Editorial Feature

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Katsushika Hokusai

Learn some top trivia about the renowned ukiyo-e painter

Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist and ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’, ukiyo-e artists made woodblock prints depicting popular subjects – from kabuki actors to sumo wrestlers, female beauties and famous landscapes.

During his career Hokusai revolutionized this style with his own take on the genre. He is best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes the iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Hokusai's work is internationally recognized but little is actually known about the artist himself. Here we take a look at the man behind the woodblocks with 10 interesting facts.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Tokyo National Museum)

1. He was an apprentice wood carver at 14

Hokusai started painting at a young age and was quoted as saying that from 6 years old he was “in the habit of sketching things I saw around me”. In 18th-century Japan, reading books made from woodcut blocks was a popular form of entertainment. So at 14, the artist became an apprentice to a wood carver and was later accepted into the studio of esteemed painter and printmaker Katsukawa Shunsho.

Rainstorm Beneath the Summit by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of British Museum)

2. Hokusai was expelled from the school that trained him

When Katsukawa Shunsho died, Hokusai remained at the school Shunsho had established and the artist began working under Shunsho’s chief disciple Shunko. During this period, Hokusai began to explore other styles of art, and became influenced by French and Dutch engravings that were smuggled into the country during a time when contact with Western culture was forbidden. His woodblocks began to incorporate elements of the coloring and perspective he’d seen in Western work, completely revolutionizing the ukiyo-e art style.

When Shunko realized what was happening, he expelled Hokusai from the Katsukawa school. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style, was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunko’s hands,” Hokusai later reflected.

Bishu Fujimigahara, one of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University)

3. Hokusai changed his name a lot

While is was not uncommon for Japanese artists to change their names, Hokusai was known by at least 30 different names during his lifetime - more than any other artist of his era. He first published a series of work in 1779, which were released under the name Shunro, given by his first master Shunsho. Later in life he referred to himself as Gakyo rojin manji (The Old Man Mad About Art). His names were often used to identify different styles and periods of production.

Two Ladies with a Telescope, from Seven Habits of Grace and Disgrace by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Kobe City Museum)

4. He was the first artist to use the term 'Manga'

The word manga roughly means random drawings, and the term is now more commonly associated with a type of Japanese comic that conforms to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century.

In 1811 at age 51, Hokusai created the Hokusai Manga, which contained amusing images for his students and other aspiring artists to copy. It became a best-seller and one of the earliest recorded uses of the term manga, though aesthetically is quite different to the modern equivalent.

The Kirifuri Waterfall at Mt Kurokami by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

5. The artist reached the height of his career at 60

Hokusai’s most important and most well-known work was produced after he reached 60. At the time he was creating woodblock prints of various subjects including waterfalls, bridges, birds and flowers. His largest work was a set of 4,000 sketches in 14 volumes, published in 1814.

The Hundred Poems Print by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site)

6. He had planned to live to 110 years old

Hokusai was convinced he would see his best work when he reached 110 years old. He fully embraced old age and had big plans for each milestone after 50. “When I am 80 you will see real progress,” he said. “At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous 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.”

Unfortunately he didn’t see 110 and passed away aged 88. On his deathbed, he apparently said: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter”.

Interior of a Brothel in Yoshiwara by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Kobe City Museum)

7. He created over 30,000 artworks

Hokusai threw himself into his work and supposedly worked with a fast-paced energy, rising early to paint and continuing late into the night. The artist is said to have produced 30,000 artworks, including paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, picture books and even some saucy erotic illustrations. Unfortunately much of this output and his studio were destroyed in a fire in 1839.

Senju in Musashi Province by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields)

8. There’s more than 36 prints in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Hokusai’s most known body of work and his masterpiece, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, was completed between 1826 and 1833. Despite the title, it is actually 46 prints showing Mount Fuji in different seasons and weather conditions.

Fine Wind, Clear Morning from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Yamatane Museum of Art)

9. Hokusai followed the Nichiren school of Buddhism

The Nichiren school was a sect who believed that Mount Fuji was associated with eternal life. The legend was that the secret of eternal life was placed on it peak. Hokusai adopted these beliefs into his own philosophy, and it is said his representations of Mount Fuji are related to religious symbolism.

Another time his religion worked it's way into his work was in 1804, during a festival in Tokyo. He created a portrait of the Buddhist priest Daruma, measuring 180m (600ft) in length, using a broom and buckets of ink.

Fukagawa from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Royal Ontario Museum)

10. His daughter was also an artist

Hokusai was married twice in his life and he fathered two sons and three daughters. His youngest daughter Ei, also known as Ōi, eventually became an artist in her own right, having assisted her father in the production of his own prints. Ei’s life is immortalized in the manga series and anime film Miss Hokusai

Okitsu by Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Indianaopolis Museum of Art at Newfields)
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