When discussing Japanese woodblock prints, there is one question sure to follow: How many prints were made? While a simple question, the answer is complex.
Hiroshige, Shono from the series 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1832-1833. Early pull, as evidenced by the sharply defined rain, the extensive bokashi, and the calligraphy on the umbrella.
Before we jump back to the time of printing, we have to consider that today, it’s not so much a question of “how many were made?” but “how many have survived?” Consider a piece of paper on your desk. How long does that sheet retain its original crispness? From coffee stains to crumpling, that paper will likely look a bit different by the end of a week. Now, consider how it would look after centuries of devastating fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
If you feel incredulous about this analogy, set aside the current value of ukiyo-e prints and consider the original context of these works. Prints were a popular art form, released in pace with Edo’s ever evolving trends and celebrities. Portraying the current fashions and the actors of the moment, the turnover was insistent. A standard, single sheet print had a fixed price at 16 mon (roughly $3 to $4 today), the equivalent of a double serving of noodles. Edo’s immense population eagerly consumed these prints, displaying them on a shoji screen in the home, only to tear down outdated designs for the latest souvenir of a kabuki production or a portrait of a stunning courtesan.
Though many prints passed through Edo as ephemera, there was a collector base even in the 18th century. Deluxe printings and surimono (privately commissioned, lavishly printed works) were more expensive and exclusive, often printed in single editions of 10 to 200. Furthermore, serial formats, such as 53 Stations of the Tokaido and 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, encouraged Edoites to collect the full series. Yet, the longevity of these collections depended on a special kind of person. Consider baseball cards. Many people collect them, but few meticulously sort and store them beneath plastic. Even fewer hold on to and care for these collections throughout their life.
Many speculate about the number of prints produced, but these numbers are no more than estimates. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco quotes 200 prints as the usual edition size, with subsequent editions also being produced in 200 print editions. The museum asserts that 8,000 prints could be pulled per block before it needed to be re-carved. In the Wall Street Journal’s review of the MFA exhibition HOKUSAI, the journalist concluded that roughly one hundred impressions of Hokusai’s Great Wave exist today, while suggesting an original run around 5,000 prints. The magazine Mental Floss estimates a run of somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 prints for this iconic design. BBC’s program “A History of the World in 100 Objects” featured the Great Wave in their discussion of the opening of Japan and echoes the 5,000-impression estimate, with 8,000 as the maximum quantity.
Finally, you must consider factors of edition and variant states. While a particularly popular design might have been printed in the thousands, it is unlikely that they were all created equally. The earliest impressions would be given the most care, with time-consuming effects like bokashi (a shading technique) or blind printing. These first pulls would be given more time and greater care. Only around the first hundred pulls would have the wood grain visible in the print.
If these early impressions gained popularity, then the quality and time commitment would shift to satisfy the demand for the image. Later pulls of the same design might feature variant color and subtle changes in subject matter. All together, original pulls of a single, popular design would often reach the thousands. When you factor in reproductions, an iconic work like Hokusai’s Great Wave has been reproduced hundreds of thousands of times, from Meiji-era reprints to iPhone cases in 2016.
While “how many prints were made of a particular design?” appears to be a pertinent question, this tells you little of a print’s rarity today. By asking “how many survived?” and “what kind of impression am I looking at?” you will develop a far more accurate understanding of a work's value and rarity.