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Artist Profile: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hakone Lake in Sagami Province

Hakone Lake in Sagami Province from the series 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. Japan. Ink and colors on paper. Gift of Japanese Prints from the Collection of Emmeline Johnson, Donated by Oliver and Elizabeth Johnson, 1994.46

Katsushika Hokusai was born on October 31, 1760, in Honjo, Edo, of unknown parentage. While Hokusai moved at least ninety times throughout his lifetime, he never left this region. He was adopted as a child by the prestigious artisan-family Nakajima Ise, who made mirrors for the shogun. 

As a teenager, Hokusai was a delivery boy for a booklending shop and also apprenticed to a woodblock carver. At the age of eighteen, Hokusai began serious training in print design under Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), an eminent designer in Kabuki actor and theater prints. Under the name Shunsho, Hokusai illustrated storybooks and created prints depicting beautiful women. After his teacher’s death in 1793, Hokusai entered a period of wandering, searching for different styles and themes in association with artists outside the Katsukawa School.

Hokusai changed his artistic name at least twenty times. In 1797, the artist began using the name Hokusai. Frequently, he combined it with others, creating a variety of names, such as Sori arateme Hokusai (“Hokusai changed from Sori”), Hokusai Sori, or Gakyojin Hokusai (“A Man Mad about Art, Hokusai”).

Around 1804, Hokusai studied Western styles based on Dutch copperplate prints. In his new work influenced by the Dutch prints, Hokusai gave an illusion of space and landscape elements using light and dark shadows and signed his name horizontally in imitation of Western artists.

Between 1811-1830, Hokusai published an enormous number of illustrated books. The most important was Hokusai Manga, the artist’s lifelong project, which took thirty-eight years. Only two volumes were published at this time.

The year 1831 marked the beginning of Hokusai’s most productive period while he was in his seventies. He published his monumental landscape series, Thirty-six View of Mount Fuji. Although the title indicates thirty-six, forty-six prints were made. Because of their popularity, the publisher added ten prints to the series. The series probably took a few years to complete.

Between 1833-34, three other major series were published: A Tour of Japanese Waterfalls, Imagery of the Poets, and Rare Views of Famous Bridges in All Provinces. Another important publication was One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. From 1836 to 1845, Hokusai diligently worked on book illustrations and various commissioned works.

Hokusai taught over 100 students of the Katsushika School. He was known to be a disciplined worker who rose early in the morning, painting and drawing until evening. Despite his prolific work and relative fame, Hokusai constantly battled poverty. Unlike masters of the prestigious painting schools, ukiyo-e artists were poorly paid. Hokusai died on May 10, 1849 at age ninety at his house in Asakusa. His funeral took place the next day, paid for by pupils and friends.

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