Katsushika Hokusai – artist research

Whilst working on Exercise 1.4 I came across the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai who was responsible for the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ which included the now iconic print The Great Wave of Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami nura) and worked during the Edo period of Japanese art (1615-1868).

It seems this artist used a wide variety of different names or aliases over his career and he worked as a ukiyo-e painter and print-maker.  It was common at the time for Japanese artists to use differing names and what is useful is that Hokusai’s changes seem to coincide with changes to his artistic style which means his works are relatively easy to date as each name change seemingly relates to a differing period.

Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo which is now known as Tokyo to an artisan family – his father is thought to have been Nakajima Ise who was a mirror maker but one who never made his son an heir and therefore it is highly probably that his mother was a concubine.  There seems to be a question-mark as to whether he was born into this family or adopted into it but the probability is that Nakajima was indeed his father and his mother was indeed his concubine – concubines seem strange to us in our modern day because although they were a part of many households they held a lower status to that of a wife and therefore any children would not be considered heirs.

Hokusai’s childhood name was Tokitaro and at the age of 12 he was working in a lending library and bookshop in a city.  The books in this library were made up of wood cut blocks and subsequently he became an apprentice to a wood-carver between the ages of 14 and 18.

At the age of 18 Hokusai joined the school of Katsukawa Shunsho who was head of the Katsukawa school and a specialist in ukiyo-e which was a style of wood-block prints which focused on images of actors and courtesans who were popular at the time in the cities – the actual name means ‘images of the floating world’.  However after his master’s death in 1793 Hokusai was exposed to French and Dutch copper engravings and as a consequence European art and therefore started exploring differing styles.  However this exploration and studying at a rival school lead to his expulsion and this in turn lead to his greatest breakthrough in the style of ukiyo-e and the height of his career as he started to work on landscapes that included the social lives of people of all levels of society.

During the period that Hokusai (or Shunro as he was called by his master) studied at the Katsuakawa school he became known for his work in the surimono genre which in essence was a specialist line of prints which were done for private commissions to mark special occasions.

It is due to the influence and study of European art that Hokusai came to be interested in linear perspective and hence developed a Japanese form with further influence of the Dutch can be seen in a low horizon line and crucially his use of Prussian blue (an import from Europe) in such works as The Great Wave.

To make the wood-cut prints each colour was added by a differently cut block – in much the same way as lino-cut prints are now reduced with each reduction being used to print another colour and another layer.  The advantage of the various wood-cut blocks being used, i.e. separate blocks, is that limitless prints can be made in contrast to reduction lino prints in which the maker has choose how many to make from the outset. These wood-blocks would have been carved on 4 sides with the first being directly done from the sketches of the artist to depict the main lines with further faces adding the differing colours – in terms of The Great Wave two such blocks were used with 8 sides in total being carved.

After a period at a different school he passed on the name he was then known as to a pupil and set himself up as an independent artist in and by 1800 was going by the name of Katsushika Hokusai – the first part of his name is in reference to the area he had grown up in in Edo and the second literally means ‘north studio’ apparently.  By this time Hokusai had been married twice with his first wife dying young and also he had become a father to 5 children in total with one daughter eventually becoming an artist.

The style of ukiyo-e that Hokusai was practicing was the one he developed for landscapes rather than portraiture  and eventually in 1811 he changed his name again to Taito …. by this point he had already had a variety of names.  As a Mum who has had a daughter who loves manga art and animation it is interesting to discover that Hokusai published his first book of caricatures and sketches that often were humourous in tone in 1814 – he had published his book Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing in 1812 as a way to make money and also to attract students but between 1814 and 1820 he published in total some 12 volumes of manga with 3 more being published after his death … so now I know who is responsible for the money spent by so many Mum’s in our modern era on the manga graphic novels!!

An instrumental reason behind this development of this style of drawing may have been down to economics because his eldest son had been adopted as an heir to the Nakajima family and in 1812 died.  This adoption had provided Hokusai with a generous allowance that allowed him to work without fear of monetary payment –  it seems that at this time payment for work was often with set fees but a gift of money and therefore was unreliable and hence with his son dying he would have had to find new economic ways of earning a living and hence the possible change of style to the wood-printed copybooks and the manga style of illustration.

1820 saw yet another change of name to Iitsu and it during this next decade he found fame throughout Japan due to his series of paintings such as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji or a Tour of Waterfalls of the Provinces. As he continued to work this is an artist who felt he never stopped learning his craft – Hokusai or Gakyo Rojin Manji (The Old Man About Art) as he was now known was someone who felt that the older he got the more he would grasp the lessons of art and bring his work to life and hence he never stopped creating.  Sadly in 1839 a fire destroyed not just his studio but the majority of his works and finally in April 1849 he passed away.  Hokusai’s work had not only concentrated on the landscapes for which is most well known but also Chinese subjects and the samurai which were considered the traditional Japanese themes – in effect the Japanese classical canon. These classical themes were a move away from traditional ukiyo-e themes of portraits – his style changed many times as I have mentioned and these changes co-incided with changes of names, again as I have already mentioned …. Hokusai’s other aliases also include Shuro, Sori, Kako and Manji amongst others. Hokusai was not only prone to changing his name but also he had over 90 homes and his restless nature can perhaps be considered to be part of his ever changing style –

Throughout his career one other thing Hokusai is known to have been very skilled at it is self-promotion and self-publicity and even was invited to display his artistic skills to the shogun – the shogun was in effect the ruler of Japan despite being only the military leader who should have been subordinate at least in terms of rank to the emperor. It is this self-publicity that enabled Hokusai to become one of Japan’s most famous artists.

A few years after his death an American fleet forced Japan to open its arms to the world – Hokusai had been an artist at a time and indeed the last period in which Japan was closed to the outside world.   This opening of Japan to the world meant that there was a sudden flood of Japanese culture to the West and suddenly Japanese art was highly collectable – Japonisme is the term used for this collecting of the art.  Hokusai’s work was on display at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris and was consequentially considered very desirable and in addition the style of ukiyo-e directly influenced the Impressionists with the concentration on the atmospheric conditions, flattening of space onto a singular plane plus the appearance of city life being impermanent.

Prior to the opening up of Japan it was subject to the policy of sakoku which literally meant no foreigners were allowed on its soil and also stopped any Japanese person leaving – the punishment for either was death and this isolation had been going on for around 250 years.  It is hard to understand now such a closed culture because even in our modern world with the uncertainty around the world there are very few countries, that have such a closed culture but this isolation of Japan at the time meant that when the borders were opened the impression of Japanese art and culture on the world and the West in particular would have been that much greater. The trade deals however were uneven due to the wealth of the industrial powers in the West which were in contrast to the instability of Japan as they changed politically from being that of a shogunate to the Meiji Restoration period. The interest in the collecting of Japanese art and interest in the culture did not extend to the reliquaries of Buddhism or the Chinese style paintings or indeed the monumental sculptures but seemed to concentrate more on the simple purity of daily life – there was as much unevenness in the interest as there was in the trade deals that took place.

Hokusai is so influential on Impressionism that it is fair to say that he could be considered the father of this Western art style – Monet was just one huge collector of his work and without Hokusai’s works our own modernist styles would not exist.  Apparently Monet was not just a huge collector of Japanese works of art but it also influenced his life to the extent his wife is known to have worn a kimono around their property.

Edgar Degas. The tub. 1886. Pastel on card. 60 x 83 cm. Musee d'Orsay

Edgar Degas. The tub. 1886. Pastel on card. 60 x 83 cm. Musee d’Orsay

Other artists including Edgar Degas, Manet and Cezanne were influenced too by Hokusai but this time in his portrayal of human form seen in the manga sketches or the fact that Hokusai, like Degas, was interested in the private aspect of women as opposed to the public. This pastel piece pays a heavy debt to the influence of the ukiyo-e woodcut prints in its two dimensional flat composition with a move away from the lessons of linear perspective.

The influence of the Japanese print-makers  on the artists of France raised the respectability and reputation of graphic art and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec eventually worked exclusively in prints and also his subsequential posters which also show the influence of his interest in the social aspect of Hokusai’s prints.

Having recently studied Western art history and the influence of Christianity on art it is interesting to discover that the name Hokusai is an abbreviation of Hokushinsai which meant North Star Studio.  The reason for the choice of name it seems is because Hokusai was a member of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism and for this sect the north start is associated with the deity Myoken who was the deification of the Pole Star and Mount Fuji has long been a symbol of eternal life to the Japanese people.  It is obvious that Hokusai’s faith and beliefs were just as influential on his work as Catholicism on Caravaggio for instance as would be expected – I have as yet only studied Western Art so this is my first real dip of a toe in the study of Eastern art and one that is now opening up a whole new line of research.

In 1905 Japan was victorious in the Russo-Japanese war and this meant that Japan now took its place on the world stage of super-powers and the illusion of a land of beautiful simplicity was no longer.  Artists in the west such as Picasso or Rousseau became interested in African art due to its primitive nature – they moved away from what seems to be a fantastical view of Japanese life to a differing style of simplistic art in almost a never-ending search for purity in other far off lands.


Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2017.  Hokusai, Japanese artist [online].  [Date Accessed:  5 March 2017].  Available from:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hokusai

Farago, J. 9 April 2015.  Hokusai and the wave that swept the world [online].  [Date Accessed:  20 February 2017].  Available from:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20150409-the-wave-that-swept-the-world

Khan Academy. 2017.  Under the Wave of Kanagawa (The Great Wave) [online].  [Date Accessed:  20 February 2017].  Available from:  https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/south-east-se-asia/japan-art/a/hokusai-under-the-wave-off-kanagawa-the-great-wave

Hamilton, A. 2012.  Katsushika Hokusai:  Swept away by Japanese genius [online].  [Date Accessed:  5 March 2017].  Available from:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/katsushika-hokusai-swept-away-by-japanese-genius-6281499.html

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2017.  Japonisme [online].  [Date Accessed:  5 March 2017].  Available from:  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpon/hd_jpon.htm

http://www.katsushikahokusai.org. 2002-2017.  Katsushika Hokusai – The Complete Works [online].  [Date Accessed:  20 February 2017].  Available from:   http://www.katsushikahokusai.org/

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