Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji

 Fugaku Sanjūrokkei “36 Views of Mount Fuji” – 

The epitome of Japanese Ukiyo-e (Woodblock Art)

You probably have already heard a lot about Katsushika’s Kanagawa-Oki Nami Ura “The Great Wave off Kanagawa – representing a magnificent high tide plunging upwards with the great Mount Fuji peaking in the background. But did you know that this masterpiece belongs to an entire series of remarkable Ukiyo-e prints by Hokusai called the “36 Views of Mount Fuji”? So indeed, the subject of this painting was never the great wave or the boat that was stuck right in its center, but in fact that the tiny little mountain in the background: Japan’s very own Mount Fuji. And this mountain appears another 46 times in the original 36 print series, with 10 additions by Hokusai –  “36 Views of Mount Fuji”. 

Depicting Mount Fuji through various seasons and from several varying perspectives, the series was completed in 1832 and celebrates the significance of Mt. Fuji for the Japanese nation[4]. While Mt. Fuji has been quite popular among artists representing its cultural and historical importance to Japan, this series stands out in that it represents the peak’s spiritual value as well, particularly for the Shinto people. In the words of the historian, Henry Smith[4]:

“Thus from an early time, Mt. Fuji was seen as the source of the secret of immortality, a tradition that was at the heart of Hokusai’s own obsession with the mountain.”

Each of these images followed a specific process behind them: Hokusai drew them on Japanese transparent paper washi and this was pasted on a woodblock for carving as accurately as possible. Particularly complex, Hokusai’s paintings were full of diverse colors and with a separate block made for each of them. These prints went from the azuri-e[3] (tones focused on shades of blue) to nishiki-e[3] (multi-colored) once the publisher Nishimura undertook the series at the peak of its success. 

Probably the most accurate description of this set of paintings would be:

“Hokusai chose viewpoints of Mount Fuji from locations all over the country and not just in the near vicinity of the mountain or from Edo”[2]

By depicting Fuji from several new angles and behind everyday scenes from the Edo Period, Hokusai delivered one unique message:

Whilst life changes, Fuji stands still.

First up would be none other than Kanagawa-Oki Nami Ura “The Great Wave off Kanagawa[1]. Through its intricate shades of blue in just a single wave with a spidery form, and three boats stuck in it in the foreground, Mt. Fuji looks over them with great power. As famous as it gets, this piece has made it to the wallpapers of several Japanese art fans and replicated several times!

Of course, the most celebrated of these pieces was none other than “The Great Wave off Kanagawa but there were several others that one mustn’t miss.

Moving on, there is “South Wind, Clear Sky, otherwise known as Red Fuji [2]depicting Mt. Fuji in all of its glory. With the mountain in the foreground and clouds at the back of the sky, the white fluffy clouds seem to be merging with the snow-capped tip of the mountain. Furthermore, the size of Mt. Fuji is well elaborated by painting the forest canopy around it in a shrunken perspective. The lush blend of just a few basic colors, namely red, white, blue, and green brings out the true grandeur of this mountain!

Next up, is a Sketch of the Mitsui shop in Suruga in Edo[2] – a classic representation of how geometric figures can bring out well-crafted images. As you look at this image, you’d probably focus on the two kites flying in the sky in a criss-cross fashion. The subtlety of it all: they’re flying right over where Mt. Fuji is – a point where the sky and the earth meet. This skyline also blends with the depicted rooftops quite seamlessly – rooftops that belong to the Mitsui family of merchants during the 17th century, one of the largest corporate groups at the time.

 The list just goes on and on, with every single of these pieces bringing out a completely new and distinct perspective. If you’re interested in more of these, you’d have to head to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, US[1]! While we’re at it, let’s talk more about the legacy. There are several other works of the same era inspired by this series and taken up by famous publishers. These include several other works on the same subject, including Hiroshige‘s later series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and Hokusai’s subsequent book One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. One of the french art critics at the time, Edmond De Goncourt, remarked:

“Despite its “rather crude colors”, it was, “the album which inspires the landscapes of the impressionists of the present moment” [1]

Thus, this series can also be said to have played a key role in Japonisme i.e. bringing Japanese ukiyo-e to European modern art. 


[1] Art in context. (2022, May 6). “The great wave off kanagawa” Katsushika Hokusai – an analysis. artincontext.org. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://artincontext.org/the-great-wave-off-kanagawa-katsushika-hokusai/

[2] Jamieson, Anna. “Iconic Hokusai Prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Japan Objects, Japan Objects, 18 Mar. 2021, https://japanobjects.com/features/hokusai-fuji

[3] Katsushika, Hokusai. One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji = Fugaku Hyakkei. Eirakuya Tōshirō, 1849. 

[4] Written by: Siham Ali. “The Legend That Is Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Creative Boom, 3 Aug. 2021, https://www.creativeboom.com/features/the-legend-that-is-hokusai-thirty-six-views-of-mount-fuji/

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