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Katsuhika Hokusai: The Face of Edo

Updated on December 15, 2013
A self-portrait of Hokusai in ukiyo-e.
A self-portrait of Hokusai in ukiyo-e. | Source
Katsukawa's self portrait at the school.
Katsukawa's self portrait at the school. | Source

Early Life

On October (some sources say November) 1760, a child named Tokitarō was born in the Katsuhika district of Edo, Japan to a family of artisans. In the future, Edo would become the city of Tokyo. The child would also become something great, an extremely influential artist best known by the name Katsuhika Hokusai. One may say “best known as” due to the fact that Hokusai went by “at least 30 different names during his lifetime”. While the practice of having multiple names was extremely common amongst Japanese artists during the era, Hokusai sets the record, having a “number of names that far exceed that of any other major Japanese artist”. No matter what name he is called or known by, Hokusai is always going to be responsible for changing the way the art of Japanese wood-block printing is viewed. He is also an inspiration to artists throughout all cultures and time periods.

The father of Hokusai is said to be Nakajima Ise, a famous mirror-maker who produced his craft for the shogun. The shogun were the rulers of Japan during that span of time, called the “Tokugawa” or “Edo” period, which lasted roughly from 1615 to 1865. It is thought that Ise is the one who first taught Hokusai, then, a six year old Tokitarō, painting, as that knowledge would have been necessary in the process of mirror decoration. Despite this, Ise never made his son an heir. This is most likely due to the possibility that his mother was a concubine. At twelve, he worked in a bookshop, where he may have been influenced by the illustrations in books printed by wood-block. Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen he was a wood-carver's apprentice, where he gained an even greater appreciation for the craft of wood-block printing in entirety. Finally, when he was eighteen, he was “accepted into the studio of Katukawa Shunshō, head of the Katsukawa School”. This would be a pivotal moment in his life, in which two major changes occurred. The first was his very first name change, in which he went from Tokitarō to Shunrō. The second was that he began to fully practice the art of ukiyo-e.

The Process of Ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e, which translates into the English language as “pictures of the floating world”, is just one of many mediums in the art and craft of printmaking. It is a “sub-genre” of wood-block printmaking as a whole, which wholly concentrates upon printing for mass production. Specifically, ukiyo-e prints would have been used in “ehon”, which are picture books. As far as the technique itself, it relies on the “collaborative effort of four highly-skilled individuals”, each having equal responsibility. There is the publisher, who is in charge of “coordinating the efforts of the specialized artisans and marking the artworks”. There is the artist, who designs the artworks with ink and paper. There is the carver, who carves the design into a series of wood-blocks, averaging ten to sixteen. Last, but most certainly not least, there is the printer, who “applies pigments to the wood-blocks and prints each color on handmade paper”.

Social Art

Ukiyo-e was developed in the home of Hokusai, Edo, during the Tokugawa period. It is during this time that the ruling shoguns, while ruling in a way that was “relatively peaceful”, created a social hierarchy in which the merchants, the wealthiest segments of the population, were placed at the lower end of the social scale. However, the merchant class could compete “on an equal basis” with the upper classes, which consisted mostly of warriors, farmers, and artisans. The “arenas of art and culture” were not dominated by a single class in the social hierarchy of the Tokugawa Period. However, ukiyo-e was still somewhat considered to be a “low” art for the non-elite. This may have been due to the fact that a majority of the subject matters of these art works consisted of things considered “inaccessible” to this “lower” class, the prints typically depicting portraiture in the likenesses of courtesans and Kabuki actors. While studying under Katsukawa Shunshō at his school in 1779, Hokusai would also publish a series of prints depicting Kabuki actors. However, he would later be one of the artists responsible for making ukiyo-e accessible to all levels by depicting more universal subjects such as natural landscapes, as well as “images of daily life at a variety of social levels”.

Fuji from the Platform of Sasayedo
Fuji from the Platform of Sasayedo | Source


During his time of study at the Katsukawa School, Hokusai would marry his first wife, but very little is known about this woman, except that she died in the “early 1790s”. Hokusai would marry again in 1797, though this wife would also die after a short time. Between these two wives, he would have five children, 2 sons and three daughters. His youngest daughter, Oyei, would grow up to be an artist like her father.



After a time, Hokusai would move from the Katsukawa School and begin to associate himself with the Tawaraya School. Due to this association, he would change his name for a second time, Tawaraya Sōri. Here, he would produce various illustrations and brush paintings for “surimono”. Surimono, which translates from Japanese into English as “printed thing” is another type of wood-block printing, but it differs widely from ukiyo-e in that it is not made for wide distribution. It came into being in the 1760’s. Surimono pieces were fairly small in size, the most common dimension being 19 by 21.5. Commonly, surimono would contain depictions of “historical events, scenes from nature, still-life, and kabuki actors, which were commonly paired with lined of “kyoka” poetry.

Typically, these surimono pieces were never sold to the general public. Instead, they were privately published, used for gifts or making announcements. However, due to the small size and not being created with economic efficiency in mind, artists could use the finest papers and pigments. Furthermore, only the best craftsmen carved the wood-blocks for these prints and the best artists did the brushwork. What can be inferred from this statement is that Hokusai, who was creating the brushwork for surimono works as Tawaraya Sōri, was extremely skilled.

North Studio

In 1789, Hokusai left school ties for the first time and began to produce work as an independent artist and change his name to Hokusai Tomisa. Though he was independent from schools already established, he would still attract students of his own and teach 50 pupils over the course of his lifetime. In 1800, he would begin his innovation of the world of ukiyo-e by using it for purposes other than portraiture. He would change his name for a fourth time to Katsuhika Hokusai, which is the most famous name he is known by, that same year. The meaning of this name in English, from Japanese, is that Katsuhika represents the part of Edo where he was born, while Hokusai means “north studio”.

Artistic Differences

In 1807, Hokusai collaborated with the novelist, Takizawa Bakin on a series of illustrated books. However, the two did not get along due to “artistic differences”. Their collaboration ended on the fourth book. However, the publisher wanted to keep Hokusai instead of Bakin. This was due to the importance of illustrations in printed works.

The Hokusai Manga

In 1811, Hokusai changed his name to Taito. In 1812, he worked on various art murals called “etehon”. Then, in 1814, he worked on the Hokusai Manga. The Hokusai Manga was a 12 volume work filled with humorous sketches and caricatures. These were depictions of animals, religious figures, and everyday people. The Hokusai Manga, as the name implies, may have served as the inspiration for modern Japanese comics. This “manga” is not story driven, however. There is still a concentration on motion in the pictures, which is an idea that is not only present, but essential in sequential art.

"Dance Instructions" from the Hokusai Manga
"Dance Instructions" from the Hokusai Manga | Source

The Great Wave

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name, once again, to Iitsu. This period of time would symbolize an even greater amount of fame throughout Japan for him. His overseas fame would not come until after his death, as Japan was still fairly isolated at that time. Between 1826 and 1833 Hokusai would create his most famous works, a series of prints entitled “36 Views of Mount Fuji”. The reason this series of prints is so famous is because it contains perhaps one of the most recognizable pieces in art history, “Great Wave off Kanagawa”. Also known as “Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa” or “The Great Wave at Kanagawa”, Hokusai worked on this famous picture from 1831 to 1833. The work is made from “polychrome ink and color on paper”. It is said to be the inspiration for “La Mer” by Claude Debussy and “Der Berg” by Rilke. It is an “inversion” of a traditional “meisho-e”, which translated, means “scene of a famous place”. This is because the famous place, Mount Fuji is in the background instead of the foreground. The work contains a scene of a “thundering seascape [and] three boats carrying fish from the southern islands of Edo”. During this time, Hokusai also worked on other prints, including “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” and “Unusual Views of the Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces”. He also worked on detailed individual images of flowers and birds, such as “Poppies and Flock of Chickens”.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa | Source

Old Man Mad About Art

In 1834, Hokusai would, once again, change his name, this time to “Gakyō Rōjin Manji”, which means “The Old Man Mad About Art”. During this time he would work on another significant landscape series, “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”. Sadly, in 1839, a fire destroyed his studio and much of his work. His career was also beginning to wane as younger artists, such as Andō Hiroshige, increased in popularity. However, Hokusai still continued to paint and finished “Ducks in a Stream” at the age of 87.

Flock of Chickens
Flock of Chickens | Source

A Real Painter

Hokusai died on April 18, 1849. On his deathbed, he exclaimed “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…Just another five more years then I could become a real painter”. This was from his constant desire to produce better work. However, his influence and legacy can be seen by the words of others. He will forever be known for his “sheer graphic beauty” and the
“compelling force” of his work.

Works Cited

Bull, David. "History of Surimono." Surimono Albums. N.p., 2003. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Hokusai, Katsushika. Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa (The Great Wave at Kanagawa). 1833. Polychrome ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Introduction - The Floating World of Ukiyo-e." The Floating World of Ukiyo-e. The Library of Congress, 27 July 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

"Katsushika Hokusai Biography." Katsushika Hokusai., 2002. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

"Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) ." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Ed. Teresa Lai. Heilbrunn Foundation, New Tamarind Foundation, Zodiac Fund, Oct. 2006. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thanks for the post! Hokusai's paintings are amazing... I found some beautiful paintings of Hokusai in Art Days, here is the link! Enjoy!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Hi there

      Picture of Hokusai is not it great!

      It has published a book of more than 100 years ago called “北斎圓式” in my site.

      Because it is without color woodblock, there is a good unique.

      If you are interested, please look!

    • LadyBolet profile imageAUTHOR

      J Ferro 

      4 years ago from Fl

      Thank you for the comment!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Very interesting hub my friend. I learned a lot from reading it. Thanks for sharing and I voted you up.


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