The Great Wave: it’s synonymous with Japanese culture; appearing as a driving force of nature both artistically and culturally. Through the Great Wave and the “36 Views of Mt Fuji” series, 19th-century Japanese printmaking caught the attention of the world and established itself as a formidable art style, influencing impressionists such as Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh. But who was the force behind this influential and insightful art?
Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 in the Honjo quarter of Edo (now Tokyo) and would rise to become an inspired, world-famous artist. An eccentric with humble beginnings, historians suspect Hokusai was the son of a concubine and adopted by his real father. Although there is no solid historical evidence of his lineage, there is proof he was not considered an heir to his father’s legacy—a situation that at the time would have been unheard of unless born out of wedlock.
Hokusai’s father was the mirror maker to the shogun. Watching his father paint detailed designs around mirror frames was his first exposure to a world of artistic creativity. At age six he would begin to siphon this untapped creative well--sketching images from daily life which would later become a central theme throughout his most famous works.
Hokusai would go on to make dignified portrayals of working class people a central theme in his work. Buy this print here >>
At the age of twelve, Hokusai began work in a bookshop. In Japan, writing is an art form unto itself; learning to handle the calligraphy brushes and inks built upon and solidified his artistic desires. At the age of fourteen, he became the apprentice to a wood carver and began the training that would establish his technical skills in woodblock printmaking. At eighteen, now armed with professional dexterity and fortitude of mind, he readily took up a position in the Katsukawa Japanese school of art. This studio focused on the uyiko-e “floating world” genre with themes of kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and courtesans.
During Hokusai’s time with the school, he mastered the uyiko-e style of art and adapted it to his unique style by incorporating landscapes and daily life scenes. His works in the privately commissioned surimono genre provided him with early recognition on the commercial front. With contracts for holiday materials, musical programs, and announcements, he found steady work which would later provide stability after branching out on his own.
In the coming years, Hokusai began to nurture an interest in Western styles with a particular fondness of incorporating the Western linear style of perspective. During this time Japan was in a period of solitude from the outside world, and it was forbidden to have contact with Western culture. However, Hokusai’s interests were piqued upon seeing Dutch and French copper engravings which had been smuggled into the country--prompting his experiments with European approaches.
Hokusai used Western perspective for effect, as and when suited him, often in a haphazard way. In this print, Sazai Hall, Temple of the 500 Rakan, he makes use of a conventional Western vanishing point. Buy this print here >>
Though it’s unclear; his progressiveness into Western styles might have been the leading cause of Hokusai’s expulsion from the studio. He did not, however, view this change as a negative, rather he said: “what really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at my master’s hands.”
Hokusai began to experience independent success from his 50's onward. As a commercial artist, he developed a fan base for his manga and woodblock print books. His subjects ranged from fantastical scenes of creatures and gods to that of landscapes and daily pursuits of a thriving Edo. He earned income designing fans, paper lanterns, toys, dioramas, and even board games.
Not only did Hokusai have artistic talent but he was an inventive self-promoter and marketer. Hokusai could often be seen at festivals painting larger-than-life scenes of mythical beasts in front of enthralled crowds. In the shogun’s court, he was called to create a masterpiece, to which he drew a simple blue line across a sheet of paper, dipped a chicken’s feet in red paint and chased it around thus creating a unique rendering of the Japanese maple leaf motif.
Though Hokusai was quickly becoming a recognized name in Japanese art circles, his personal life was turbulent. His first wife died at a young age in the 1790’s leaving behind one son and two daughters. Then, in 1812 with the passing of his eldest son, he was left with both emotional and financial worries, as his son was the heir on which the family income depended.
Some years later, Hokusai would see a second wife die before him. Then, in 1835 Hokusai would suffer a studio fire destroying much of his work. With his many misfortunes, he became increasingly eccentric and superstitious, often tossing images of lucky dragons he’d drawn out the windows to ward off demons. Hokusai was also a known hoarder who did not like to clean. It was said he changed homes over 90 times as he would let his dwelling become unlivable and instead of cleaning, simply move to another house. During his life he changed his name over 30 times; though changing names was standard practice in Japan, Hokusai’s rate of change was on a different plane.
Now in his 50’s, Hokusai survived being struck by lightning, but it left him with intermittent bouts of paralysis.
Despite his personal troubles and idiosyncrasies, he devoted his energies to his art and created his most admired work “36 Views of Mt Fuji” in his 70’s. Hokusai was a devout follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism which saw Mt Fuji as the source of everlasting life. In Hokusai’s unique mind, the way to unlocking its secrets was through his art. He henceforth became obsessed with Fuji, seeking to develop an intimate knowledge of the mountain through varying perspectives, seasons, shading, coloring, and themes. Despite the success of this first series on Fuji, his obsession with the landscape continued, and he went on to create “100 Views of Mt Fuji” which stylistically incorporated the madness and curiosity of his manga with that of the elegant technique shown in “36 Views of Fuji.”
By the end of his life, Hokusai was going by the name Gakyo Rojin Manji (Old Man Crazy to Paint), and indeed, he continued painting with his youngest daughter, Katsushika Oi, by his side. Elements of Oi’s style start to appear his in paintings, suggesting he was unable to carry on independently. Hokusai never found true success in his own eyes or reached the point of age where he would finally obtain immortality from Fuji.
On his deathbed in 1849, his last words were “If only heaven will give me just another ten years…. Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” If only he could see his influence on the world today with his images on commercial goods, in exhibitions, and hung on office walls. During his life, it’s estimated he created over 30,000 works of art. He became an inspiration for those after him: even Monet amassed a collection of 23 Hokusai pieces. Today Hokusai‘s works are woven deeply into Japanese culture, and his influence on the ukiyo-e genre ensure he will indeed live on forever.