Katsushika Hokusai, ‘The Hundred Poems [By the Hundred Poets] as Told by the Nurse: Chunagon Yakamochi’, ca. 1835-36, Scholten Japanese Art

a view of Chinese boats off a fantastical shoreline with towering rock formations, two figures, dressed in Chinese garments, stand in the prow of one of the boats and point at three birds flying nearby; signed zen Hokusai Manji, with publisher's seal Eijudo of Nishimura Yohachi, and censor's seal kiwame (approved), ca. 1835-6.
oban yoko-e 10 1/4 by 15 1/8 in., 26.1 by 38.4 cm
The Hundred Poems as Told by the Nurse was the last major single sheet series Hokusai designed before he devoted his remaining years primarily to painting commissions. Of the intended series of one hundred, only twenty-seven prints are known to have been completed; an additional sixty-four designs survive in the form of preparatory drawings.

Hokusai based this series on the well-known anthology of poems, the Hyakunin Isshu (A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets), compiled by the poet Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. The collected verse were (and continue to be) familiar to most Japanese in some format, including a shell matching games (similar to 'concentration'), where the challenge was to match the poet painted on the interior of one shell to their verse painted on another. Hokusai approaches the poems from the perspective of an uneducated wet-nurse, allowing for seemingly simple minded mistakes or misinterpretations which add a lighthearted quality to his renditions.

This poem in the cartouche is by Chunagon Yakamochi (Otomo no Yakamochi, 718-785), an important political figure in his time who also compiled the Man'yoshu, the first Imperial anthology of poems.

Kasagi no
Wataseru Hashi ni
Oku shimo no
Shiroki wo mireba
Yo zo fuke ni keru

If the 'Magpie Bridge'
Bridge by flight of magpies spanned
White with frost I see
With a deep-laid frost made white
Late, I know, has grown the night

The Magpie Bridge is associated with a legend that originated in China (thus the Chinese junks and sailors). The story tells of two lovers (the stars Vega and Altair) who were separated by the gods by the 'River of Heavens' (the Milky Way), but for one day a year when the wings of magpies form a bridge allowing the two to meet.

As there was a bridge on the Imperial grounds named the Magpie Bridge, the poet is probably alluding to meeting his own lover across the bridge. In Hokusai's print, the birds flying near the boat could be magpie, and the fantastical shoreline seems to be floating in the air, reaching across to expansion to form a bridge to the other side.

Series: The Hundred Poems [By the Hundred Poets] as Told by the Nurse

Image rights: Scholten Japanese Art

Publisher: Eijudo of Nishimura Yohachi

References:
Matthi Forrer with texts by Edmond de Goncourt, Hokusai, 1988, p. 343, no. 428 (sketch) & no. 429
Peter Morse, Hokusai: One Hundred Poets, 1989, no. 6

Published:
Katherine Martin, Highlights of Japanese Printmaking, Part One, Scholten Japanese Art, New York, 2005, no. 30

About Katsushika Hokusai

Adhering to a common Japanese practice with extreme frequency, Katsushika Hokusai transitioned between upwards of 30 pseudonyms throughout his career, each correlating to a different period or style. Despite the many changes, his surname prevails—Hokusai—which unites the surplus of monikers into a single legacy for the artist, printmaker, and ukiyo-e painter. In his early work, Hokusai depicted the traditional subject matter of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings, Kabuki actors; however, he monumentally revolutionized the medium by shifting his focus to landscapes and images of daily life in Japan. Hokusai is best-known for his woodblock series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (1831), which mastered the landscape while exploring the relationship between man and environment, and contained the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which remains one of the most universally recognized icons of Japanese art.

Japanese, 1760-1849, Tokyo, Japan, based in Tokyo, Japan