One of the most prolific and influential Japanese artists in history, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is said to have painted over 30,000 works of art under 30 different pseudonyms during his lifetime.
Although famous forThe Great Wave off Kanagawa fromThe Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji collection, Hokusai has painted masterpieces in just about everygenre ofukiyo-e, including kacho-e (birds and flowers), yokai (ghosts and demons), sunga (erotic), and landscapes.
His work was not only highly influential to Japanese artists who followed him, but also to an entire generation of European artists, including Rodin, Degas, Picasso, and Van Gogh, and Hokusai is considered not only one of the founding fathers of modern manga but also of modern art.
Hokusai endured a series of personal setbacks during the middle of his career. His second wife died, he was struck by lightning, he suffered a stroke (requiring him to relearn his craft) and was forced to pay off his grandson’s gambling debts, which left him in financial dire straits.
At 70, in response to his string of bad luck, he began pouring all his energy into creating his most famous work: The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The collection was created over a period of five years. Later, he added 10 more pieces, bringing the total to 46. The first 36 feature Mount Fuji from the Pacific side, while the remaining 10 showcase the mountain from behind (ura-Fuji). Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain and its most sacred, playing a significant role in its culture and society.
It is worth noting that artists from the 19th century were not able to draw their paint from numbered metal tubes. The collection’s rich and vibrant blues - found in the landscapes’ oceans, skies, and even Mount Fuji - were made from Prussian blue pigment, which is more concentrated than the vegetable-base alternative that was prevalent at the time.
Hokusai was fascinated by Mount Fuji and waves his entire career, which he skillfully incorporated inThe Great Wave off Kanagawa with the mountain sitting near the center of the background and the tall waves gripping like hulking claws onto the fishermen below.
Although Hokusai was heavily influenced by Western styles (his interest piqued upon seeing Dutch and French copper engravings early in life)The Great Wave is credited with greatly influencing the impressionist movement. After Japan opened its borders, shortly after Hokusai’s death,The Great Wave was one of the first prints to land on European soil.
Martin Baily, a Vincent van Gogh specialist, wrote thatThe Starry Night would never have been painted if it was not forThe Great Wave.
Browse our collection of prints fromThe Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
After the success of Thirty-six Views, Hokusai chose eight waterfalls northwest of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) for a series of vertical landscapes that elevated the art of moving water. Each print captured the importance of waterfalls to the Japanese culture within Shinto Buddhism’s relation to nature, depicting a pilgrimage to each waterfall.
The ability of water to purify is highlighted inRoben Waterfall at Oyama in Sagami Province.The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaido Road’s namesake comes from the circular third eye of the Amida buddha – seen in exaggerated form where the falls emerge. In the print,Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain in Shimotsuke, Hokusai illustrates the waterfall in the form of the accompanying tree roots, merging with the rocks and brush, and creating a sense of oneness.
Beyond the Thirty-six Views and a Tour of Waterfalls are collections of lesser-known, yet no less important, masterpieces in the landscape, kacho-e (birds and flowers), yokai (ghosts and demons), and sunga (erotic) genres, such as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife and Cranes on a Snow-Covered Pine Tree.
View a curated selection of Hokusai’s works here.
Hokusai was known to have worked tirelessly throughout most of his life, painting from sunup to sundown. Later in life, he took the name Gakyo Rojin, which translates to “old man crazy to paint”.
The artist is credited with saying,“When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish, and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create — a dot, a line — will jump to life as never before.”
Upon his deathbed at 88, he said, “if only heaven will give me just another 10 years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
This amazing article written by Lauren Orebo.