Japanese painter and woodcut designer, 1760-1849.

Born in Honjo Warigesui, close to Edo (now Tokyo). It's not clear who his parents were; he was probably born with the family name of Kawamura, but was adopted as a young child by Nakajima Ise, a mirror* artisan (he may have been the natural son of Nakajima, by way of a concubine). His adopted parents changed his personal name a couple of times, and he himself changed his name repeatedly throughout his adult life. The Nakajima family were artisans, and he started learning the skills of woodcarving from an early age. After a stint working in a book lending shop, he was taken in as an apprentice to a woodcarver in 1775.

In 1775 Hokusai became a pupil of Katsukawa Shunsho, a master of the ukiyo-e school of printmaking. Shunsho was so impressed with his work that he allowed his pupil to take on part of his name; Hokusai's first published works (prints of actors of the Kabuki theater) came out under this new name, Shunro. In 1792 Katsukawa Shunsho died, and shortly thereafter Hokusai had a disagreement with Shunsho's successor, and the left the Katsukawa school. (Hokusai may well have been officially expelled by Shunsho himself, but stuck around until Shunsho died. Hokusai did not show the proper respect and fidelity to his school (he took lessons from Yusen from the Kano school on the side), but was recognized as a very talented artist).

Hokusai continued his studies on his own; he was particularly interested in the art of Sesshu, the techniques of the schools of Kano Yusen, Tsutsumi Torin, and Sumiyoshi Naiki, and the examples of Western art that made their way into Japan. During this time, he went from penniless to wealthy; in large part this was due to the two books he published in 1800, one of paintings showing various scenes around Edo, and one an illustrated novel. Hokusai was not very good with monetary matters; he rarely opened the packets of money his publisher sent him. If a creditor came by, he would hand him a packet or two of money without bothering to count it.

Hokusai was quite eccentric in other ways. He worked very quickly, and when finishing a work he would toss it to the floor. his house would eventually become so cluttered and disorderly that work was impossible. Rather than having the mess cleaned up, Hokusai would simply move to another house. He is said to have lived in 93 different homes during his life. He also changed his name -- at least 26 times during his artistic career, and probably many more.

Hokusai married twice. His first wife died in 1793, leaving him with a son and two daughters. He remarried in 1797; he would also outlive this wife, who died in 1828. He had trouble with his children as well; his oldest son died in 1812, and both of his daughters divorced their husbands and moved back in with him.

He died on April 18, 1849. I have not been able to find out what he died from, although at 89 years of age, his death is probably best attributed to old age. At the time of his death, he was using the name Gakyo-rojin, which means 'Old man mad with painting'.

His Work:
Hokusai is considered one of the outstanding artists of the Ukiyo-e ('pictures of the floating world') school of printmaking. Although he also sketched, painted and worked with silkscreen, it is his prints that he is most famous for.

Probably his most famous work is The Great Wave of Kanagawa, a print that is part of the larger series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanju-rokkei), which he produced from about 1823 to 1831. This was a series of brightly coloured prints showing Mt. Fuji from a number of different viewpoints. It's not as boring as it sounds; The Great Wave of Kanagawa shows the top of Mt. Fuji in the distance, as seen from a group of fishing boats caught in a storm at sea. You can see the other paintings in the series at http://www.theprices.com/view1.htm. You will notice that the series actually contains 46, not 36 designs; Hokusai never did things by halves -- or stopped at wholes, for that matter. He eventually went so far as to publish a book entitled One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji.

Also well-known are his Hokusai Manga, a series of 15 sketchbooks containing drawings of the world around him. Hokusai is credited with coining the term manga, to mean a collection of sketches.

Some of his other works include:

Hokusai was one of the most prolific (if not the most prolific) ukiyo-e artists ever. By the end of his life he had produced more than 30,000 print designs. This is even more impressive if you keep in mind that he did not limit himself to works ukiyo-e.

His eccentricities carried over into his art; here are some stories of his artistic exploits. They may or may not all be true, but they are all traditionally attributed to Hokusai.

  • Hokusai often gave public drawing demonstrations; at one of these, he took a broom, and drew a gigantic Buddha on the wall of a temple.
  • In contrast, he is also said to have drawn birds in flight on a single grain of rice.
  • Once, when appearing before the Shogun, he placed a piece of paper on the floor, and drew blue watercolour waves across it. He then took a rooster, dipped it's feet in red paint, and allowed it to run across the painting. He bowed to the Shogun and announced that he had created a picture of maple leaves floating down the river.

"From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words." -- Katsushika Hokusai

On his deathbed, Hokusai is reported to have said "If Heaven would grant me ten more years! -- and then -- If Heaven would grant me five more years, I would become a real painter."

* No, that's not a typo. The guy worked on mirrors.

Getlein, Mark Living With Art 2002.

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