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Katsushita Hokusai...

“The Old Man Mad With Painting”


Maybe you can relate to this – since getting my first computer with internet access (Windows 95, anyone?) many times when I go online and start reading about something, it’s never a quick thing.  It usually starts with me looking up something specific, but before I know it, countless links and clicks later I’m down a rabbit hole and nowhere near where I started.

 Portrait of Hokusai by Keisai Eisen

This is what happened when I started researching this issue’s featured artist, Katsushika Hokusai. If there is one work that Hokusai is known for, it would be The Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji iconic masterpiece. But in the process of learning about the man, I found myself going down a path that led me to these related fascinating subjects:

​- Sakoku- Japan’s Isolationist Period, known as Sakoku, which lasted from the 1630’s until 1854.  During this time Japan was closed to most of the western world, and trade was confined to a Dutch monopoly which for the most part was confined to the export of porcelain and lacquer ware. Starting with an uninvited visit by Commodore Perry and his fleet of U.S. Navy warships in 1853, Japan was forced into signing The Convention of Kanagawa, putting an end to the 200-year-old seclusion policy and opened up trade between Japan and the West.

- Wood Block Art-The long history of woodblock art, specifically Ukiyo-e (which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries).  Ukiyo-e artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. The prints were initially monochromatic, but gradually color was introduced.  The term ukiyo-e (浮世絵) translates as "picture[s] of the floating world".



- Japonaiserie (English: Japanesery), which was the term Vincent Van Gogh used to express the influence of Japanese art on the western world. Soon after the end of Japan’s isolation period in 1854, many European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists fell in love with and were greatly influenced by Japanese art and artists like Hokusai and his younger contemporary Utagawa Hiroshige.  They had never seen art quite like this before.  Edgar Degas, Pierre Gauguin, Gustav Klimt, Franz Marc, August Macke, and Vincent van Gogh collected his woodcuts.  For a while Vincent and his brother Theo dealt in these imported prints, and they eventually amassed hundreds of them, which are now housed in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. 

Examples of traditional ukiyo-e
(Not Hokusai) 

Claude Monet owned 23 of Hokusai’s prints.  Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley were also influenced by Hokusai’s work and Japanese art in general.   Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who began his career as a painter, passionately embraced Japanese art and moved almost exclusively to posters and prints.  When writing to fellow artist Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt wrote of a Japanese prints exhibition:

“You who want to make colour prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful... You must see the Japanese – come as soon as you can” 

So please do some exploring on your own regarding these fascinating subjects, but first, let me give you the basics about an incredible artist, Katsushika Hokusai.

Hokusai was a rather eccentric man.  He was born around 1760, possibly the illegitimate son of a wealthy artisan and his concubine.  Details of his childhood are sketchy.  He initially trained as an apprentice to a woodblock carver from age 14 until 18, when he became a pupil of the leading ukiyo-e master, Katsukawa Shunshō.   

Throughout history, artists almost always apprenticed under a master who taught them a specific style, or “school” of painting.  These schools are not schools in the modern sense, but instead were basically a style – there were unwritten rules regarding the subjects, or techniques used.  The master showed you the styles and rules, and you were expected to follow them.  Hokusai’s first master was Katsukawa Shunshō.  Originally a member of the Torii school, Shunsho broke away from this reigning school of actor prints to establish his own, more realistic style known as the Katsukawa School.  

Nakamura Nakazo by Shunsho

​Hokusai's (Shunro) First Master

Hokusai’s first published prints were a series of pictures of kabuki actors that were published in 1779, under the name Shunro, which was given to him by Shunshō.  All of Shunro students were given names with the root "Shun" to identify them as students of that school. Hokusai studied with Shunsho until his death around 1792.  I could not find the earliest examples of Hokusai's work, but these pictures below were from that timeframe:



Fireworks in the Cool of Evening at Ryôgoku Bridge in Edo by Hokusai c.1780

 Inside the Courtyard of the Toeizan Temple at Ueno, Hokusai c.1786


 Hotei and Chinese Boys in New Year, Hokusai c. 1790

 After Shunsho's death, Hokusai began exploring the rival Kano school, as well as some European styles he was exposed to through French and Dutch copper engravings that he was able to acquire. This got him “expelled” from the Katsukawa school by Shunsho’s successor, Shunko.  Hiroshige is quoted as having said this in response to that event:  

 "What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō's hands".

One noteworthy thing about Hokusai – he changed his name over 30 times throughout his lifetime.  Often these name changes coincided with his change of style. After his break with the Katsukawa school he moved away from the traditional kabuki actors and courtesans of the ukiyo-e  style and began focusing on landscapes and scenes of everyday Japanese life.  He became associated with the Tawaraya school and changed his name to Tawaraya Son.  He was privately commissioned to produce prints for special occasions and illustrations for books.  In 1798 he set out as an independent artist, not associated with any school, and changed his name to Hokusai Tomisa. 

By 1800, he started going by the name Katsushika Hokusai, and produced 2 collections of landscapes, Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo (modern Tokyo). He also began to attract students of his own, eventually teaching 50 pupils over the course of his life.


 Kannon Temple, from the series The Dutch Picture Lens: Eight Views of Edo, Hokusai c. 1800

 His fame continued to grow, due to the popularity of his artwork and his own talent for self-promotion.   One of his biggest public displays was during an Edo festival in 1804, where he created an enormous portrait of the Buddhist prelate Daruma, said to be 200 square meters, using a broom and buckets full of ink. Another story places him in the court of the shōgun Tokugawa Ienari, invited there to compete with another artist who practiced more traditional brushstroke painting. Hokusai painted a blue curve on paper, then chased a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint across the image. He described the painting to the shōgun as a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with red maple leaves floating in it, winning the competition.

In 1811, at the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name to Taito.  He had become one of the 19th century’s leading designers of toy prints—sheets of paper meant to be cut into pieces and then assembled into three-dimensional dioramas. He also made several board games, one of which depicted a pilgrim’s route between Edo (Tokyo) and nearby religious sites. Consisting of several small landscape designs, it probably served as a precursor for his eventual masterpiece, the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. He illustrated countless books of poetry and fiction, and even published his own how-to manuals for aspiring artists.  Starting in 1812 with “Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing”, they were intended as a convenient way to make money and attract more students. One of these guides, titled Hokusai Manga, filled with drawings he originally made for his students to copy, became a best-seller that gave him his first taste of fame. By 1820, he had produced twelve volumes (with three more published years later after his death) which include thousands of drawings of objects, plants, animals, religious figures, and everyday people, often with humorous overtones.


 Image of bathers from the Hokusai Manga,​Hokusia c.1812-1820

 On 5 October 1817, he painted the Great Daruma outside the Hongan-ji Nagoya Betsuin in Nagoya. This portrait in ink on paper measured 18 × 10.8 meters, and the event drew huge crowds. The feat was recounted in a popular song and he received the name "Darusen" or "Daruma Master".  Although the original was destroyed in 1945, Hokusai's promotional handbills from that time survived and are preserved at the Nagoya City Museum.


 Contemporary print of Hokusai painting the Great Daruma in 1817

 In 1820, at age 60, Hokusai changed his name yet again, this time to "Iitsu," a change which marked the start of a period in which he secured fame as an artist throughout Japan. His most celebrated work, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa and Red Fuji was produced in the early 1830s, when Hokusai was in his 70's.  This series proved so to be so popular that he later added ten more prints to the series. 


 The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1829–1832

 This composition is considered by many to be the most recognizable work of Japanese art in the world.  ​It made use of the recently introduced Prussian blue pigment; at first, the images were largely printed in blue tones (aizuri-e), including the key-blocks for the outlines. After its success was assured, multicolored versions of the prints were made.

The piece comprises three main elements: the sea whipped up by a storm, three boats, and the mountain. 

The Mountain - Mount Fuji, which in Japan is considered sacred and a symbol of national identity, as well as a symbol of beauty. Mount Fuji is an iconic figure in many Japanese representations of famous places (meisho-e).     

 The dark color around Mount Fuji seems to indicate that the scene occurs early in the morning, with the sun rising from behind the observer, illuminating the mountain's snowy peak.  While  cumulonimbus  storm clouds seem to be hanging in the sky between the viewer and Mount Fuji, no rain is to be seen either in the foreground scene or on Mount Fuji, which itself appears completely cloudless. 

The Boats - In the scene there are three oshiokuri-bune, fast boats that are used to transport live fish from the Izu and Bōsō peninsulas to the markets of the bay of Edo (Tokyo).  As the name of the piece indicates the boats are in Kanagawa prefecture, with Tokyo to the north, Mount Fuji to the northwest, the bay of Sagami to the south and the bay of Tokyo to the east. The boats, oriented to the southeast, are returning to the capital.

There are eight rowers per boat, clinging to their oars. There are two more passengers in the front of each boat, bringing the total number of human figures in the image to thirty. Using the boats as reference, one can approximate the size of the wave: the oshiokuri-bune were generally between 12 and 15 meters (39–49 ft) long, and noting that Hokusai stretched the vertical scale by 30%, the wave must be between 10 and 12 meters (33–39 ft) tall.

The sea - dominates the composition as an extending wave about to break. In the moment captured in this image, the wave forms a circle around the center of the design, framing Mount Fuji in the background.  The crest of the wave, looking like claws, and the small wave, similar to the silhouette of Fuji.

Edmond de Goncourt described the wave in this way:

The drawing of the wave is a deification of the sea made by a painter who lived with the religious terror of the overwhelming ocean completely surrounding his country; He is impressed by the sudden fury of the ocean's leap toward the sky, by the deep blue of the inner side of the curve, by the splash of its claw-like crest as it sprays forth droplets.

 Andreas Ramos, a writer, notes:

The waves form a frame through which we see the mountain. The gigantic wave is a yin yang of empty space beneath the mountain. The inevitable breaking that we await creates a tension in the picture. In the foreground, a small wave forming a miniature Fuji is reflected by the distant mountain, itself shrunk in perspective. The little wave is larger than the mountain. The small fishermen cling to thin fishing boats, slide on a sea-mount looking to dodge the wave. The violent Yang of nature is overcome by the yin of the confidence of these experienced fishermen. Strangely, despite a storm, the sun shines high.


Other pieces in this collection included:

Fine Wind, Clear Morning (or Red Fuji), from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji c. 1829–1832 


The Lake of Hakone in the Segami Province from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji c. 1829–1832 


As his fame as an artist grew, he is known to have been critical of how some woodcarvers replicated some parts of his work.  While working on a book, Hokusai wrote to the publisher that the blockcutter Egawa Tomekichi, with whom Hokusai had previously worked and whom he respected, had strayed from Hokusai's style in the cutting of certain heads. He also wrote directly to another blockcutter involved in a project, Sugita Kinsuke, stating that he disliked the Utagawa school style in which Kinsuke had cut the figure's eyes and noses and that amendments were needed for the final prints to be true to his style. In his letter, Hokusai included examples of both his style of illustrating eyes and noses and the Utagawa school style.

 Amida Waterfall on the Kisokaido Road from A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces


Aoigaoka Falls in the Eastern Capital from A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces 

Among the other popular series of prints he made during this time are “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces”, “Oceans of Wisdom” and “Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces”.  


 Tenma Bridge in Setsu Province, from Rare Views of Famous Japanese Bridges


 Fishing in the Miyato River from Ocean of Wisdom, c. 1832–1834

 1834 saw Hokusai working under the name "Gakyō Rōjin" (画狂老人; "The Old Man Mad About Drawing").  He is quoted as saying: “From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

It was around this time that he produced “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”, a series of three illustrated books generally considered the masterpiece among his landscape picture books.  The books contain over a hundred views of Mount Fuji in various styles and settings; Hokusai shows the peak in pure landscapes, with flora and fauna, in religious and mythological scenes and with different atmospheric effects, but above all, he focuses on ordinary people at work.  The first two volumes are celebrated for their very high standards of woodblock printing, with "extremely fine cutting" and "exquisite gradation" (bokashi) of the grey blocks; they have been called a "masterpiece of monochrome printing".


 "Fuji at Torigoe", the observatory of the Calendar Bureau From One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji


 "Into the Window" from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji

 Hokusai never lived in one place for long. It is rumored that he found cleaning distasteful—instead, he allowed dirt and grime to build until the place became unbearable and then simply moved out. All told, the artist changed residences at least 93 times throughout his life.

He had a daughter, Katsushika Oi, who was born around 1800. Oi was born to Hokusai’s second wife, Koto, and had one brother and one sister, and one half brother and two half sisters from her father’s first marriage.    Some believe may be the real figure behind some of Hokusai’s most celebrated works

It’s said that Oi’s name - sometimes written as Oei, and also referred to as Eijo - was derived from おい, the Japanese equivalent of ‘hey you!’, which some historians report was what Hokusai called her, an embodiment of the playful nature of the pair.  Hokusai seems to have often called out ‘Oi, Oi’ when he wanted her. So Eijo used characters that replicated the sound of the word ‘Oi’ into an artistic name for herself.

Beauty Fulling Cloth in the Moonlight, by Katsushika Oi, 1850 

It is said that Hokusai would paint from sunrise to sunset, but despite his productivity, he faced his fair share of difficulties throughout his life. Both of his wives and two of his children died. At the age of 50, he was struck by lightning. In his 60s, he suffered a stroke that would force him to relearn his art. Hokusai was also forced to pay his grandson’s gambling debts, which would place financial strain on the artist for the rest of his life.  

In 1839, a fire destroyed his studio and much of his work. By this time, his career was beginning to fade as younger artists such as Andō Hiroshige became increasingly popular.

But it was these hardships that would influence Hokusai and spark his incredible creativity.

At the age of 83, Hokusai traveled to Obuse in Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture) at the invitation of a wealthy farmer where he stayed for several years. During his time there, he created several masterpieces, included the Masculine Wave and the Feminine Wave. 

Oi was a talented artist in her own right, and while not a large number of her works still exist, she is known for her liberal use of color, which was not common in those days. 

The Masculine Wave 


The Feminine Wave

Hokusai continued working almost until the end, painting The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji and Tiger in the Snow in early 1849.

  Old Tiger in the Snow c. 1849

Hokusai did not live to see the great influence he had on the Impressionist Art Movement, as he died on 10 May 1849, just a few years before the end of the Sakoku.  On 1 April, 1867, when the Exposition Universelle opened on the Champ de Mars, the massive Paris marching grounds that now lies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, it featured, for the first time, a Japanese pavilion – and its showcase of ukiyo-e prints revealed the depth of Japanese printmaking to French artists for the first time.

Claude Monet attended this expo, and soon enough he had acquired 250 Japanese prints, including 23 by Hokusai, which covered the walls of his house in Giverny in the north of France. Monet’s series of grainstacks and poplars, of Rouen Cathedral and Waterloo Bridge, owe a great deal to Hokusai’s earlier experiments of depicting a single subject over dozens of images. The influence ran from Monet’s art into his life. His wife wore a kimono around the house. His garden at Giverny is modeled directly after a Japanese print, right down to the arcing bridge and bamboo.


Camille Monet in Kimono by Claude Monet and Monet’s Garden with Japanese Bridge in Giverny 

It has also been argued that one of the great masterpieces of 19th-century western art was loosely inspired by one of the greats of 19th-century Japanese art – Martin Bailey, a specialist on Vincent van Gogh, believes that the Dutch artist drew inspiration from Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa when he painted one of his most dazzling and celebrated works, The Starry Night.  In one letter to his brother Theo, he said:  “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”


Side by side, it’s hard to not see the similarities. In the Hokusai the wave towers over the volcanic peak of Mount Fuji, Bailey said. In the Van Gogh, “the swirling mass in the sky hurtles towards the more gentle slopes of Les Alpilles”.

​So whenever you look at works from the great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists from the end of the 19th century, keep your eye out for those little touches of Japanese influence.  They're a lot more common than you would have ever thought.