Updated: Jul 14
[Hokusai, Katsushika. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), 1830 – 31, Woodblock print (nishiki-e) and ink and color on paper.]
With a life and career that certainly “made waves” in history even beyond his death, Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most widely recognized and celebrated Japanese artists today. He was born in 1760 in the city of Edo, now modern-day Tokyo. His childhood name was Kawamura Tokitarō and he began drawing at the age of six. It was not until his late teens that he became an apprentice to Katsukawa Shunshō, a successful ukiyo-e artist who specialized in bijin-ga, art of beautiful women, and actors on stage (“A Timeline”). During this period, Hokusai began to sign his works as Shunrō and it is said that he used over thirty artist names throughout his career spanning seven decades.
The works produced in his extensive career encompassed a great variety of subjects and
themes. Hokusai is said to have worked with frenetic energy and is thought to have produced 30,000 artworks over the course of his lifetime (“10 Things to Know”). His art included, but was not limited to depictions of landscapes, nature such as flowers and birds, the supernatural, and mythological figures. Not only did he work in ukiyo-e, mostly woodblock prints of the “floating world” (a term used to refer to urban lifestyle), he also produced paintings, sketches and many book illustrations.
However, it is The Great Wave off Kanagawa from the series Thirty-six views of Mount
Fuji that is one of his most renowned works. The series, produced from 1830-32, saw the
addition of The Great Wave in 1831 when Hokusai was in his 70's. The woodblock print depicts express fish-delivery boats threatened by a rogue wave in the vicinity of Yokohama (Thompson, “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” 82). Though attention is pulled toward the wave, a snow-capped Mount Fuji rests at the print’s the center. It was among the first prints in Japan to use Prussian blue, a new synthetic pigment that resisted fading, imported from China and the Netherlands, the only countries Japan traded with in the 1830s due to self-isolation (“The Great Wave: Spot the Difference”). This pigment was also used in his work titled Kajikazawa in Kai Province of the same series.
[Hokusai, Katsushika. Self-portrait in the age of an old man, 1843, Ink and color on paper.]
Hokusai passed away in 1849, not long before Japan opened its ports to expanded
international trade. At the time of his death, he was living with and was supported by his daughter Eijo (also known as Ei or Ōi), a talented artist herself, and his last words were recorded as follows: ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years…’ then, after a pause, ‘If heaven will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll manage to become a true artist (”Hokusai: Old Master”).’ He was buried shortly after. In an interview recorded in the first important biography of Hokusai titled Katsushika Hokusai den by Iijima Kyoshin in 1893, Yomo no Umehiko, a playwright, recalled that Hokusai’s pupils and old friends contributed funds for a funeral with a modest coffin and about a hundred mourners, including samurai with retainers carrying spears and lacquered traveling boxes, proceeded to the mortuary temple Seikyōji where his grave is still carefully maintained today (”Hokusai: Old Master”). Located not far from Ueno station, alongside his grave are a bronze statue of the artist with a monument commemorating him.
Even with his death more than a century ago, the work of Hokusai has been marveled
across the globe. The first exhibition of his work anywhere in the world was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1892-93 titled Hokusai and His School (Thompson, “Hokusai” 7). In a “To the Editor of the Transcript” published 1892 in the Boston Evening Transcript (1830-1941), a visitor of the exhibit writes of Hokusai’s work, “There is a quality in his painting that comes nearer the profound grace of the Greeks than anything I recall in modern European art (Cobb, 4).” Other exhibitions at the MFA of his work include one in 2015 titled simply as Hokusai and the most recent titled Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence. As the Inspiration and Influence exhibit shows, in his lifetime and certainly after, Hokusai’s work has transcended time and space to be celebrated around the world and will continue for centuries to come.
Selected Notable Series
A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces
Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road
One Hundred Ghost Stories
See these series and other works by Hokusai on the MFA Online Collections website:
[as suggested by Sarah E. Thompson, Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA]
Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (2015) by Christine M. E. Guth
Hokusai: Genius of the Japanese Ukiyo-e (1995) by Seiji Nagata (trans. John Bester)
Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything (2021) by Timothy Clark
The Printmaker’s Daughter (2011) by Katherine Govier
Seikyōji Temple in Tokyo: https://tesshow.jp/taito/temple_basa_seikyo.html
Hokusai Museum in Obuse: https://hokusai-kan.com/en/
“10 Things to Know about Hokusai.” Christies, 26 May 2023,
“A Timeline of Japanese Artist Katsushika Hokusai.” The British Museum,
Cobb, Cyrus. “Hokusai’s Pictures.” Boston Evening Transcript, 14 Sept. 1892, p. 4.
da Silva, José. “An Expert’s Guide to Hokusai: Four Must-Read Books on the Japanese
Artist.” The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper - International art news and events, 7 Mar.
“Hokusai: Old Master.” The British Museum,
“The Great Wave: Spot the Difference.” The British Museum,
Thompson, Sarah E. Hokusai. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2015.
Thompson, Sarah E. Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2023.