Establishing the production chronology of the iconic Japanese woodblock print ‘Red Fuji’
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First printed in 1831, ‘Red Fuji’ by Hokusai is one the most iconic Japanese woodblock prints and thousands of impressions were printed from its original set of woodblocks, often in different colour schemes and using different printing effects for different editions. The aim of our research was to systematically study these variations and determine the chronological order in which they had been introduced. First, we located 93 surviving impressions of Red Fuji in museums, libraries, private collections and galleries around the world. We carefully studied the breaks in the outlines caused by woodblock wear, as well as the variations in colour and printing effects. Then, we investigated how the print was produced using woodblocks: we determined what part of the print was produced by each woodblock, if a woodblock had been used more than once in specific parts of the print and what printing effects the printer(s) employed. We also identified the colourants on ten impressions of Red Fuji from different editions using Xray fluorescence, multispectral imaging, fibre optics reflectance spectroscopy and excitation–emission matrix fluorescence spectroscopy. Based on the breaks in the woodblocks, the colour schemes and the printing effects, we concluded that there were five sequential ‘states’ of Red Fuji. The first state corresponds to the earliest surviving edition, whose impressions have very little evidence of woodblock wear and were produced using muted colours and complex printing effects, while the last state is a rare blue variant, ‘Blue Fuji’, for which the printer(s) used a completely different colour palette and complex printing effects. This research represents the first systematic study of the production chronology of a Japanese woodblock print, based on woodblock wear, colour scheme and printing effects.