Katsushika Hokusai – The Japanese master of print

Katsushika Hokusai portrait

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Japan * 1760-1849


Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 and started drawing at the age of six, according to his own words. His early life was spent in the Honjo district on the bank of the Sumida river, Japan – among artisans and craftspeople. In his mid-teens he became an apprentice of a woodblock cutter and helped making blocks for a book on the town’s pleasure quarters. The kabuki theatre was his main source of inspiration when he was a pupil of Katsukawa Shunsho and took the artist’s name Shunro. However, the traditions of his master’s school were somewhat restrictive for a young artist who was curious and eager to learn.

In his late 30s he widened the subjects of his work and techniques by studying various Japanese and Chinese painting styles as well as venturing into European traditions. Landscapes would prove his perhaps favourite subjects. He would also develop literary connections as he produced illustrations for numerous books, albums and poetry. By the time he turned 40, he was known as Hokusai and Tokimasa, signalling a new era in his life. For the next decade, his work would become very popular and several commissions came his way. His subject range was wide, from the courtesans depicted in the  “Two Beauties” silk hanging scroll to the “Mythical Chinese lions” in ink and gold leaf on a paper folding screen, both drawn around 1801-04.  The next two decades would see a few more name changes as the artist continued to develop, highlighting his interest in common people and nature, interlacing them with the divine and myths.

Following his sixtieth birthday, Hokusai’s expertise and craft came into its own as he produced, under the name Manji, his master work “One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji”. In the “Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji” one finds gems such as Shichiragahama Beach in Sagami Province and Kajikazawa (Kai province), colour woodblocks dating from 1831.

Hokusai-Yoro Waterfall

Yoro waterfall in Mino province – Katsushika Hokusai (ca 1833)

The works reflect Hokusai’s lifelong fascination with water in all its shapes, whether as a waterfall, whirlpools or as waves breaking on the beach. He is best known for his work “Under the wave of Kanagawa”, also known as “The Great Wave”, the work at the centre stage of the exhibition held in the British Museum in June 2017. The colour woodblock print shows the force of nature as fishermen battle the waves off Kanagawa coast. The print also introduces the more widespread use of Prussian blue, which became available from China in larger quantities than before, and complemented the ever present indigo, more traditionally used in Japanese printing.

In “Shokoku taki-meguri”, he takes a tour of waterfalls, producing several beautiful prints of waterfalls and surrounding landscapes at around 1833. Yoro waterfall in Mino province plunges of a height in sharp, straight lines while the Kurifuri waterfall tumbles down Mt Kurokami  in more gentle, curved and splitting lines as it finds its way down the rocky outcrops.

One year later, his attention would shift to prints of birds and flowers, resulting in works such as “Weeping cherry and bullfinch” – a subject he would revisit a decade later as he produces “Eagle and cherry”. The year 1834 would also see his last name change into Manji, which would remain with him until his death in 1849. In the late 1830s his connections with poetry would be further developed as he prints “Poet Ise” amongst other similar pieces.

While producing work to well into his eighties, Hokusai’s life was not without hardship. Famine struck Edo State in 1837 and he would see his house burn down two years later, destroying much of his possessions although not his painting brushes. The last decade of his life was spent in relative poverty and while still drawing and painting, his time ran out in 1849.