This post originally appeared on the Amoeblog.
Today is the date traditionally recognized as the birthday of one of my favorite Japanese artists, 葛飾 北斎 (Katsushika Hokusai). Without a doubt, he is one of (if not the) most famous Japanese artists of all time. His best-known work is the ukiyo-e woodblock print series 富嶽三十六景 (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji), published around 1831. The collection includes his single most recognized work, The great wave off Kanagawa.
Hokusai was born in the Musashi province of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1760. The exact date of his birth is somewhat uncertain although it is often said to have been the 23rd day of the 9th month of the 10th year of the Hōreki era, which would be the 31st of October in the Gregorian calendar. His adoptive (and likely biological) father was Nakajima Ise, mirror-maker to the shogun. Since Hokusai wasn’t named as his heir – it is sometimes assumed that his mother was a concubine. Hokusai’s childhood name was 姓は川村氏 (Kawamura Tokitarō). He later went by 鉄蔵 (Tetsuzo), 中島八右衛門 (Nakajima Hachiemon) and about thirty other (usually quite colorful) noms d’artiste.
Hokusai began painting around the age of six. At twelve his father sent him to work at a kashihon – a combination book store and library. From the age of fourteen to eighteen he apprenticed as an engraver after which he was employed in the studio of ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunshō. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵 – literally “pictures of the floating world”) is a Japanese art genre which focused on motifs drawn from theater, leisure and history although, after the innovations of Hokusai, landscapes and everyday life were increasingly popular subjects.
Hokusai published his first work, a series of portraits of kabuki actors, in 1779. During his decade at Katsukawa’s studio, he married a woman about whom almost nothing is known except that she died in the 1793 and bore three children. After Shunshō passed away in 1793, Hokusai turned his attention to, Sesshu, the techniques of the schools of Kano Yusen, Tsutsumi Torin, and Sumiyoshi Naiki, and French and Dutch painters for inspiration. Soon after Shunshō’s death, Hokusai was expelled from Katsukawa school by Shunshō’s chief disciple, Shunkō, an embarrassment which Hokusai credited with motivating the development of his personal style.
Hokusai married again in 1797 and his second wife gave birth to two more children, one of whom, a daughter named 栄 (Sakae – also known as “Ōi”) also became a talented artist. Hokusai’s second wife died in 1828.
By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Hokusai had achieved a large degree of fame – by then as Katsushika Hokusai. His then-handle was a reference to his birthplace in Katsushika County combined with a first name meaning “North Studio.” By then he’d acquired numerous pupils (he would go on to teach over fifty artists) and published several collections of landscapes. He’d also earned a reputation for self-promotion and eccentricity. One story involves a painting contest in which he chased a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint across a canvas to depict maple leaves in a stream. He was also said to paint birds on grains of rice. His residences were said to be so cluttered with his paintings (which he casually tossed on the floor) that, rather than tidy up, he merely moved to new digs — supposedly about 93 over the course of his career.
In the 1820s Hokusai achieved the height of his fame – albeit going by the nickname “Iitsu.” It was during this period that he produced Thirty-Six Views, a work which reflected an increased interest in domestic travel as well as the artist’s obvious preoccupation with Mount Fuji.In the 1820s Hokusai achieved the height of his fame – albeit going by the nickname “Iitsu.” It was during this period that he produced Thirty-Six Views, a work which reflected an increased interest in domestic travel as well as the artist’s obvious preoccupation with Mount Fuji.
In old age, Hokusai himself claimed that none of his art produced before the age of 73 was worthy of attention and that if he lived to 140 he would be able to infuse every stroke of painting with life itself.
In 1839 his studio caught fire and with it a large portion of his work. He continued painting and, on his deathbed, reportedly asked for just ten more years so that he could become a real artist. Nonetheless, he died 10 May, 1849, just 88 years old.
Four years after Hokusai’s death, the US Navy steamed into Japanese ports. With the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate was the end of Japan’s isolation from the world and Hokusai’s art became celebrated in Europe where he inspired the Impressionists, as well as the Art Nouveau and Jugendstil movements.
The great wave off Kanagawa has been featured in numerous works and was one of the subjects of the BBC art documentary series, The Private Life of a Masterpiece. His famous shunga print, 蛸と海女 (The dream of the fisherman’s wife) is the subject of conversation in the Mad Men episode “Out of Town.” Hokusai himself was the subject of the 1953 documentary film, Hokusai, directed by nuberu bagu figure Hiroshi Teshigahara and written by Makoto Yoshikawa. He was also the subject of Kaneto Shindô’s film, Edo Porn (1981).