Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Convolvulus and Tree-frog

Colour print from woodblocks, from the untitled series of ten prints published by Nichimuraya Yohachi (Eijūdo) c.1832; signed: zen Hokusai Iitsu hitsu; publisher’s mark Eijūdo; censor’s seal: kiwame; from the collection of Edwin and Irma Grabhorn, by whom sold to Israel Goldman in 2006; reproduced in Jack Hillier, Landscape Prints of Old Japan, The Book Club of San Francisco, 1960, plate 24.

Bought from the Reitlinger Fund with the help of The Art Fund and the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund 2006 (P.10-2006)

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is perhaps the most famous of Japanese landscape artists working in the Ukiyo-e school, but he also excelled in other genres, including flower prints. The Fitzwilliam Museum has just acquired one of his masterpieces, Convolvulus and Tree frog, from the series known as Large Flowers (to distinguish it from a smaller-sized set of flower prints). Each print features a flower and an insect (frogs and other amphibians were classified as insects). The series is very rare: only two complete sets are known to survive, and only around a handful of impressions of each individual print. Only one other comparable impression of any of the prints in the series has appeared on the market in the last twenty-five years. Convolvulus and Tree-frog joins another print from the series, probably the best-preserved impression of Irises and grasshopper, which is one of the star objects in the Fitzwilliam’s Japanese print collection. The Fitzwilliam’s collection of Hokusai’s work also includes fine examples representing his major landscape print series in depth.

In the Large Flowers series Hokusai was probably influenced and inspired by Utamaro’s great trio of natural history books on the themes of insects, birds and shells, which are now so well represented in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection through the recent acquisition of the Shell Book (with the help of The Art Fund). Utamaro’s books, with their playful comic verse, may also have prompted the humour evident in this print, where the eye has to search before finding the frog.

The Fitzwilliam’s impression of Convolvulus and Tree-frog is outstanding in condition; other surviving impressions are typically faded, with the flowers that are purple in this impression faded to red, and those that are pale blue faded to grey. This indicates that both these colours contain the pigment dayflower blue (tsuyugasa), probably the most fugitive of all pigments used for prints in the Edo period: very few prints survive with this pigment intact.

Continual or too frequent display is not an option for a print with such near-miraculous survival of fugitive colours. The Fitzwilliam Museum makes many of its new acquisitions of Japanese prints available online as well as providing public and scholarly access to the reserve collections and displaying them in themed exhibitions for limited periods in the purpose-designed Shiba Room. Convolvulus and Tree frog is featured online and will appear in the future in an exhibition devoted to Japanese prints of nature (17 February – 17 May 2009), which will also include Utamaro’s Shell Book.

Acquisition date: 2006

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