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Hokusai – the life of the great Japanese art master

Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa Canvas Print

The life and works of Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai, usually just known to us as “Hokusai“, lay on his deathbed in 1849 at age 87. After producing some of the most famous works of the Ukiyo-e genre, his last words were recorded as, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” This lifelong attitude of learning is one of the reasons his fame spread across the entire world.

Hokusai’s beginnings

Born in 1760 in Edo (the name for Tokyo at that time) he started to show talent when he was young, at around 6. He may have watched his father, who was an artisan, painting the surrounds of mirrors. He was apprenticed out at age 14 to a wood carver, then after four years, he went on to join the studio of a famous ukiyo-e artist, Katsukawa Shunshō.

shunsho studio art, Hokusai's first studio
An image of a famous actor from the Shunshō studio

Working in this studio, he would have been trained in the techniques and styles of painting for woodblock print production and made prints of Kabuki actors and other images of the Floating World. Although born under the name Tokitarō, around this time, in accordance with the Japanese tradition, he took the name Shunrō. This may have been bestowed upon him as an honour by his master. It was 1779 when his first prints were published under this name at the age of 19.

A bitter blow leads to reinvention

He was expelled from the studio, a vast humiliation. It was possibly a result of him visiting and studying at a rival studio, a practice which would have been seen as taboo. Or perhaps it was because he was itching to try other styles of art, including European styles. In any case, it was clear he could no longer stick to the path that his master dictated, and he was on his own. This experience, far from defeating him, inspired Hokusai to develop his own style of art. And we’re happy it did!

The iconic image of Japan – the great wave

The best known Japanese image in the world, the Great Wave of Kanagawa, often thought of as a tsunami, is by Hokusai. It is from his most famous print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. This is the series that cemented his reputation across the world. Fuji can just be seen, looking like a white-topped wave itself, a harmonious and clever composition which contributes to its popularity, along with the dynamic and palpable power of the wave that looks like it’s about to engulf the fishing boats beneath it — and maybe even Fuji too!

Mt Fuji is a popular art subject in Japan, imbued with cultural significance. It is considered a holy mountain, and climbing it is still a kind of pilgrimage today.  The mountain’s almost perfectly symmetrical cone was visible from the Tōkaidō Road – one of the main arteries of traffic to Edo from Kyoto. The love of Fuji was echoed in symbolism and art of all forms for centuries, and the saying, “A wise person will climb Mt. Fuji once in their lifetime, but only a fool would climb it twice”, echoes this significance.

A lifetime of art

Hokusai did a second series called 100 Views of Mt Fuji, and often the mountain will be a mere hint in the background, providing a framework for Hokusai’s artistic studies of Japan’s people and nature, including sketches, manga, and paintings. He was one of the first in the genre from this period to focus on subjects outside the realm of celebrities and aspects of Edo’s Floating World, and look at everyday life. His pictures of people are particularly charming, capturing poses with economy and wit.

Detail from Hokusai portrait of a woman
Detail from a portrait of a woman by Hokusai

He changed his name often, including my personal favourite Gakyō Rōjin Manji – “Painting Enthusiast Senior”, which translates better in English to “Old Man Who’s Mad About Art”. And as his deathbed quote demonstrates, Hokusai gave his life to it and became one of the most famous artists of all time.

Buy Hokusai Art from Epic Japan Art’s Shop!

One thought on “Hokusai – the life of the great Japanese art master

  1. We’re adding more lines for Hokusai soon. If you want to be notified when this happens, please use the “Subscribe to blog via email” link in the right-hand column (scroll up a bit). Thanks!

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