No one knows for certain, but Katsushika Hokusai is thought to have been born on 30 October 1760 — the 23rd day of the ninth month of the 10th year of Japan’s Hōreki era. His father is believed to have been Nakajima Ise, the official mirror-maker for the country’s Shogun. Hokusai, however, was never accepted as an heir — a fact that has led some art historians to suggest his mother was a concubine.
Hokusai started young. As an old man, he recalled: ‘From the time I was 6, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me.’ His father is thought to have been a formative influence, having made mirrors and painted the detailed designs that ran around their edges.
In 18th-century Japan, reading books made from woodcut blocks became a popular form of entertainment. At 14, Hokusai became an apprentice to a wood carver — later being accepted into the studio of esteemed painter and printmaker Katsukawa Shunsho.
Katsukawa was a master of the ukiyo-e genre, which flourished in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’, ukiyo-e artists made woodblock prints depicting popular subjects — from kabuki actors to sumo wrestlers, female beauties and famous landscapes.
While it was not uncommon for Japanese artists to change their names, Hokusai did so more often than any other major artist of his era — roughly once every decade, occasionally adopting informal pseudonyms.
Born Tokitaro, he published his first series of prints in 1779 under the name Shunro, given by his first master. In later life, he referred to himself as Gakyo rojin manji, or The Old Man Mad About Art. Often linked to changes in his artistic style, Hokusai’s names have been used to identify different periods of production.
His predilection for new titles was trumped only by his love of moving house: although he never left the same region, Hokusai lived in more than 90 dwellings during the course of his life.
Around 1830, approaching his eighth decade and at the height of his career, Hokusai began a series of 36 woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji — the country’s highest mountain, which in Japanese folklore is associated with immortality.
The series was completed over the course of several years, with each image showing the mountain from a different point of view and in various weather conditions. In one scene, travellers embrace an immense tree at the foot of Fuji’s slopes. In others, labourers work a water wheel, with a snow-capped Fuji on the horizon, and temple visitors admire a panorama that includes the mountain from the balcony of the Five Hundred Arhat temple.
Later, Hokusai added 10 more prints to set, bringing the total to 46, and several years afterwards completed a second volume of 100 views of the mountain.
Among the most famous prints from the 36 Views of Mount Fuji are Fine Wind, Clear Morning (also known as ‘Red Fuji’), and surely the artist’s most iconic image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, above — one of the best-known works of Japanese art in the world.
Impressions of the Great Wave off Kanagawa are held in institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, as well as in Claude Monet’s house at Giverny. Monet was one of many French 19th-century artists to admire Hokusai’s output, with other collectors including Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Hokusai didn’t shy away from large-scale, public works that employed unconventional methods. During a festival in Tokyo in 1804, he created a portrait of the Buddhist priest Daruma measuring 180m in length, using a broom and buckets of ink.
For a competition at the court of Shogun Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), he went one step further, painting a chicken’s feet red before chasing it across a blue curve painted on paper. The resulting work was presented as a depiction of Japan’s Tatsuta River with floating maple leaves — the extravagant display making Hokusai the winner of the competition.
Hokusai’s first wife died in the early 1790s, having been married to the artist for a decade. He married again in 1797, but his second wife also died shortly after. Hokusai nevertheless fathered two sons and three daughters, and his youngest daughter, Katsushika Oi, became a celebrated artist in her own right. She was known for her images of beautiful women.
When Katsukawa Shunsho died in 1793, Hokusai remained at the school he had established, working under Shunsho’s chief disciple, Shunko. It was during this period that Hokusai began to explore other styles of art, influenced by French and Dutch engravings that were smuggled into the country at a time when contact with Western culture was forbidden. His woodblocks began to incorporate elements of the shading, colouring and perspective he had seen in Western works, revolutionising ukiyo-e art.
Although his exact motivations remain unclear, Shunko expelled Hokusai from the Katsukawa school shortly after. The rejection would prove to be a turning point in the artist’s career, Hokusai later commenting, ‘What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunko's hands.’
Hokusai is said to have worked with frenetic energy, rising early to paint and continuing until well after dark. Although his studio and much of his work was destroyed in a fire in 1839, the artist is thought to have produced 30,000 works over the course of his lifetime, his prolific output including paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, erotic illustrations and picture books.
Hokusai spent his life anticipating old age. The artist commented: ‘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 marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create — a dot, a line — will jump to life as never before.’
Hokusai never got to see whether his prediction held true. On 10 May 1849 he died aged 88, apparently exclaiming on his deathbed, ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’