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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 with feudal Japanese military government which lasted until 1863. Although not much is known about the artist’s parents, historians believe Hokusai came from a family of artisans. Some hypothesis that Nakajima Ise was his father, an artisan who painted designs on mirrors and possibly taught his son 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 wood-cut blocks.
The contact Hokusai had with these books certainly influenced his journey, as he began to work as a wood-carving apprentice in Katsukawa Shunshō’s studio two years later. His teacher taught him the art of ukiyo-e, a woodcut print that uses watercolor and rice paper, a technique Hokusai mastered beautifully. Shunshō influenced Hokusai to focus on portraying actors of the traditional Kabuki theater as well as courtesans. After a year under his tutorship, Hokusai was named Shunrō by his teacher and continued in his studio for ten years. The artist married twice; his first wife passed away during the early 1790s, and there isn’t much information about her. During the same period, his master Shunshō passed away, which led him to explore different possibilities in his art. Hokusai remarried in 1797 but was again widowed after a short time. By 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 as well as 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.
After Shunshō’s death, Hokusai began to study at the Tawaraya School under the name Tawaraya Sōri, where he created illustrations for a book of comedic poems called kyōka ehon, as well as experimenting with a different technique of woodblock print called surimono. Already an established artist and a teacher of his craft, in 1798 Hokusai dubbed his best pupil with his name, Tawaraya Sōri, and he left the institution to become an independent artist, under the name Hokusai Tomisa. Only two years later, 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, collaborating with writers and other Japanese artists.
Hokusai continued changing his name until the end of his career. By 1834, he was producing under the name Gakyō Rōjin Manji, which can be translated as “The Old Man Mad About Art” and during this phase, he created one of his most famous series of prints; One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The artist never stopped producing, even after a tragic fire destroyed his studio and a significant amount of his artworks in 1839. He passed away about ten years later, with a substantial fall on his popularity by the end. Hokusai’s art was hugely significant in Japan, as well as in Europe. Artists from modern art movements, mainly the Impressionists, collected Japanese prints from various artists and were inspired by their construction of composition, use of color and technique in general.