Within the great plethora of Japanese artists, there is one whose work has stood the test of time and is still very much iconic today. I’m talking about Hokusai. Even if you’ve never shown an interest in Japanese art, you’ve surely seen his designs on shirts, posters, and even buildings. But who is this Hokusai?
Katsushika Hokusai is an 18th-19th century Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter, and woodblock carver, prominently known for his most famous piece of art, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Hokusai is credited for shaking up the genre of ukiyo-e by painting and carving non-traditional subjects and everyday life.
Hokusai isn’t just famous for the Great Wave, as he produced over 30,000 unique pieces of art throughout his long life. To fully understand the man behind The Great Wave, you’ll need to take a look at his wild and rather tragic life.
The Beginning Of Hokusai
Unless you are Japanese or a learning artist, you’ve probably never heard of Hokusai. Although you might not know of him, you’ve surely seen his artwork throughout your life on shirts, posters, and even buildings. A simple query about Japanese art on the web will leave you with a gallery of his own work. So who exactly is Hokusai? Let’s start from the beginning.
Hokusai was born in the mid-1700s, presumably around the 1760s to be exact, to an artisan family within Edo, modern-day Tokyo. Throughout Hokusai’s life, he’d take on many different pseudonyms, but his maiden name was Tokitaro Hokusai. His father was the Shogun’s own mirror maker, giving Hokusai the opportunities to be close with the upper-class, and receive an education to read and write. Despite Hokusai having a comfortable childhood, he was presumed to be a bastard child as his father never made him an heir to the household. Naturally, Hokusai’s early childhood was probably full of time and leisure where he’d find his passion for art.
In his early teens, one of Hokusai’s first jobs was working in a library. Although this isn’t something proven, I can only assume that he was inspired by all of the books kept in the library, as most books at that time featured ukiyo-e art. Soon after, he’d take steps toward pursuing his passion by becoming an apprentice to a woodblock carver. This gave him the skills needed to make some of his most famous work. By the end of his teen years at the ripe age of 19, Hokusai joined a studio led by the infamous Katsukawa Shunsho, an elite ukiyo-e artist of the time. Under Katsukawa, Hokusai would take on his first pseudonym dubbed by his master, Shunro.
Hokusai’s Life Continued
Hokusai’s earliest professional works included designing dioramas and boardgames that featured unique landscapes. As being some of Hokusai’s first professional pieces of art, they’re still popular to this day. When Hokusai’s master passed away, he began exploring different styles including French and Dutch engravings left by the earliest European foreigners. His exploration would lead to him studying at other rival schools and eventually getting expelled from Katsukawa. After marrying his first wife, Hokusai moved on from drawing kabuki actors and courtesans, which was considered mainstream for the time, to beautiful landscapes and daily life, which hadn’t been done before. A few years later, his wife passed away. His decision to diversify is considered one of the many breakthroughs in the development of ukiyo-e as a whole.
Recouping from his expulsion, Hokusai would begin associating himself with Tawaraya School, adopting the name Tawaraya Sori. Under this name, he’d go on to painting private commissions and art for books. A few years later, he’d pass the name onto a student before becoming an independent artist under the pseudonym Hokusai Tomisa.
Upon entering the 19th Century, Hokusai continued to develop his own style of ukiyo-e, producing two collections of landscapes known as Famous Sites of the Eastern Capital, and Eight Views of Edo. Following the success of these two, he’d change his name again to Katsushika Hokusai, the pseudonym he is more famous for.
Prior to Hokusai’s infamous works, he suffered many setbacks that more than likely contributed to the delay in realizing his full potential if he ever did. Despite remarrying, his second wife passed away several years later. He outlived all but one of his children. Despite great success in his work, Hokusai was constantly stuck in financial ruin as he’d help pay off his grandson’s poor habits.
The greatest of Hokusai’s setbacks was when he was struck by lightning and suffered a near-death stroke, resulting in him having to relearn all of his techniques. With the odds completely stacked against him, Hokusai continued to paint, even after all the events he’d go through. Rising from near ruination, he’d gain divine-like inspiration to continue a lifelong goal of becoming what he’d consider a master artist. Most likely spurred on by his close experience with death. He’d spend the next twenty or so years of his life carrying out spontaneous public displays, and large endeavors as if he was in a race against time.
Over the next decade, Hokusai went on to become more and more famous through public displays and self-promotions. One of these more famous displays was when he painted an estimated 600-foot portrait of the Buddhist priest Daruma using just a broom and buckets of ink. Another display was during a competition within the courts of the Shogun. While his competitor displayed his fine brush strokes, Hokusai simply painted a blue line down the center of the paper, then chased a chicken across it that had it’s foot painted red. Hokusai then explained to the Shogun that the painting displayed maple leaves floating down the river. Hokusai won the competition.
While Hokusai continued growing his fame, he’d work in collaboration with famous author Takizawa Bakin on a series of illustrated books. In between these works, Hokusai worked on his own publications and compiled them into a single best-selling book called Hokusai’s Manga. That’s right, a manga! It was one of the earliest forms of Manga art to be published at the time and influenced the future of manga as a genre. Before publishing Hokusai’s Manga, he’d change his pseudonym yet again to Taito.
By the time Hokusai turned 60, his fame would be through the roof throughout all of Japan. Despite his old age and literally tens of thousands of published works, he’d refuse to retire. Hokusai would undertake the pseudonym Iitsu and begin work on his magnum opus, the Thirty-Six Views Of Mount Fuji, which would feature The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The series included 36 unique views that featured the sacred mountain. The series proved to be so popular that he added 10 more paintings to the series, totaling 46 views. He’d then go on to publish an additional series called A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces.
Hokusai’s Late Life
Following the success of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, he created it’s successor One-Hundred Views of Mount Fuji under his last pseudonym Gakyo Rojin Manji, humorously translating to ‘Old Man Mad About Art’. Hokusai had been noted to have had an obsession with Fuji-san, as most of his later artwork displayed the mountain almost unnoticeably in the background. Many historians contribute this to his closeness with Buddhism and Nichiren beliefs, believing that eternal life rested at the peak of the mountain.
To add to Hokusai’s obsession with eternal life, he was recorded to have said that he’d live until the age of 110. As Hokusai sought more wisdom to further his talent, the art he produced during this time often depicted oceans and struggling fishing boats, potentially representing struggle in doing so. He’d publish several series known as One Thousand Images of the Sea, and One Hundred Ghost Tales which depicted a collection of eerie ghosts and yokai.
When Hokusai’s second wife passed away, his daughter, Katsushika Ōi, came to live with him in his small studio. As depicted by one of his students in a sketch, Tsuyuki Kosho immortalized the scene as he sketched in great detail the state of the messy studio, showing Hokusai hunched over a painting beneath a quilt, and Oi watching him as she smokes from a kiseru (smoking pipe). Unfortunately toward the end of Hokusai’s life, a fire burned down his studio, and much of his work perished in the flame.
After the burning of his studio, Hokusai lived with a farmer who’d invited him to live at his house in modern Nagano Prefecture. Even though Hokusai’s career as an artist was obviously coming to a close, he’d continue to draw, still striving for perfection in his abilities as an artist. He completed several great pieces including the Masculine Wave, Feminine Wave, and finally Ducks In A Stream at age 87. He passed away a year later at the age of 88 and was put to rest at Seikyo-Ji, Tokyo.
Just four years after Hokusai’s passing did Matthew Perry come to Japan on his black ships, forcing Japan to open its borders to the western world. Even though Hokusai’s work was popular in Japan, it wasn’t considered that of a professional. This wasn’t his fault, but because ukiyo-e at the time was abundant and considered as mere commercial advertisements. When westerners flooded Japan and the craze known as Japonism overcame them, his work was highly praised and taken back to Europe and America, making him one of the first few Japanese artists at the time to become internationally famous.
Not only did Hokusai become famous internationally, but his work was the inspiration for the impressionism movement by artists like Vincent van Gogh, Franz Marc, and August Macke, preferring long and simple brush strokes to convey a scene. Other artists like French Henri Riviere took direct inspiration from Hokusai, by creating a series of prints called Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, a spinoff from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.
Today, you can find Hokusai’s work almost anywhere. Stores like Uniqlo in Japan have recently introduced a series of shirts featuring his art. Within Japan, the Japanese have a nice habit of decorating their manhole covers. If you are in a town where Hokusai was relevant, be sure to look out for manhole covers with his art. In 2016, the Sumida Hokusai Museum opened in Obuse, Japan. There you can see a life-like display of Tsuyuki Kosho’s sketch of Hokusai’s studio, complete with two wax statues of Hokusai and Oi. You can also see some of Hokusai’s true original works.