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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  Artists Biographies

Hokusai Katsushika 1760-1849

Katsusuhika Hokusai is considered one of the greatest artists not only by the Japanese, but the entire art world.
In the late 18th century, while bijinga (prints of beautiful women) and yakushae (prints of actors) were popular in the ukiyoe world, Hokusai challenged to construct the new theme and opened up a new field of ukiyoe. He devoted almost all of his 90-year life to drawing and painting. He was never satisfied with one technique nor one accomplished style of drawing and always sought a way to improve as an artist.

Katsusuhika Hokusai was born into a Kawamura family in Honjo Warigesui of Edo (present Tokyo) with the given name Tetsutaro. Few years later he was adopted by Nakajima Isei (possibly his natural father), a mirror maker working for Tokugawa shogunate. At the age of 10 he was given the name Tetsuzo. In his autobiography he wrote that he had begun sketching when he was five or six years old.

At the age of 15, he started an apprenticeship at a woodcut workshop which he continued for several years. This experience must have been decisive to his becoming an ukiyoe artist. It is also said that he worked in a rental bookshop and read illustrated books whenever his time allowed.

At the age of 19, Hokusai became a student of the famous ukiyoe master Katsukawa Shunsho. He was given the artist name Shunro. He belonged to the Katsukawa school for nearly 15 years. He designed his first actor print in 1779. He also designed some prints on such subjects as beauties and sumo wrestles as well as some genre prints. His works produced in this period show the influence from the already accomplished ukiyoe masters including Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Toyoharu, and of course Shunsho. It seems that in those years Hokusai was trying to hungrily take in the goods of these artists' styles in order to build the foundation of his own style. Though he officially belonged to the Katsukawa school, he also secretly took lessons from Kano Yusen, a Kano-style painter. It was discovered and perhaps was the reason why he was expelled from the Katsukawa school after the death of Shunsho in 1792.

Not satisfied after having mastered Katsukawa and Kano styles, Hokusai continued studying with other artists: he studied Chinese painting with Tsutsumi Torin III and learned Tosa style from Sumiyoshi Naiki and Korin style from Tawaraya Sori. He also studied Shiba Kokan's etchings and Western-style painting. It is believed that the styles he tried to master included many more. Among his artistic intakes, the art of Chinese painting should be noted for becoming most likely the core of his detailed works later in his life. Perhaps none of his contemporary artists attempted to master such a great variety of styles.

From the 1790's to 1800's, Hokusai designed many surimono (privately commissioned prints) and drew illustrations for kyoka (comic verse) books, which were growing in popularity. It was during this period when his Western-style landscape series "Eight Views of Omi" (or "Omi Hakkei ") and "Eight Views of Edo" (or "Edo Hakkei ") were published. The techniques used for these prints and the style in which they were executed are so unusual for the artist that these works do not quite appear to be his. In the mid-1810's, following his trip to Kansai area, the first volume of Hokusai Manga was published. This series of sketchbooks (fifteen volumes in total), covering a wide variety of subjects, is often referred to as instructional drawing manuals, intended to serve as kind of textbooks for those who wanted to become artists. During this period he also amazed the public by painting at two Buddhist temples a massive Dharma on an approximately 200m x 200m format and drawing a couple of sparrows on a grain of rice.

In the early 1820's, Hokusai started working on the series "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji" (or "Fugaku Sanjurokkei "), which was finally published in 1830. It is certainly his most famous works and often considered his best. This series consists of 46 images including "Great Wave at Kanagawa" (or "Kanagawa oki Namiura"), "Fine Wind, Clear Weather" ( or "Gaifu Kaisei ") and "Rain Strom beneath the Summit" (or "Sanka Hakuu ") are well-known worldwide and thought to have influenced French impressionists. His other famous series "Journeys to the Waterfalls in All Provinces" (or "Shokoku Taki Meguri ") also appeared around this period. In the mid-1830's, the illustrated book "One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji" was published. Filled with depictions of the mountain in often dynamic compositions, this book, together with "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji", established Hokusai as 'Mt. Fuji artist'.

Through his artistic and commercial successes in the 1830's, Hokusai's status as a great ukiyoe master was firmly established. However, after this period he began designing fewer prints. Perhaps he felt that it was impossible to perfect his own style of art within the field of ukiyoe, where he needed carvers and printers to complete his works. It seems that in his late years he designed prints merely to earn living while concentrating on painting, which could be done all by himself. Hokusai became estranged from ukiyoe prints after the successful period. It stood in quite a sharp contrast with Hiroshige, who achieved great successes with his landscape prints about the same time as Hokusai did, increasing the production rate of his ukiyoe prints to meet the public demands for his works.

According to his autobiography, Hokusai moved his residence 93 times and used more than 30 artist names. There must have been several reasons for such restlessness, yet one of the chief motives was, quite likely, that when he was stuck in a certain style of drawing and painting, he made a change in his life to break the deadlock (though it is also thought that he hated cleaning so much that he preferred leaving his house to tidying it up). Following is an incomplete list of the names Hokusai used.

Shunro (1779)
Gunmatei (1785-1794?)
Sori (1795-1798)
Hyakuri Sori i (1795-1798)
Hokusai Sori (1797-1798)
Kako (1798-1811)
Hokusai (1798-1811)
Tokimasa (1799-1810)
Kintaisha (1805-1809)
Gakyojin (Meaning "Man Crazy about Drawing") (1800-1808)
Kyukyushin (1805)
Taito (1811-1820)
Raishin (1812-1815)
Gecchi Rojin (1828)
Zen Hokusai Iitsu (1812-1833)
Iitsu (1812-1834)
Husenkyo Iitsu (1822)
Gakyo Rojin (Meaning "Old Man Crazy about Drawing") (1805-1806, 1834-1849)
Manji (1831-1849)
Miuraya Hachiemon (1834-1846)
Tsuchimochi Ninzaburo (1834)

Hokusai had many students, among whom were Hokuju, Hokuba, Hokkei and Bokusen. So great was his fame that Hokusai's students were not only in Edo but also in such distant cities as Nagoya nad Osaka. Hokusai had two daughters and one of them, Omiyo, married his student called Shigenobu but later divorced him. Another one, Oei, too, had an unsuccessful marriage with an artist. Oei was talented in drawing and painting and made some contributions to her father's works. Despite the wide-spread recognition for him, Hokusai remained poor. It is known that although he lived in poverty, he always took care of his health and ate delicious food. He was also a devoted Buddhist and a devotee of the radical sect of Buddhist priest Nichiren, dating back to the 13th century.

He wrote:

"At fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I was firmly established. At forty I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I was ready to listen to it. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing what was right."
"From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, insects and fish. Thus when I reached eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and stroke will be as though alive."

Above words can be seen as a manifestation of his obsession, tenacity and self-confidence about his artistic ability as well as his fretfulness about life, which was probably what made him move his residence and change his artist name so many times. Yet 10 years short of his 100th year at which he should have become a 'true master', Katsushika Hokusai died.

His farewell poem:
Hitodamade Iku Kibarajiya Natsunohara
Will-o'-the-wisp / Goes carefree / In a summer field"

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