Hokusai was born on 12 October 1760 in Honjo (also known as Katsushika), a suburb of Edo. An extraordinarily versatile artist, whose productivity seemed boundless, Hokusai is one of the greatest masters of the Japanese print.
Nothing is known of his parents; at the age of three he was adopted by Nakajime Ise, a mirrormaker at the shoguns court. Hokusai began to paint at the age of six.
In 1772 Hokusai worked for a short time at a public library, and the following year embarked on an apprenticeship as an engraver and woodblock cutter.
In 1777, at the age of eighteen, Hokusai was apprenticed to the ukiyo-e master Shunsho.Two years later he published his first pictures, actor-portraits, under the name of Shunro.
The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai
A little later Hokusai published some popular novels, and in 1782 his first selfillustrated book appeared. After eight years of collaboration with Shunsho, he left the tatter’s studio and joined the Kano artist Yusen Hironobu for a short while.
In the following years he studied under various painters, including Tsusumi Torin, and Simiyoshi Hiroyuki; he also studied European painting under Harushige (alias Kokan). From 1789 onwards he received numerous commissions for book illustrations; these included illustrations to works by the authors Bakin and Kyoden, which represent his first important works, published under the name of Kako.
From 1796 to 1805 Hokusai concentrated upon surimono, with which he enjoyed considerable success. It was during this period, in 1797, that he assumed the name of Hokusai. The change of name marked an artistic climax in Hokusai’s work. Between 1798 and 1805, Hokusai published a series of outstanding portraits of women, as well as colour illustrations for the books “Songs from Itako“, “Famous Views of the Eastern Capital“, “Views of the River Sumida“, and “Mountains upon Mountains“. His work hitherto had covered the whole spectrum of ukiyo-e art: individual prints, surimono, picture books, books of anecdotes, illustrations of verse and historical romances, erotic books, paintings and sketches. His creativity was destined to endure for a further twenty years.
In 1805 he took up the study of Chinese painting and illustrating, and devoted his energies chiefly to the illustration of novels. After 1814 Hokusai started publishing his sketchbooks, or “manga“, fifteen volumes in which he portrays in a realistic manner the lives and doings of the Japanese people, everyday life, mythological scenes, animals, plants and landscapes.
The late i82os ushered in the publication of numerous series of colour prints of landscapes, animals and spirits, including “Reflections of Poets”, “100 Nurses Tales“, “A Round Trip Past the Waterfalls” (1827) and “Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces” (1827—1830). The most famous of these series are the “36 Views of Mount Fuji” and the three-volume “100 Views of Fuji” (1834/35). These are regarded as the highpoint of Japanese landscape art, and also as the summit of the artists career. Hokusai’s life was full of activity, but mostly spent in poverty; he changed his name 20 times, moved house 93 times, married twice, had several children and went on numerous journeys. But his life was also marked by his great artistic productivity: his work includes some 30,000 pictures in addition to the illustrations he supplied for some 500 books.
In his later years, he acquired the nickname “Gakyo-rojin” — “the paintingcrazy old man“. Not all his works are of the same quality, though, and his best work only dates from the seventh decade of his life. Hokusai brought a new greatness to ukiyo-e, and raised landscape, flower and bird painting to the status of independent genres. Hokusai’s unusual effects are based on the boldness of his colour combinations, his perspectives, and the directness of his portrayal, which is sometimes drastically realistic.
His work reflects the whole world of the imagination of the Far East. Hokusai handled a rich diversity of themes, from the brothel to the devotional Buddhist picture, from the plant to the heroic landscape, from the burlesque caricature to the ghost. Hokusai designed tobacco pipes, temples, miniature landscapes and panoramas, for which he used eggs, bottles and his fingers as painting implements. Hokusai was an improvisation artist, giving public performances of “live” art, and he painted temples using bundles of straw, brooms and rice sacks.
From Hillier J., Japanese Colour Prints, Phaidon, 3rd edn,1993