo-e prints that would please your eye when you’re setting out to buy or collect Japanese woodblock art!
Check out our latest collection of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, sorme with Prussian Blue of course, by clicking here.
Fun fact: Did you know that Van Gogh, who was inspired by Hiroshige, Hokusai, and the Japanese Ukiyo-e greats, used Prussian Blue in his famous Starry Night (on display at NYC’s Metropolitan Gallery)?!
 “Prussian Blue and Its Partner in Crime.” Journal of ART in SOCIETY, https://www.artinsociety.com/prussian-blue-and-its-partner-in-crime.html.
 Cole, Karl. “Aizuri-E = Wonderful.” Davis Publications, https://www.davisart.com/blogs/curators-corner/aizuri-e-utagawa-toyokuni-kunisada/.
 Hokusai and the Blue Revolution – Columbia University. http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/pdf/2005_Hokusai_and_the_Blue_Revolution.pdf.
 “The Blue Era.” Haifa Museums – Six Museums in One Frame, https://www.tmja.org.il/eng/Exhibitions/4024/The_Blue_Era.