The Great Waves of Hokusai

March 4, 2021
“People Crossing an Arched Bridge” by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1830-1841
“Courtesan asleep” by Katsushika Hokusai, 1800

For a guy who went by at least 30 names and called 93 places home over the course of his lifetime, Katsushika Hokusai sure knew how to make a lasting image. The Great Wave has swept across the centuries with enduring velocity and is only one of some 30 thousand artworks by this weird and wonderful Edo period prodigy.

“A woman ghost appeared from a well” by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: wikiart

While the use of multiple names was a popular practice among Japanese artists of the period, the number of names he used greatly exceeds those of any other prominent Japanese artist. Hokusai’s constant name changes are so frequent and often linked to the changes in his artistic output and style, that it would be easier to break them up based on the different periods of his life into cycles.

Cranes from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: wikiart

If he had died when he was struck by lightning at the age of 50 in 1810, he would’ve been remembered as a prominent ukiyo-e painter, but maybe not the famous artist we know of today. It was only in his 70s that he rendered his most renowned print sequence, Mount Fuji’s Thirty-Six Views, including the iconic Great Wave, a picture that has subsequently swept around the world.

At the age of 12, he began working at a bookshop and lending library, a widely common institution in Japanese cities at the time, where reading books made of wood blocks was a popular means of recreation for the privileged classes.  At the age of 14, he became a wood-carver apprentice, at which he trained up until the age of 18 when he was accepted to the Katsukawa Shunshō studio. Shunshō was a ukiyo-e artist, a style of wooden block prints drawings that Hokusai would master, and eventually become the head of the Katsukawa School. As practiced by artists like Shunshō, Ukiyo-e was based on representations of courtesans and Kabuki performers who were common throughout Japanese cities at the time.

“Shore of Tago Bay, Ejiri at Tokaido” by Katsushika Hokusai, 1832 | Source: Wikiart

Within a year, Hokusai’s name had changed for the first time, when he was called Shunrō by his master. It was under this name that he produced his first prints, a series of images of Kabuki actors, released in 1779. During his time at Shunshō’s studio, Hokusai married his first wife, of whom little has been documented except that she died some time in the early 1790s. His second marriage ended in tragedy as well as his second wife deceased sometime in 1797.

After Shunshō died in 1793, He began studying other art styles, including European styles, which he had been introduced to through French and Dutch copper engravings. He was soon dismissed from the Katsukawa school by Shunkō, Shunshō’s main pupil, presumably due to studies at the rival Kanō school, rejected by the very school that had trained him. Surprisingly enough, he found this incident to be inspirational.

“Matsuri Yatai Phoenix” by Hokusai | Source: Wikimedia
“Dragon” by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: Wikimedia
“Feminine Wave” Katsushika Hokusai | Source: Wikimedia
“Masculine Wave” Katsushika Hokusai | Source: Wikimedia








“What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”



“Bridge in the Clouds” by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: wikiart

He later adopted new subjects to his work, shifting from the illustrations of courtesans and actors who were the typical focuses of the ukiyo-e. Instead, he decided to branch out and incorporate the visual landscapes and photographs of Japanese people’s everyday lives from all social standings. This change of perspective as an artist was a breakthrough in the Ukiyo-e, setting the path to Hokusai’s legacy.

“Fly-fishing (Kabari-nagashi) from the series Oceans of Wisdom” by Katsushika Hokusai

By 1800, he had further refined his ukiyo-e and expanded his art style. He had also taken the name Katsushika Hokusai, a name he would later become to be widely known by, referring to the region of Edo where he was born while the latter part meant ‘North Studio’. In the same year, he published two sets of landscapes, Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo.


“A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” by Hokusai | Source: Wikiart
Kakinomoto No Hitomaro From The Series ‘Hyakunin Isshu Ubaga Etoki’ by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: wikimedia

Over the next decade, he became increasingly popular, both because of his artwork and his talent for self-promotion. In 1811, he became of an age during which, he produced the Hokusai Manga and several etehon or art manuscripts. The etehons contained short lessons and graphical illustrations in the form of instruction manuals, making it a quick way to earn money and at the same time, attract disciples. Much of his manga and sketches that influenced modern-day comics were all published during 1814-1820. These mangas included illustrations of animals, religious deities as well as the common folk he saw around him, often carrying humorous undertones. He was the first artist to use the term ‘Manga’.

“Suspension Bridge on the Border of Hida and Etchu Provinces” by Katsushika Hokusai

The 1820s marked the beginning of his recognition all over Japan, given that Japan’s isolation from the outside world prevented him from acquiring fame across the globe, at least up until his death. It was during this time when he created his most iconic work, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or simply known as The Great Wave. Some of his other notable paintings of this time include A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Province. He even, at one point, began producing highly detailed images of flora-fauna, birds, mythological creatures, and even a flock of chickens.

Later during 1834, we saw him working under the alias of “Gakyō Rōjin Manji”; which roughly translates to The Old Man Mad About Art. It was his madness for depicting the surroundings that drove him to create the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. There is indeed a spirit of crazy comprehensiveness to One Hundred Views, all the mad invention, and curiosity of the manga combined with the exquisite technique of the Thirty-Six Views. Hokusai’s rarely exhibited paintings, especially the giant hanging scrolls on silk and paper show us a rather different perspective of his art style where the themes are quite phenomenal, to say the least.

He spent his life anticipating old age. He once commented while discussing his life:

Rider in the Snow Painted by Katsushika Hokusai
Cranes on a Snowy PinePainted by Katsushika Hokusai

“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.”

“Plum blossom and the moon” by Katsushika Hokusai, 1803

Yes, he wanted to live 110 years. But fate had something else written for this great artist as never got to see whether his prediction held. On May 10th, 1849 he died at the age of 88, apparently exclaiming on his deathbed,

“If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

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