Hokusai Biography

Few artists left as great an imprint on a school of art as did Katsushika Hokusai on the realm of ukiyo-e. His influence extended far beyond Japan and there are few areas of the world where in cultured circles his name is not known. It is rather strange that this basically modest man who was devoted to naught but his art should have achieved such fame. In the Western world he came to light partially through a fortunate set of circumstances, for legend reports that pages of his illustrated books were used as wrapping paper and packing around crockery  
shipped to France. Paris, the center of the Western art movement, was in the throes of great artistic change and Hokusai's handsome and deft designs were snatched upon by the renegade artists because of their curiosity and aesthetic appeal. This was, however, almost fifty years after his death. Yet there never seems to have been any lack of demand in Japan for his work during his lifetime. He was not a man of means, but a man married to his art. Thus, his use of the signature Gakyo Rojin (The Old Man Mad about Painting) is truly applicable. Hokusai did quantities of book illustrations, prints, sketches, and paintings. His brush was filled with life and his work remains as alive today as when it was first created. It has survived the test of time. As has so often been the case, nsufficient biographical data exists about Hokusai, though scholars such as Professor Muneshige Narazaki, Jack Hillier, and others have tried to untangle the twisted skein that holds the thread of his life. Confusion even exists at  
the present moment as to his parentage. Hayashi Yoshikazu in an article titled "Hokusai no chichi wa Nakajima Ise" (Hokusai's father was Nakajima Ise), published in Ukiyo-e Geijutsu (Ukiyo-e Art), No. 17, Tokyo, 1968, pp. 14-22, dismisses the story that he was born of the Kawamura family and adopted into that of the mirror maker Nakajima Ise. The facts are not yet thoroughly substantiated; however, we do know that Hokusai was born during the ninth month of 1760, supposedly in Honjo, Warigesui, which formerly was a part of Shimosa Province,  
Katsushika Gun (County). It is from this last name that Hokusai borrowed his studio name. As a child he was called Tokitaro and later Tetsuzo and as son or adopted son dwelt in the household of the mirror maker Nakajima Ise. While in this household Hokusai was quite obviously exposed to craftsmanship and this prepared him for his career, for at fourteen he was apprenticed to an engraver of wood blocks. At approximately eighteen, in 1778, Hokusai entered the studio of Shunsho and was given the name Katsukawa Shunro. This fact raises one of the frustrating problems in studying Hokusai, for he constantly changed his name as well as his residence. Estimates  
include fifty names or combinations and ninety residences. After a few years in Shunsho's studio, Hokusai moved on to study the techniques of the Kano and other schools. This occurred about 1785; some scholars feel it was the result of a conflict with Shunko. He later used the name Sori  and even investigated the artistic style of the  
Rimpa school of painting. It actually was not until 1799 that he seems to have adopted the Hokusai name alone, and it appears first in a book titled Azuma Asobi (On the Town). In 1804 and 1817 he executed colossal paintings of Daruma in Edo and Nagoya. He even entered a painting competition with the popular artist Tani Buncho (1764-1840) and is said to have startled the viewers by creating a composition of red hen tracks on a broad blue line and  
titling it Maple Leaves Floating on the Tatsuta River. Hokusai's creative ability and originality were great. In 1811, at the age of fifty, he commenced using another of his favorite names, Taito. During this same period he quarreled with Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848) whose books he had often illustrated, and a few years later in 1818 he traveled to Osaka and Kyoto; through the aid of Buncho he survived what ommenced as a disastrous trip. When sixty-nine  
years old Hokusai became chronically ill with palsy; however, following Chinese medical advice he cured himself. It was shortly after this period that he was severely plagued with a cause of great sorrow, his grandson. The young man was, constantly in debt and Hokusai repeatedly bailed him out. The stories of Hokusai's life are too many to include here. He brought freshness to the wood-block print in the form of landscape and humor through his Mango. (Cartoons ). We know Hokusai principally through the prints executed later in his life when he used the GakyoRojin, Zen Hokusai, litsu, and Manji signatures. He loved Mount Fuji and it stars in his great master-  
piece Fugaku Hyakkei (One Hundred Views of Fuji). For that matter, Hokusai loved all life—every blade of grass or change of atmosphere, mood, or expression was dear to him. He died on the eighteenth day of the fourth month of 1849. It is fancifully reported that shortly before his death he composed a letter. His character is reflected in it for it is said to have read:  "King Emma "Yama, who is the Buddhist ruler ofHell] being very old is retiring from business, and he has built a fine country home and has asked me to go and paint a kakemono for him. I am obliged to leave and, when I go, I shall carry my drawings with me. I am going to take a room at a corner of Hell  
Street and shall be happy to see you whenever you pass that way.  Ref: Stern, Harold, Master Prints of Japan, 1969.