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Hokusai's Commission from the Dutch East India Company

The National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden has a fascinating group of European-influenced paintings by Hokusai on Dutch paper, which I was very eager to see. They are extremely vivid and detailed with many of the compositions acting as important precursors to his designs for the 36 Views of Mt Fuji. More importantly, they are a fascinating window into Hokusai's receptiveness to European influences and commissions. I am in debt entirely to Timothy Clark's scholarship in 'Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave' from which most of the information is from.

The author viewing Hokusai's painting at the Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

The Dutch East India Company (it went bankrupt by 1800 but the Dutch still continued trading) kapitan Jan Cock Blomhoff (1779-1863) is thought to have commissioned the paintings from Hokusai during the company's Court Journey to Edo of 1822. It is thought that it was during this initial trip that Blomhoff would have supplied Hokusai with the Dutch paper the Leiden group are painted on. The finished paintings are presumed to have then been collected during the next Court Journey, in 1826, by kapitan Johan Willem de Sturler (1773-1855) and physician Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866). They were then taken out of Japan by De Sturler in 1826 and Von Siebold in 1829. De Sturler later moved to Paris while Von Siebold lived in Leiden, hence why the paintings are divided between these two cities.

Attributed to Hokusai circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Although unsigned and unprecedented in the Hokusai oeuvre, nevertheless the style of many motifs and the skill - indeed the obsessive way in which many details are rendered - point strongly to the hand of Hokusai himself; at the very least to Hokusai as the master guiding completion of the commission. Note for example, how fine the calligraphy is written in mirror form on one of the banner's carried by the children below, and the details of the kimono and hair.

Note the details such as the flag with reverse calligraphy. Hokusai is showing off his skill here in writing in mirror form so finely.
Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Hokusai specialist Matthi Forrer has argued for the participation in the project of Hokusai's pupils Totoya Hokkei (1780- 1850), Taito II (worked about 1818- 1854), and his daughter Oi (about 1800 after 1857), and one of the paintings in Paris is signed by another pupil, Otsuka Dan (1795-1855). More recently, Kubota Kazuhiro has proposed an even more significant role for Oi in the execution of the paintings, including the shading and gradation.

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Hokusai had already designed two small landscape series in the European-influenced style, learning from the Rangaku scholar and artist Shiba Kokan. The presumed 1822 Dutch commission encouraged further, radical experiments in the European-influenced style - in terms of the adoption of vanishing-point perspective and the three-dimensional modelling and use of chiaroscuro. Painting on smoother, less absorbent Dutch paper may have encouraged the use of finer detail. The commission stimulated nothing short of a visual revolution in Hokusai's art, giving him the confidence to create some of his most famous colour prints in the 1830s. The frequent use of deep perspective in the Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji series of about 1831-1833 is one striking result. Certain compositions in the Thirty-Six Views further develop specific subjects first realized in the paintings done for the Dutch. European-influenced volumetric style and the use of internal shadows would feature in later works by Oi.

New Year's Day

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkekunde Museum, Leiden

A samurai dressed in formal attire for New Year visits seems to be issuing orders to a tradesman holding a tray and a boy who crouches next to a travelling chest. New Year kites are flying in the sky, and there is a bird kite resting on a bundle on top of the chest. Dogs sniff each other. Most striking of all is the deep perspective created by the recession of the storehouses on the right and the fence, high up on the left, with its progressively diminishing decorations of bundles of new bamboo, and lobsters and ferns. On the low horizon is a fire-watch tower. The figures are more deeply coloured on their right sides, suggesting internal lighting.

Sudden Rain in the Countryside

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Wind, rain, a thunder-dark sky with lightning above the low horizon, figures scattering under umbrellas, hats and a robe quickly pulled over the head - all is drama and skilfully coordinated simultaneous action. This is a revolutionary image in Japanese art, and a later version of it in the print 'Ejiri, Suruga province', albeit more artfully composed, seems less daring. Hokusai is tenacious in rendering each clump of greenery, each leafy, wind-blown branch as if individually alive.

New Year End Accounts

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

A merchant with a cat next to a brazier, and the merchant's wife with her sewing kit and service for steeped tea, look on with satisfaction as their manager pores over his abacus and account book - dated first month, 1824 - reporting on the year-end accounts. A two-panel folding screen surrounds the master, and behind him are decoratively grained wooden cupboard doors, and Chinese landscape ink paintings on the sliding cupboard doors above. An indigo-dyed and patterned split curtain leads into the next room, top left. This complex grouping of figures and accessories, each with its own patina and shading, is skilfully integrated.

Flower Viewing Party

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Two well-to-do merchant wives, accompanied by a manservant and boy, are on a spring outing to enjoy the blossoming cherry. The woman facing us has shrugged off one sleeve of her outer robe in relaxation, and both women hold pipes in their elongated fingers (for Kubota, this is a stylistic trait of the work of Hokusai's daughter Oi). The servant carries a red woollen rug and the boy an umbrella: there is surely a picnic in their box and bundle. Multiple patterns on the various robes are painted in painstaking detail and with carefully gradated chiaroscuro effects. Each beautiful blossom of the double-petalled cherry opens at a different stage. Bright clumps of grass, each varied, trail off into the distance.

Boys Festival

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

Within the timber structure of a rooftop drying platform, a young unmarried woman is removing the tiny jacket of the baby boy she cradles in her arms. The baby squirms, reaching down towards his mother, who has bared her breast to feed him. Banners with family crests and Shoki the demon-queller (painted in red and the flapping carp kite are all decorations for the Boys' Festival in the fifth month. Once again there is sensitive modelling of the facial features and elaborate patterning and chiaroscuro on the robes. The location and viewpoint is unconventional, even eccentric.

Fisherman's Family

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

A fisherman and his wife patiently knot a net, while alongside five boys play on a large iron anchor pulled up on to the beach. The swooping cuckoo in the sky signifies the fourth month, early summer. In the middle ground a man caulks the base of a boat. At right, a row of small dwellings perches on top of a rampart of eccentrically shaped rocks. In the distance are more cottages lining the shore, and, far left, sails on the horizon. Objects on the beach cast rudimentary shadows.

Samurai and Servant

Attributed to Hokusai, circa 1820s, Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden

A well-dressed samurai stands proud beside his servant in a humble posture carrying his hat and package. The whole picture is one of class contrast: from the socks or lack there-of, to the finely made sword-scabbard, well kept hair and translucent silk over-coat. The way the rocks are depicted in the background are also unusual and almost 'cubist' in style.



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