A complete set of Hokusai's iconic '36 Views of Mount Fuji' breaks record at US$3.6m

Composing 46 scenes of Japan's most famed peak, Hokusai’s series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1830-1834) first took Japan by storm and later the world. Nobody at the time, however, including the 70-year-old artist himself, could have imagined that his Great Wave would become one of the most iconic works of art of all time. 

Having inspired generations of artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Andy Warhol, now, two centuries after its creation, these highly admirable Japanese woodblock prints continue to cast a spell over the art world. 

During this Asian Art Week in New York, a rare, entire series set fetched US$3.5 million at Christie's New York, shattering the artist's previous auction record of US$2.7 million, set last year by The Great Wave

It is known that there are less than 10 full collections in the world, with the majority held by museums including The Metropolitan Museum, and the present set was sold by Jitendra V. Singh, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who has spent 10 years assembling these "ukiyo-e"

Lot 135 | Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) | Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji)
A complete set of forty-six prints, each signed Saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu, Hokusai Iitsu hitsu or Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo), c.1830-1834
Horizontal oban, various sizes
Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: US$2,900,000
Sold: US$3,559,000

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: Japanese and Korean Art
Date: 19 March 2024

Flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries, ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world," is a genre of Japanese art in which artists produced woodblock prints that celebrated the daily lives of people living in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), their travels, or scenes from history and folk tales. 

In the mid-18th century, Edo, with a population of one million, became likely the biggest city in the world. As the economy boomed, the class of merchants, once positioned at the bottom of the social class, rose through the ranks and began to indulge in and patronize the entertainment of the red-light districts. And their search for sensual pleasures became known as ukiyo, "the floating world."  

It was against this backdrop that ukiyo-e, mostly depicting images of famous kabuki actors, beauties, and erotica, created a collecting craze similar to modern-day trading cards, hugely profitable and sought-after. 

The illustrious artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), however, diverged from this tradition and worked on landscape woodblock prints instead, creating the series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which was an absolute novelty.

Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)

Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit

Fine Wind, Clear Morning

Asakusa Hongan-ji temple in the Eastern capital [Edo]

When it launched in 1830, it was an overnight success, the demands so huge that the publisher reprinted the designs until 1834 and expanded the series by ten, bringing the total number of prints in the series to 46.

Across those prints, Hokusai portrays the famous peak in various landscapes, seasons, and weather conditions. The tallest peak in the country, Mount Fuji is not just an overshadowing presence for the Japanese but a sacred mountain with great spiritual significance, a site of pilgrimage and worship. 

Its association with longevity could be the reason why the artist was drawn to the subject, as he had a fervent wish to live to the age of 110, having written: 

"From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.

And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.

Sunset across the Ryōgoku bridge from the bank of the Sumida River at Onmayagashi

Ejiri in Suruga Province

A sketch of the Mitsui shop in Suruga in Edo (present-day Muromachi, Tokyo)

Fujimi Field in Owari Province

Perhaps most striking about the works is Hokusai's copious use of the newly accessible Prussian blue pigment, brought to Japan by Western traders around the turn of the century.

Compared to the previous blue pigments, Prussian blue possesses a greater tonal range with more vividness, also bringing a touch of 'exoticness' to the images. By manipulating different saturations of the same pigment, he masterfully captures the light and shadow in each scenery. 

Hokusai also drew significant inspiration from 18th-century Dutch and French engravings, smuggled into Japan when contact with the outside world was forbidden, incorporating linear perspective into the compositions.

Notably, each image was made through a process whereby Hokusai's drawing on paper was glued to a woodblock to guide the carving. The original design is therefore lost in the process. 

Sazai hall – Temple of Five Hundred Rakan

Tea house at Koishikawa. The morning after a snowfall

Climbing on Fuji

Mishima Pass in Kai Province

Kajikazawa in Kai Province

When these innovative prints were exhibited in Paris in 1867, they were eye-openers to the Western art world. Artists including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas, and Manet all paid homage to his art in their paintings, while Monet kept a print of the Great Wave in his house at Giverny. 

The Great Wave in particular has served as inspiration for countless 20th-century artworks. For instance, Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl which portrays a blue-haired woman disappearing beneath the silvery waves, and Andy Warhol’s Waves (After Hokusai) which pays direct hommage to Hokusai’s work.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963) | The collection of Museum of Modern Art