The works of legendary Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai are being celebrated nearly 170 years after his death with the release of Hokusai: The Master’s Legacy (Skira). Here are 7 facts you might not know about the creator of The Great Wave.
1. He didn’t start his most important works until his 60th birthday
Clear day with the south wind (or Fuji Rosso), from the series Trentasei views of the mountain Fuji, approximately 1830-1832 Polychrome woodcut Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum
Although he began his artistry at a very young age—creating his first paintings at six-years-old—it wasn’t until later in life that Hokusai’s style flourished.
The artist was prolific throughout his life, producing over 30,000 works before his death in 1849, but it was his later years that proved the most productive.
"Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter"
A combination of personal tragedies, from fits of paralysis through to the death of his second wife, had left him in financial trouble. Hokusai channeled all his energy into his work and it was in this period that he began his most famous works, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.
When his seventies began, he took the name Gakyō Rōjin Manji, which translates as “The Old Man Mad About Art”.
2. …But he thought he would produce his best art aged 110
“Portrait of Hokusai” by Keisai Eisen via Wikimedia Commons
In a postscript to his Mount Fuji series, Hokusai wrote:
“From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of 50 I have published many drawings, yet of all, I drew by my 70th year there is nothing worth taking into account. At 73 years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at 86 I shall progress further; at 90 I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by 100 I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am 110, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.”
When he died, aged 88, he allegedly exclaimed with his dying breath:
"If only heaven will give me just another 10 years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."
3. He was known by at least 30 names during his lifetime
View of the sunset at the Ryogoku bridge from the shore of the Onmaya jetty, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1832 Polychrome woodcut Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum
It was customary in Hokusai’s time for Japanese artists to change their name with different periods of their artistry, and he was no exception, changing his moniker an impressive 30 times during his long career.
His childhood name was Tokitarō, meaning “big son” and he was given his first new name by Katsukawa Shunshō, a renowned artist who took Hokusai on as an apprentice. He dubbed him Shunrō which translates as “spring brilliance”.
Hokusai’s name changes outnumber any other major Japanese artist.
4. He drew inspiration from a mean master
Fuji from Gotenyama at Shinagawa on Tōkaidō, from the series Thirty-Six Views of the mountain Fuji, approximately 1830-1832 Polychrome woodcut Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum
Despite taking his first moniker from him, Hokusai didn’t always get along with his teacher, Katsukawa Shunshō.
In fact, he was expelled from Shunshō’s school in 1793, but far from finding this a setback, he described the moment as inspirational.
"When I am 110, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own"
“What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō's hands.”
Before his expulsion, Hokusai had faced controversy by allowing his work to be influenced by western art—particularly Dutch and French copper engravings—but now he was free to pursue his influences, and his style flourished as a result.
5. He was a master of marketing
Hokusai. Chicken Feet Screen Shot courtesy of More2Screen
Hokusai was gifted when it came to cultivating his own hype, often through controversial public displays of his artistic prowess.
One story claims that one act of self-promotion saw him arrive in the court of Shogun lenari, challenged to compete with a more traditional artist. Instead of the traditional brush stroke styles of his competitor, Hokusai painted a long blue curve on a piece of paper, dipped a chicken’s feet in red paint, and then chased it across the canvas.
When asked to describe his work, he explained that it was a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with red maple leaves floating on its surface—a smart riff on a popular muse for traditional Japanese artists. He won the contest with ease.
6. He also created erotic art
Momongawa from the series: Aspects of style modern, around 1830-1844 Polychrome woodcut, 37.3 × 24.4 cm Chiba City Museum of Art
Known as shunga (“spring pictures”), the type of woodblock-printed erotica created by Hokusai was common at the time and enjoyed by Japanese people of all classes and genders.
His most famous work of shunga, The Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife, depicts a sexual encounter between a young woman and an octopus. The piece has influenced several later artists, including Pablo Picasso, who created his own version in 1903.
"Hokusai was working during the Edo period, which had a playful spirit"
Says Timothy Clark of the British Museum, who curated an exhibition in 2013 entitled Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, “Today shunga gets treated like obscene pornography… but this is sexually explicit art, not pornography, produced to exactly the same technical perfection as art in other formats by the same people."
"Hokusai was working during the Edo period, which had a playful spirit, and the octopus story comes from an ancient tale about a diver woman who stole a jewel from the Dragon King’s palace at the bottom of the sea. Hokusai was expecting a comic response. A lot of the scenarios in shunga are preposterous—there’s fantasy at work."
7. The BBC dubbed “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” the world’s first viral image
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Approximately 1830-1832 Polychrome woodcut Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum
As the most reproduced image on the planet, Hokusai's Great Wave is an artwork people are familiar with the world over, and journalist Helen Nianias highlighted the print’abilityty to “transcend language and culture.”
“You can argue that without Hokusai’s Great Wave, modern art would have looked different. This strikes me as being quite similar to a viral image today, in that it became part of common culture—as soon as you refer to it or use it directly in your own work, people know what you’re talking about and what mood you’re trying to evoke.”
Hokusai: The Master’s Legacy, £40, is published by Skira Editore