Very few are those who haven’t seen The Great Wave off Kanagawa but much fewer are those who know more about the painter behind this masterpiece. It’s no other than Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese artist that lived and thrived in Edo, Tokyo, during the Edo period. Hokusai was probably born in October 1760 in the Katsushika district in Edo, Japan. He used about thirty names about his lifetime, a common practice for artists during his time.
He started painting when he was six and at fourteen years old his father sent him to work at a woodcarver’s. At eighteen he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho. Shunsho specialized in the art of ukiyo-e, which is Japanese for woodblock-printing. Woodblock prints were mass produced in the late 18th century and were for the most part the only way the middle-class households could get their hands on original artworks. Hokusai’s first works were a series of prints of kabuki actors. Shunsho’s studio was where Hokusai would master the art of woodblock printing. Eventually he was kicked out of Shunsho and started studying at Kano school where he started focusing more on landscapes and scenes of daily life.
In 1798 Hokusai sets himself free from ties to any particular school and adopted the name Katsushika Hokusai by 1800. This was the time when he started gathering his own pupils as well. In 1807 he collaborated with the well-known novelist Takizawa Bakin on a series of illustrated books, of which the most popular was Chinsetu Yumiharizuki (Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon). The collaboration was a hit but ended due to disputes between the two artists. Hokusai didn’t shy away from creating shunga, erotic art, his most known work of the genre being The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, in which an octopus is wrapping around the woman’s body in a sexual way. When he was 51 he changed his name again, this time to Taito and started working on his own manga. The first volume was published in 1814 and was quite a hit. By 1820 he had already published twelve volumes which featured all kinds of objects and creatures all in his own sense of humor.
It was in the early 1830’s that he created his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji. His series turned out to be so popular that he ended up creating ten more pieces. To this popular series of prints another three were added: A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces, Oceans of Wisdom and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces. 1834 finds Hokusai creating under the name Gakyo Rojin which stood for The Old Man Mad about Art. This is when he creates One Hunded Views of Mount Fuji, what many call his own masterpiece. In his own words Hokusai said: From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.
Of all the things that could be said about his work, he said the most modest thing that he could ever say… Hokusai’s genius goes beyond Mount Fuji and its thirty six views. The pinnacle of all was his manga, which is nothing like what the term suggests, a.k.a. a graphic novel. It is more fitting to adopt the original meaning of the word which stands for peculiar, even whimsical drawings. Hokusai’s manga did not have a storyline and was comprised by sketches of everyday objects, wildlife and plants, sometimes even supernatural creatures like dragons. His manga even travelled to Europe, Paris to be exact where it became inspiration for artists of the 19th century. His influence to European artists created the Japonisme movement. His influence on Monet is evident by merely looking at his painting titled La Japonaise, which pictured Madame Monet in a Japanese attire. It is also said that Gustave Courbet used the Great Wave as inspiration for his powerful painting The Stormy Sea, created in 1869. As you can tell, Hokusai was and still remains one of the most popular Japanese artists, not without reason.