All About Katsushika Hokusai


In the 18th century, Katsushika Hokusai was born in Edo, modern-day Tokyo. He was born into a working-class district. However, soon an artisan family adopted him. He was passionate about artwork since he was six years old, and he started painting at that age. His family belonged to a specific sect of Buddhism. The Buddhist deity is like a bodhisattva, associated with the North Star. At a certain point in his life, he renames himself by the name we know today, Hokusai. The name means North Star or North star studio action. It is one point in the heavens that does not move. However, the rest of the paradises move around it. For Hokusai, it is a fixed point that is a potential source of spiritual strength.  He even believed it was associated with the Senso-Ji temple. It still exists today and has a hole within. It was produced by himself quite early in his career.

His Art Throughout The Years

In the city of Edo, the Kabuki theatres and brothel district on the Northern outskirts had the subjects for the floating world school. It was a world-famous art school. The school was founded over a century before he was born.

The process by which the prints of the paintings were produced was through a publisher. He would go to an artist and commission an image. The image would get taken to the carvers, who carved the blocks. When the blocks got finished, they got taken to the printers. As a teenager, Hokusai apprenticed as a woodblock cutter. The first thing he did as an artist was to learn how to carve blocks. The drawing gets glued reversed on the block. The paper was removed from the top of the slab, leaving the print of the art on the wood. Then the carver carves the art in wood. Hokusai got into the studio of an artist who was right at the epicenter of the floating world school of popular art. His teacher made thousands of colored woodblocks for Kabuki actors. His earliest prints were very much in the style of his teacher. 

One day a man came up to him and asked to paint a picture for the boy’s day. Hokusai got very excited and accepted the offer as he was struggling to make ends meet. He gathered up his red paint and painted Shogi the demon. The man was satisfied with the picture and paid him two gold reels. It made Hokusai confident that he can earn his living as an artist. Later, he got acquainted with wealthy men and big clubs of famous poets. They used to have poetry parties where they compose what is called crazy verses. Hokusai became their artist of choice to make beautiful designs on their poetry. 

In the early 19th century, Hokusai started working with the leading author of the new genre of popular illustrated literature. The author of these adventure stories, Takizawa, provided illustrated printed phenomenal popular books. When he turned 45, he came to the notice of Shogun, the military governor of Japan.

Shogun announced that he would like this artist to do a demonstration. Hokusai got a sheet of paper and blue ink. He brushed the blue paint on the canvas. Everyone with Shogun was confused as to what Hokusai was doing. Then Hukosai took out a rooster from his basket, dipped his feet in red paint, and continued to let the rooster walk along the blue strips. He described his work as autumn leaves on the Tatsuta River. Everyone was taken back by his trick and could not resist their palms from sweating.

Giving Birth To The Art of Manga

Bathers of Hokusai manga

When he was 50, he stopped doing commercial prints and began traveling. A friend of his asked him to stay at his residence and gave him permission with painting supplies to paint as much as his heart desires. His friend invited a bunch of his friends for a party. He requested Hokusai to do some paintings for his friends. The friends would call out any random object that Hokusai proceeded to draw throughout the night. A publisher in that area liked his work and thought that his drawings would make a great book. He compiled his work and gave them the shape of a book. It was the first manga, meaning random illustrations. He used the word manga, and the concept was very influential but still different from modern-day manga.

His manga got filled with images and included no text. However, his illustrated novels propel you visually. His manga and illustrated novels are a foundation for contemporary manga.

The Rebirth

Traditionally, in Japan, it is believed that the zodiac cycle repeats every sixty years. So the extraordinary change comes when Hokusai turns 61. In Japan, if you live that long, you are born again. The zodiac cycle repeating means starting a new life. 60 for Japanese means that the first significant part of life has finished and that from now, they should indulge in new things.

Hokusai was never satisfied with his name. He changed it more than 30 times in his career, which was usual for Japanese artists. They used to pass their names to their students. After the age of 60, Hokusai was re-born to become the great artist we know today. He started to experiment with new styles and interests. 

When Japan was closed for two centuries out of fear of foreign invasion, the Dutch trade was the only connection to Europe for Japan. The Dutch would go to Edo every year. They also heard of the great artist Hokusai and started to commission paintings from him. The largest commission of his early to middle sixties came in 1822. Dutch merchants working in Japan commissioned Hokusai to paint a series of typical scenes of Japanese life. These paintings were unique. They were of a hybrid style that he came up with that had a European style perspective system. It has a single light source casting shadows in the picture, making it revolutionary in Japan. It was a hybrid between Japanese and European styles. 

In the 1820s, Hokusai got hit with personal life challenges that left him with a minor stroke. He lost his second wife in 1828 due to sudden occurrences. Hosukai was also constantly exasperated by the behavior of his grandson.  He was repeatedly paying off huge gambling debts of his grandson that led him to fall into debts. He lost his home and had found refuge in a local temple. He lost his ability to paint due to a stroke. He pulled himself together and taught himself to paint. 

He worked on 36 views of Mount Fuji at this time. Mount Fuji has been crucial to the Japanese people. It is one of the hugest features of Japan, and it completely dominates central Japan. For Hokusai, Fuji was a deity. The 36 views of Mount Fuji presented the mountain as the center of our universe. It showed every possible view of the mountain and made the landscape of Mount Fuji very prominent. He enables the landscape within the Japanese artistic tradition. 

Under The Great Wave

The great wave of kanagawa

The great wave is undoubtedly the most famous work of Hokusai. The Japanese title was translated as under the great wave of Kanagawa. It is the view of the Pacific Ocean and its sudden storm wave towards Mount Fuji on the horizon. The fast delivery boats of fish are trying to reach central Edo. The wave makes the men lay down to go through the wave instead of escaping from it.

The sea is in charge of the fragile boats while the giant Mount Fuji stands still in the center of the illustration. Hokusai captured the working class, the movement, and spirituality in his work. The waves between the waves and the changing lines capture the motion it is making. It is a staple in the Japanese history of art. 

Many believe that Disney got inspired by his great wave. Both have bold outlining and flat colors. It was printed eight thousand times and was made accessible to the general public. Anyone who can afford a bowl of ramen noodles could afford the painting.

Last Moments

Hokusai doubted himself till the end of his life. He believed that with every passing decade, he would exile in his work. Hokusai said that he would live till 110 years. By that age, every dot of his drawing will seem to be alive. He painted one of the finest and detailed paintings towards his death. On his deathbed, he still wished that the heavens would give him 10 or 5 more years so he could be a real painter. He died on May 10, 1849. Hokusai got buried at Seikyo-Ji, Tokyo.

Bottom Line

As an artist, Hokusai excelled in a variety of domains. For nearly 70 years, he designed book illustrations, woodblock prints, sketches, and paintings.

He influenced Impressionism, with themes echoed in the work of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as well as Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil in Germany. Exhibitions of his work have continued to develop even after his death. The Hokusai exhibition at Tokyo National Museum in 2005 drew the most visitors of any exhibit there that year.

This article holds all the information you will require to begin your study on Katsushika Hokusai.

We also suggest reading the profile of Leonardo da Vinci.

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