Childhood & Early Life
Hokusai was born Tokitaro. His date of birth is disputed. According to some sources, it is October 31, 1760, which equates to the 23rd day of the ninth month of the 10th year of the Horeki era.
His parentage, too, is unclear. It is presumed that he is the son of Nakajima Ise and his mistress.
He started painting from the age of 6, likely inspired by Nakajima Ise, who was a mirror-maker for the “shōgun” (a title for Japanese dictators from the 12th century to the 19th century).
Toward the end of his adolescence, he started working in a library that lent books printed on wood-cut blocks. As a teenager, he apprenticed with a woodcarver.
He joined Katsukawa Shunshō’s studio for painting and printing at the age of 18. Under his master’s tutelage and his early experiences of woodcarving, he picked up the tricks of “ukiyo-e,” a genre of the Japanese art of painting and printmaking on woodblocks, which initially depicted “kabuki” actors, “sumo” wrestlers, and courtesans.
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Within a year of working with Katsukawa Shunshō’s studio, and under his first pseudonym, “Shunro” (as named by his master), Hokusai’s first series of “ukiyo-e” paintings portraying “kabuki” actors were published.
After the death of Shunshō in 1793, he incorporated changes in his “ukiyo-e” paintings, influenced by works that were smuggled into Japan from the West, especially from France and the Netherlands.
However, Shunko, the chief disciple of Shunshō, who helmed the studio after his master’s death, expelled Hokusai from the studio. Hokusai turned this humiliating incident into an opportunity and developed his unique artistic style.
He moved away from the common “ukiyo-e” subjects to images that captured landscapes and the everyday lives of Japanese people of different social standing. One of his well-known works, ‘Fireworks in the Cool of Evening at Ryogoku Bridge in Edo,’ incorporated the changes that he had introduced. His deviation from the traditional subjects revolutionized the genre and also brought him the attention he deserved.
He partnered with ‘Tawaraya School.’ After adopting the name “Tawaraya Sōri,” he created several brush paintings called “surimono,” a style of woodblock print for the educated audiences, produced in limited numbers and commissioned mostly by Japanese poetry societies. He also made illustrations for “kyōka ehon” (meaning “Illustrated book of humorous poems”) under this pseudonym.
Toward the end of the 18th century, he adopted his most well-known pseudonym, “Katsushika Hokusai,” and continued evolving the “ukiyo-e” for purposes other than painting, thus releasing two collections of landscapes: ‘Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital’ and ‘Eight Views of Edo.’
In 1804, he painted a massive-sized portrait of Buddhist priest Daruma. Around the same time, he won a competition in the court of Shogun Ienari of Tokugawa
He partnered with the famous novelist Takizawa Bakin in 1807, for a series of illustrated books. However, their partnership ended on a sour note due to creative differences. Nevertheless, Hokusai continued to work on the books, as the publisher chose to retain him.
In 1811, a 51-year-old Hokusai adopted a new name, “Taito.” Under this name, he created ‘Hokusai Manga,’ a 15-volume series of sketches. The final volume was published posthumously in 1878. It was his most extensive work.
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He also created ‘Great Daruma,’ a portrait of the 5th-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. He painted it at the ‘Hongan-ji Nagoya Betsuin,’ Nagoya, Japan.
He then adopted the name “Iitsu” in 1820. Under this name, he created his most famous work, ‘The Great Wave,’ also called ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa.’ It was the first of the series ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.’ ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning,’ the next most-recognized work of his, followed soon. It is also known as ‘South Wind, Clear Sky’ and ‘Red Fuji.’
His other well-known series under this moniker were ‘A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces,’ ‘Oceans of Wisdom,’ and ‘Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces.’
As “Iitsu,” he also produced individual paintings, the most famous of them being ‘Poppies’ and ‘Flock of Chickens.’
In 1834, he adopted the name “Gakyo Rojin” and published the series ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.’
His studio and his works were destroyed by a fire in 1839.
He spent his last few years in Obuse, currently in Nagano Prefecture. Those years saw him produce some of his best-known works, such as ‘Masculine Wave,’ ‘Feminine Wave,’ and ‘Ducks in a Stream’ (published when he was 87).
He also tutored 50 students while producing his series of artwork.
Some of his well-known publications were ‘The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji,’ ‘Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain in Shimotsuke,’ ‘Cuckoo and Azaleas,’ ‘The Ghost of Oiwa,’ ‘Courtesan Asleep,’ and ‘The Yodo River (Moon).’
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Family, Personal Life & Death
During his long stint at Shunshō’s studio, Hokusai married his first wife. However, she passed away in the early 1790s. He remarried in 1797. His second wife, too, suffered an untimely death.
He had five children, two sons and three daughters, with his wives. His youngest daughter, Oi, also known as Ei, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a famous artist.
He followed Nichiren Buddhism, and it influenced his art.
He died on May 10, 1849, which coincided with the 18th day of the fourth month of the second year of the Kaei era (by the old calendar).
Several artists in Europe were among his admirers. While some collected his works, others produced art inspired by him. A few such names are Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and August Macke.
He influenced art movements such as the ‘Art Nouveau’ movement in architecture and the ‘Impressionist’ movement in painting.
‘24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai’ is a ‘Hugo Award’-winning short story by science-fiction author Roger Zelazny.
‘The Drawings of Hokusai,’ ‘Hokusai and His School: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrated Books,’ and ‘Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings and Woodcuts’ are the names of some of his biographies.