Katsushika Hokusai was arguably the most famous Japanese painter and printmaker of all time. Working with the ukiyo-e technique, Hokusai created one of the most iconic artworks of all time: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, from a series that portrays a series of images of Mount Fuji, a historical and touristic location, a personal obsession of the artist. Hokusai was immensely talented and capable of drawing with both hands and even with his feet. Thematically, the Japanese artist dealt with just about everything: historical painting, erotic art, landscapes, seascapes epics, biographies, plants, animals, educational material, and the list goes on. His attention to detail, along with his clear and concise lines, influenced European art, like the Art Nouveau. The impact of his art also ranged to Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, especially on the painters Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Katsushika Hokusai was born in October 1760, during the Tokugawa period in Tokyo, Japan - named Edo at the time and known as the last period of the feudal Japanese military government, which lasted until 1863. Hokusai was born in the Honjô neighborhood, which was close to the Sumida River and the countryside. He nurtured much affection for his community, which was part of the Katsushika district.
According to his granddaughter's will, Hokusai was the son of Kawamura Itiroyemon, an artist who worked under the name Bunsei. By the age of 4, he was adopted by Nakajima Ise, an artisan who painted designs on mirrors. Ise worked for the Tokugawa royal family and possibly taught Hokusai at an early age.
As it is custom by many Japanese artists, Hokusai changed his name multiple times in his lifetime, having about thirty names in total - more than most artists - each corresponding to his changes in style and motifs. As a child, the artist was known as Tokitarō. He began to work in a bookshop at twelve years old, sent by his father. During this period, the middle and upper class of Japanese society had access to books printed with woodcut blocks. The young Tokitarō wasn't passionate about his duty, which eventually got him fired.
Tokitarō had a great interest in illustrated books, and his time spent in the bookshop certainly influenced his journey. He began to work as a wood-carving apprentice in a studio two years later, around 1773-1774. His teacher taught him the art of ukiyo-e, a woodcut print that uses watercolor and rice paper, a technique Hokusai mastered beautifully. During this period, the artist was named Tetsuro and made six engravings in 1775 for a novel. He grew tired of working with woodcuts and left the occupation when he was eighteen, looking forward to working with other mediums.
In 1778, Hokusai became part of Katsukawa Shunshō's studio. At that time, bearing the name Tetsuzo, he was renamed Katsukawa Shunrō. Shunshō influenced Hokusai to focus on portraying actors of the traditional Kabuki theater as well as courtesans. Under Shunshō's tutelage, the young artist developed fast and started to show signs that later would become his visual trademark, especially his draftsmanship. Until 1786, he signed his works as Shunrō.
At twenty-nine years old, Hokusai left Katsukawa Shunshō's studio. An internal feud with an older student of Shunshō was the reason. From the accounts that survived, it seems that the artist painted a poster as a commission for a merchant. The older student passed by the shop recognized Hokusai's poster and tore it down, thinking it was awful. He defended himself by saying that he destroyed the print to preserve the Shunshō studio's fame and recognition.
After this conflict, Hokusai decided to work alone, belonging to no school or studio. He adopted the name Mugura and started to employ a freer style, to disavow himself from the Shunshō school.
The artist married twice; his first wife passed away during the early 1790s, and there isn't much information about her. They had one son and two daughters. His first son, Tominosuke, would become responsible for the house Nakajima Ise. His daughter Omiyo married the painter Yanagawa Shigenobu. She died shortly after giving birth to Hokusai's grandson. Otetsu, his second daughter, was an incredibly talented painter like her father.
Hokusai remarried in 1797 but was again widowed after a short time. With his second wife, he also had one son and two daughters. His son was Akitiro, a poet. Onao, the first daughter of this marriage, died during her childhood. The second daughter was Oyei, an artist who lived with Hokusai until the end of his life.
By the mid-1790s, Hokusai acquired European etchings, like copper engravings by French and Dutch artists, which influenced him profoundly. He began to focus on portraying Japanese landscapes and the daily life of its citizens instead of the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e art - a bold move for an artist of the time but one that paid off tremendously.
By 1801, the Japanese master had furthered his subject matter and perfected his craft, inspiring him to, yet again, change his name to the one we know him for today: Katsushika Hokusai. He became extremely popular over the next decade for his breathtaking artworks, and with the help of his excellent self-promoting, he collaborated with writers and other Japanese artists. During this period, the artist started to attract many students and published a fair amount of collections.
Hokusai was a daring artist, not only in the sense of always expanding his techniques and subjects but in his capacity for self-promotion. During an Edo festival, the painter made a portrait of Daruma, a monk and the founder of Zen-Buddhism, which was 180 meters long. A few years later, he produced another famous stunt at the place of a shogun. He made a blue blot in the paper and then let a chicken, with its feet dipped in red ink, run on it. He showed it to the shogun, saying it was a depiction of a river and that the red spots were leaves, and won the competition.
During this time, Hokusai collaborated with famous writers, helping these works achieve fame because of his illustrations. During a specific problem with an author that differed from the artist's vision, the publisher chose to keep Hokusai instead of the writer. The painter kept a correspondence with block cutters to make sure they represented his figures correctly, often correcting the way they were depicted. In this phase of his career, some critics say that he lost his delicacy, even if his work became more popular. He stopped working on ukiyo-e temporarily.
When he was fifty-one years old, Hokusai changed his name to Taito. In this time, he started the Hokusai Manga, a large number of sketches that would become important documentation of his production. Throughout his life, he made 12 volumes of his manga. The first one was published in 1811. These works can be seen as the basis of the later manga, the Japanese comics, and had many figures pictured with humor. It also influenced Japonism, the strong presence of Japanese motifs in Modern art.
In 1812, the Japanese artist's oldest son, Tominosuke, died. This wasn't only a cause for personal grievance, but financial problems as well. Tominosuke was responsible for the Nakajima business of designing mirrors, which provided economic stability for the artist who didn't depend on his work commissions. Thus, Hokusai began accepting more work related to illustrations to make ends meet, which was also a good way to attract possible students.
The artist changed his name again in 1820, and this time he chose Iitsu. By this year, the painter was already famous in all of Japan. From 1830 to 1832, Hokusai produced his most famous work: the series of prints called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The most iconic image is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, in which Mount Fuji is curiously depicted almost as a detail in the background, while the furious sea and the boats are in the first plane. While this is indeed a powerful image, the series has other stunning works such as South Wind at Clear Dawn, Shower Below The Summit, A Fishing Boat with Mt. Fuji, Fujimi Fuji View Field in the Owari Province, and other thirty prints that explore the cultural significance of Mount Fuji.
The importance of this active volcano was initially stated in a 10th-century Monogatari, an old folkloric narrative entitled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Also known as The Tale of Kaguya Princess, the story says that a goddess left the elixir of life at the peak of Mt. Fuji. Hokusai's series was so successful that it inspired a Hiroshige work of the same name thirty years later. This marked the artist's return to ukiyo-e when he made a string of commercially successful prints that dealt with themes such as nature and animals.
Omiyo's marriage with Shigenobu ended up taking a significant toll on Hokusai. He was the one that provided the funds for their ceremonies and other costs. Their son, Hokusai's grandson, was a criminal, and the artist tried to keep him out of trouble but couldn't. Speculations are that the painter had to leave Edo because of this. He spent some time in the city of Uraga and, after returning to Edo, kept his true identity hidden during a certain period.
Hokusai was in his sixties when all of this happened. He had to stay in exile from 1834 to 1839. Surviving correspondences with his publishers can confirm the situation, in which the artist wrote about having only one robe to keep him from the cold winter climate. During this period, he was producing under the name Gakyō Rōjin Manji, which can be translated as "The Old Man Mad About Art".
Unfortunately, when the painter came back to Edo, he would face yet another tragic event. It was a year of shortage in Japan, food was scarce because of problems with rice harvesting, so the population was hardly buying any art. Hokusai had to sell original drawings at a cheap cost to make money. In that same year, his new house on Edo was destroyed by a fire, wrecking almost everything inside.
In a rather troubled time of his life, the painter suffered from apoplexy. He was capable of curing himself with a recipe that used lemon pieces boiled in sake, something that improved his health for a good time. He fell ill when he was ninety. It was 10 May, while surrounded by students and his daughter Oyei, that the incredible painter died. His granddaughter, Shiraï Tati, erected his tomb in the Seikioji temple of Asakusa.
Hokusai's legacy as an artist can still be felt to this day. Artworks such as his Views of Mount Fuji, especially The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, are still widely known and arguably transcends the artist's own name. Also, Japanese woodblock prints, made by artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Hokusai, would become very popular amongst and an important influence for Modern Art, especially the Impressionists. They would absorb compositional elements and color schemes made by the Japanese artists and later translate them into oil on canvas.
"From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on, began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety, I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more, I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie."
"If heaven would give me just five more years, I might become a true painter."
- Katsushika Hokusai