Thirty-six Views of Mt.Fuji - The Great Wave
Thirty-six Views of Mt.Fuji - The Great Wave - Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
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Hokusai Katsushika wrote his autobiography when he was seventy-three years old. He dated the beginning of his drawing activities to the age when he was five or six years old. Hokusai is one of the greatest masters of Japanese woodblock printmaking of the 19th century. Designs like the 'Great Wave' and 'Red Mount Fuji' have made him immortal.

First Publication: May 2001

Latest Update: April 2014

Hokusai - a Prodigy Child

Katsushika Hokusai started an apprenticeship at a woodcut workshop at the age of fifteen. At the age of 18 he became a pupil of Katsukawa Shunsho and took the name of Katsukawa Shunro. The early Hokusai prints were actor portraits, produced under the influence of Shunsho.

He remained loosely connected to the art school of Katsukawa Shunsho for fourteen years. During that period, he also took lessons from another master, Yusen from the Kano school. It was in this period that the artist studied Western-style paintings - visible in the use of perspective for some of his prints.

The "flirting" with other art schools might have been the reason why he was expelled from the Katsukawa Art School after Shunsho's death in 1792.

A Restless Nature

Senju - Fugaku Sanju Rokkei
Senju - Fugaku Sanju Rokkei - Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
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According to his own biography, Hokusai changed his residence an incredible 93 times in his life. True or false - it is an expression of his restlessness. An average Japanese hardly ever moves more than once during his lifetime. He also changed his artist name several times - much to the distress of art historians and art experts.

The artist had little luck in his private life. His first wife died in 1793, leaving him alone with a son and two daughters. In 1797 he remarried. In 1812, Hokusai's eldest son died. His two daughters had an unhappy marriage, divorced and returned to their father's household.

Hokusai adopted his eldest daughter's son as his own. But the lad turned out to be a good-for-nothing. In 1828, the artist's second wife died.

36 Views of Mt. Fuji

Red Fuji - Aka Fuji
Red Fuji - Aka Fuji - Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
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The series 36 Views of Mt. Fuji are certainly the best known Hokusai prints. And critics agree, that it is also his best work. Although called "36 views", it actually consists of 46 designs. The artist had worked on this series for nearly ten years before the publication in circa 1830.

Another famous landscape series is Shokoku Taki Meguri - A Journey to the Waterfalls of all the Provinces. From 1814 onward, Hokusai published the series of fifteen Manga sketchbooks. They are what the title says, illustrations and sketches made by Hokusai with a wide variety of subjects from all walks of life - some comic, some serious.

An Ukiyo-e Workaholic

Hokusai must be imagined as a person who was completely obsessed by producing ukiyo-e (Japanese prints). He lived for nothing else. He usually got up early in the morning and worked until after sunset. The art name Gakyo-rojin, which he used from 1834-1849 means old man mad with painting.

And this is what he wrote about himself in his autobiography. It is the quintessence of his art philosophy:

"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."

Hokusai was one of the most prolific of all ukiyo-e artists. At the end of his life he had produced more than 30,000 print designs.

The Name Game with Hokusai Katsushika

Traveller in the Snow
Traveller in the Snow - Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849
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This is the impressive list of the names used by Hokusai (after Sandra Andacht: "Collector's value Guide to Japanese woodblock prints", krause publications, ISBN 1-58221-005-5)

  • 1779: Shunro
  • 1781-1782: Zewaisai
  • 1785-1794: Gumbatei
  • 1795-1798: Sori
  • 1797-1798: Hokusai Sori
  • 1798-1819: Hokusai
  • 1798-1811: Kako
  • 1799: Fasenkyo Hokusai
  • 1799: Tatsumasa Shinsei
  • 1803: Senkozan
  • 1805-1809: Kintaisha
  • 1800-1808: Gakyojin
  • 1805: Kyukyushin
  • 1805-1806 and 1834-1849: Gakyo-rojin
  • 1807-1824: Katsushika
  • 1811-1820: Taito
  • 1812: Kyorian Bainen
  • 1812-1815: Raishin
  • 1814: Tengudo Nettetsu
  • 1820-1834: Iitsu
  • 1821-1833: Zen saki no Hokusai Iitsu
  • 1822: Fesenkyo Iitsu
  • 1831-1849: Manji
  • 1834: Tsuchimochi Nisaburo
  • 1834-1846: Hyakusho Hachemon
  • 1847-1849: Fujiwara Iitsu

BBC Documentary - Hokusai Katsushika

An excellent documentary by the BBC. Duration: nearly an hour. But really worth watching it to the end. You will learn a lot about the Great Wave and the 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Great thanks to the BBC for sharing this with us.

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

Literature sources used for this Hokusai biography

  • Lane, Richard, "Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print", Fribourg, 1978, ISBN 0-914427-54-7
  • Sandra Andacht: "Collector's value Guide to Japanese Woodblock Prints", krause publications, ISBN 1-58221-005-5

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