Katsushika Hokusai as Book Illustrator

19th century print with a large blue wave rocking two long boats.

The Great Wave off of Kanagawa.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter and ukiyo-e printmaker whose Great Wave off Kanagawa print from his series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1829-1833) is one of the most recognizable Japanese works of art around the world. While Hokusai’s paintings and full color prints are collected in art museums, Hokusai made many kinds of prints over the span of his career, including illustrated books.

Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” refers to Japanese art that flourished from the 17th-19th centuries focused on the life in Edo’s pleasure districts with themes such as beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex. Ukiyo-e artists were painters and woodblock printers, often working fluidly between the two forms. The paintings and prints would reference imagery, styles, techniques, and coloring in dialogue with the history of painting in China and Japan. Therefore, there is a complex relationship between painting, printmaking as fine art, and book illustration, which Julie Nelson Davis explains:

Other genres also employed the technology of woodblock reproduction, and, as was the case with painting, these designers participated in a larger visual and literary print culture. Indeed, the history of of ukiyo-e printed material is also derived from and participated in the history of the book in Japan” (Davis p. 6).

Around 1811, Hokusai changed his professional name to Taito to indicate that he began a new stage of his career making designs for illustrated books alongside other work. Hokusai’s popular books, whether created for artists or for a lager public, were printed and reprinted throughout the nineteenth century:

“Under the name Taito, which Hokusai assumed in his fifties, he turned to illustrating books that detailed painting methods and served as guides for his many students and followers, as well as other artists and craft designers. Some of the manuals contain beautiful color printing that emulates painting while others are collections of small sketches that demonstrate different linear styles or samples of treatments of various subjects, such as birds seen from different angles” (Yonemura p. 2).

There are several examples of Hokusai’s illustrated printed books and books from his apprentices here at the Special Collections Research Center that demonstrate a range of types. One example is Hokusai Gafu, (1800-1900? date unknown) with “gafu” indicating that it is dedicated to one artist, in this case, Hokusai’s, work. Aside from a brief introduction, the rest of the book is entirely comprised of images that stretch across both pages, showing works that if they were printed in full color are essentially ukiyo-e prints. This is likely the earliest example of Hokusai’s work in SCRC’s collections, and likely the only one printed during the artist’s lifetime.

The cover of Hokusai Gafu, Katsushika Hokusai’s artist album

Interior pages from Hokusai Gafu

image of a book opening with a woodblock image that takes up both pages and has a man walking through a landscape with a pole over his shoulders that supports two hanging basekets

When an artist created images for illustrated books, the plates were cut by another artisan, and were printed by yet another. The publisher owned the images and could have them printed and reprinted from the same blocks. Therefore, it can be difficult to pin down a date for popular books that might continue to be reissued.

The example below, the first volume of a multi-volume work titled Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882), is a much later book, published almost 30 years after the artist’s death. It is a smaller, pocket-sized book in a horizontal format, presenting samples of his treatment of various themes. Unlike the full two-page spread images in the earlier gafu example, this book included up to four images on each small page, on many different subjects, maximizing the number of examples an interested fan of the arts could learn from in one handy book.

A small horizontal book with a well used red cover.

Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882)

a page divided into three images, one of flowers, one of leaves, and one with a boat on water much like in the iconic "Great Wave" print

Interior pages

A page divided into four sections with Interior pages with scenes of natural landscape

Interior page scenes of natural landscapes


It was customary for pupils to take on a name similar to their master to continue to be associated with them and work in their style, so in 1819, Hokusai passed on the name Taito to his apprentice. Called a Banshoku zukō (1850), meaning Designs for All Artisans, this example from the new Taito is printed in two colors.
images of samurai

Images of samurai

Decorative sword guards

Decorative sword guards

The volume includes a section of examples of single page images of samurai in action poses, as well as pages of designs for sword blades and guards formatted into collections of 2-3 examples per page.


a page divided into four small examples of landscape images

Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864)

a page with three overlapping designs for hair combs

A page dedicated to designs for hair combs

A further example of work from another of Hokusai’s pupils is a book titled Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864) by Katsushika Isai with pages laid out with multiple examples of landscapes and other painterly work as well as sections with examples for the design of everyday items like hair combs.

Though many who hear the name Hokusai think first of colorful prints hanging on art museum walls, many master printmakers in the 19th century, including Hokusai, were sharing their knowledge with their followers and a wider art-loving public through various types of illustrated books as well. Anyone with an interest in woodblock printing can find something new by making an appointment to examine these instructive works in the Special Collections Reading Room.

The four books, Hokusai Gafu (1800-1900)Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882), Banshoku zukō (1850) and Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864) are part of our Ryukyu Collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Works Cited:

The British Museum. “Katsushika Taito II.” https://www.britishmuseum.org/, https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=143539.

Davis, Julie N. Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market. University of Hawaiʻi Press, Honolulu, 2015.

Yonemura, Anne. Hokusai. Smithsonian Books [and] HarperCollins, Scranton, PA, 2006.

October News Wrap Up

October always comes to a close with Remembrance Week, the annual weeklong series of events planned by the Remembrance and Lockerbie Scholars, which was held Sunday, Oct. 20 through Saturday, Oct. 26. Remembrance Week events are meant to honor the victims and further educate the campus community about terrorism – both historic and contemporary, foreign and domestic. The Special Collections Research Center is home to the Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives. The Archives’ collections provide the Remembrance and Lockerbie Scholars with resources for understanding the historical significance of the disaster, and for learning about the lives of the victims. Our Pan Am 103 Archivist & Assistant University Archivist, Vanessa St.Oegger-Menn, works closely with the Scholars throughout the year to ensure their events and programs fulfill the Remembrance motto: Look Back, Act Forward. To learn more about the Remembrance Scholars program visit remembrance.syr.edu.Information about the Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives is available at panam103.syr.edu.In addition, October is one the busiest months of the year for classroom visits in the Special Collections Research Center, supporting 24 class sessions.

Finally, this month several members of the SCRC staff took a trip to visit the Sue Ann Genet Costume Collection located in the Fashion Design Program in SU’s Nancy Cantor Warehouse for a tour led by Jeffrey Mayer and Kristen Schoonmaker. They recently acquired examples of 1920s-1940s swimwear, including Jantzen brand suits to complement the Jantzen Swimwear Photo Album we acquired earlier this year. (See image). You can read about the photograph album in our July 16, 2019 blog post. 

Curators speaking about swimwear fabric

Curators discussing swimwear textiles.

The Jantzen diving girl logo.










Recap of Public Events:

Remembrance Week was October 20-26th and you can watch highlights from:

October 24, 2019  Remembrance Chair Memorial

October 26, 2019  Recording of the Rose Laying Ceremony

October 26, 2019  Open Archives

October 27, 2019  A gallery of photos from Remembrance Week in 2019.


People sitting around a table in a classroom looking at a screen

Music Library Association visits the Belfer Audio Archive

October 25, 2019. The New York State/Ontario chapter of the Music Library Association visited the Belfer Audio Archive as part of their annual meeting.

The Belfer Audio Archive, a unit of SU Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, is the nation’s first purpose built audio preservation facility, having existed at Syracuse University in various forms since 1963.  The archive houses appx 500,000 audio items, ranging from Edison’s earliest experimental tin foil recordings to born digital items, with collections focused largely on the early 20th century. Belfer is home to the country’s third largest collection of cylinder recordings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.




Mentions in the News:

  • September 27, 2019: University Archivist Meg Mason featured on WAER, “Her Hilltop High: Pink, Pea Green, Azure…Then Finally Orange.”
  • October 24, 2019: Photos from SCRC used in Daily Orange story about students who escaped Flight 103 tragedy.
  • October 25, 2019: Note from Thomas Edison to B.C. Forbes from Special Collections mentioned in Forbes article.


A Highlight From Social Media:


September News Wrap Up

September and October are the busiest months of the year for classroom visits in the Special Collections Research Center. Below you can see a group of students from James Watts’ HNR 340 class taking a look at plates from Description de l’Egypte, printed from 1808-1829, which is one of the largest books in SCRC.






New Exhibit Opened:

Sept 14, 2019. “A Legacy of Leadership: The Chancellors and Presidents of Syracuse University,” which was curated by Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn, is now on display in the first floor exhibition case in Bird Library.

The University Archives has opened another exhibition to celebrate SU's sesquicentennial! Curated by Assistant…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Monday, September 23, 2019


New Acquisitions:

New acquisition featuring woodcuts from The Tale of Genji.

“The Interaction of Color” by Josef Albers.

 Josef Albers’ “The Interaction of Color.” 1963. You can read more about this acquisition in last week’s blog post here.


Ehon fuji no yukari: Illustrated selection of poems from the Tale of Genji with woodcuts by Mitsunobu Hasegawa from 1751.


Recap of Public Events:

Sept 5, 2019. Hosted “150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University” exhibit opening reception. The exhibition continues through the spring semester.

Sept 6, 2019. Hosted a Preservation Fair for alumni as part of Orange Central weekend.

Sept 7, 2019. Hosted alumni exhibition tours as part of Orange Central weekend.


Photo of William P. Graham

Chancellor William P. Graham

Newly processed collections and additions:

The University Archives is pleased to announce that Chancellor Flint and Chancellor Graham’s records and papers have been newly processed as part of Syracuse University’s Sesquicentennial celebration!

Other newly processed collections:

Mentions in the News:

Sept 3, 2019. ‘150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University’ showcases student memorabilia

Sept 4, 2019. Students Should Learn About SU’s Legacy

Sept 30, 2019. Review: Graham Nolan’s “Monster Island” 20th Anniversary Edition


A Highlight From Social Media:

Built in 1900, Winchell Hall Dormitory for Women was the first dorm constructed on campus. It stood at the corner of…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Thursday, September 26, 2019


New Acquisition: Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color

The entire set, including two pages of color prints and the accompanying exercise book in the background.

The Special Collections Research Center is excited to announce the acquisition of a 1963 copy of The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers.  The set was originally a limited run of 2000 sets of prints with an accompanying book that outlines a sequence of color exercises. The work comprises 80 silk screened prints that demonstrate how the eye perceive colors differently when set next to other colors. For example, the print in the image to the left has brown/tan squares surrounded by orange, yellow, and blue so that one brown square appears darker than the other, despite the two squares being exactly the same shade. The video at the bottom of this page demonstrates the effect of revealing that the two brown squares are the same by lifting a flap.

Josef Albers (1888–1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist. He began his career teaching at the Bauhaus before moving to the United States, and was an influential figure in 20th century modernism. From 1950 to 1958, Josef Albers was chairman of the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art. There, and as guest teacher at art schools throughout North and South America and in Europe, including here at Syracuse University, he trained a whole new generation of art teachers, designers, artists, and industrial designers.

Two pages of color prints in Albers’ book.

Albers’ interest and dedication to the study of visual perception was key to his work as an artist and teacher. In the introduction to The Interaction of Color, Albers discusses his views saying, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”

After its initial publication, The Interaction of Color proved to be such a valuable resource for artists that it was printed in many smaller and cheaper formats throughout the 20th century, finally even becoming an iPad app.  The SCRC staff are very excited to offer this opportunity to view the original prints for a work that is so focused on the integrity of color, without screen resolutions or mass produced paper quality creating variations. A special collections setting in the Reading Room or classroom gives our users a unique opportunity to open and manipulate the frames of these prints. Continuing the spirit of Albers’ teaching, SCRC would especially welcome campus class sessions interested in comparing the work across printed editions and the app to contact Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator, to arrange a class session with this work (cmtheise@syr.edu).

The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Additional Source:

“Artists Biographies.” The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 2019, https://albersfoundation.org/artists/biographies/.

It’s No Wonder…That They’re Called Little Wonders!

By Jim Meade, Audio Engineer

What sound disc is 5 inches in diameter and carries sound on one side only? A compact disc, or CD, would be a good answer, but not quite what we’re thinking of. Here we look into one of the more curious corners of the Belfer 78rpm Collection: Little Wonder discs. Belfer holds a collection of 106 Little Wonder discs, which were digitized in 2016.

Little Wonders are 5 ½ inches in diameter and single-sided. They have narrow grooves on one side (compared to regular 10 and 12 -inch double-sided 78rpm discs), with one to two minutes playing time.

A Little Wonder Record Company disc containing the Long Boy tenor solo by Byron G. Harlan.

A casual observer might assume from their appearance that these are children’s records, due to the figure of an infant conductor sometimes appearing on the label, combined with their small diameter. However, they are actually popular titles of the day. Little Wonder later gave rise to Bubble Books, a series which did combine discs and books for children. Little Wonder records were hugely popular between 1915 and 1923, selling an estimated 40 million over the life of the label.

These records were manufactured under contract by Columbia and often featured Columbia recording artists. Because artist credits on Little Wonder records are rare, identification of performers is often an educated guess by experienced collectors. Some famous voices have been identified on Little Wonder recordings including an uncredited Al Jolson.

A Little Wonder Record Company disc of the song, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Little Wonders are acoustic recordings with a low production value, sold initially without a paper label or a record sleeve to lower costs.

The reverse side of a Little Wonder record with information on the unique record’s pending patents.

This may also have been a deliberate strategy to distinguish them from regular priced records and not eat into profits from Columbia’s more up-scale discs. At a time when regular records cost $0.75 to $1.00, Little Wonders were priced at $0.10 to $0.15 cents, making them an instant, large scale success. Little Wonders were retailed through 5 and 10 cent stores such as Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, as well as through the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs. By the mid-1920s, the price of regular, full-length records decreased to $0.50, a shift that created competition in the music market and may have ultimately led to loss in popularity for the Little Wonders.

A Little Wonder disc containing the song, “The Old Grey Mare,” and cheerful illustrations of musical instruments.

The success of these little discs turned the record industry on its head by aggressively reshaping the price structure. With Little Wonders, records became a truly affordable mass medium that everyone could enjoy.

Little Wonders (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s Belfer Audio Archive.