As for prints in various tones of blue exclusively, so-called aizurie, a series of probably ten prints issued by the publisher Moriya Jihei is probably the best example. It was issued without any series or print titles, and was comprised of figures, landscapes, and subjects from nature. They are small format koban prints, roughly measuring 227 x 168 mm, as correctly identified in Forrer 1974:127 (however, Steffi Schmidt in her 1971 catalogue [nos 593-99] of the Berlin collection identifies the prints as chūban, giving measurements ranging from 221 to 295 mm height x 164 to 168 width, a quite unlikely variation between prints from the same series, but also the Boston Museum of Fine Arts identifies the prints as chūban in its database, as does Yasuda in his 1971 monograph [p 140], as does Nagata in both his 1985 Nenpu [p 194], and in his 2005 Hokusai exhibition catalogue [cat 343-51]).

Their subjects are A man washing potatoes in a tub; Mōsō finding a fresh bamboo shoot in the snow; Boats passing under rocky cliffs with a moon in the sky; A mountainous landscape with a bridge across a waterfall; Two fish: a halfbeak and a bream, and a crayfish; Two fish: a sole and a kasago, and two ark shell (akagai); Three sparrows and morning glory; A sparrow trying to catch a fly; Plovers flying over waves. That is nine in all, suggesting that there is at least one more design missing, as such small format prints would at least be printed two from an aiban format block. Just found the missing one: A Finch on a hibiscus (MFA 21.10230).*

Indeed, in the 2005 Tokyo National Museum catalogue, the print of three sparrows by a morning glory (350) has been cut so carelessly that it still shows the line where the two prints should have been separated, and even part of the kiwame censorship seal and of the publisher’s mark of Moriya of the other print – so we can know that it was printed together with the design of plovers and waves. As I long ago also possessed myself an uncut sheet from the series, I know that also the designs of two fish and a crayfish and of the man washing potatoes were printed together from the same block.

All of the prints in this series have the signature Saki no Hokusai hitsu (前北斎筆), or “Brush of the Former Hokusai,” combined with various seals. Of these seals, just one is of special interest, reading “Old Man of 72” (Nanajūni-ō), so we can date this series to the year 1831.

A second series of aizurie prints, or rather “printed matter,” is titled A Hundred Views in the Eastern Capital (Tōto hyakkei). As said, they are not exactly prints, but rather printed matter in the format of envelopes to be used for sending notes and brief letters in a nice wrapper, rather than, as was the common practice, just writing the name of the addressee somewhere so the postman could see it. They measure 191 x 51 mm and were published by an unidentified publisher, otherwise known for fans designed by Katsukawa Shunei, Utagawa Kuniyasu, and by Hiroshige.

Cherry Blossoms at Ueno
Yanaka, in between Ueno and Hongo Heights, Private collection, The Netherlands
Nihonbashi from the Art Institute of Chicago Collection
Art Institute of Chicago Collection

At present, we know of nine surviving examples of these envelopes, picturing Nihonbashi, Sumidagawa, Ōhashi, Mimeguri, Ōji, Fukagawa, Shibaura, Yanaka, and Blossoms at Ueno, Ueno no hana. They are signed Hokusai aratame Iitsu ga. Narazaki in his 1944 Hokusai ron (p 374) was probably the first to record the Ōji and Sumida River subjects of this group which he saw in the Miyake Hikojirō collection. Later, Nagata in his 1985 Nenpu would identify the above mentioned nine subjects, all but the Ōji subject in the collection of the National Diet Library. The Nihonbashi envelope is also preserved in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Shibaura envelope is also preserved in the collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, and the Ueno and Yanaka envelopes are also held in Dutch private collections. Surprisingly, these somewhat luxury ephemera – and that is probably why so few have survived – are the earliest examples of Hokusai working in the aizurie technique, signing his works with the signature Hokusai aratame Iitsu ga. Indeed, it is remarkable that a publisher of such ephemera would make use of the new indigo pigment earlier than his colleagues catering to buyers of prints … to be continued.

*I had wanted to include a picture of one of these prints, but searching the online database of the Ostasiatisches Museum Berlin – that owns seven of these prints, the search for ‘Hokusai’ only yields three Hiroshige prints, two different Hokusai prints, and one Hokkei surimono — or am I doing something stupid?