Katsushika Hokusai was born in Edo, what is now Tokyo, in 1760. Back in the seventeenth century in Japan, a new group of artists began producing ukiyo-e, which means “scenes from the floating world" (everyday life). At age 15 Hokusai began as an apprentice as a woodcut engraver. His teacher was a ukiyo-e master painter, Katsukawa Shunsho, who taught him to paint actors. Soon Hokusai prints of kabuki actors were published and he became one of the most popular of these artists who depicted people in everyday activities.

Between 1796 and 1802 he produced a vast number of book illustrations and color prints, perhaps as many as 30,000, that drew their inspiration from the traditions, legends, and lives of the Japanese people. Hokusia developed an eclectic style and achieved success with surimono prints ("printed things" for special occasions, such as cards and announcements), picture books and novelettes, album prints, paintings, and ink sketches. He experimented with Western-style perspective and coloring and later concentrated on samurai themes and Chinese subjects.

He worked with a driving energy and was quite a showman. He once made a picture that was so enormous that it could only be seen from rooftops. Then he painted two sparrows on a single grain of rice! He had numerous followers, though none had his power or versatility.

Hokusai used forty to fifty different names during his lifetime, since a Japanese artist was allowed to use a new name every time a social position or style of work changed. He married two times and had five children. In his later years, he and a daughter, who was also an artist, lived together. When he was 72 years old his house burned and many of his notes and drawings were destroyed.

In his late works Hokusai used large, broken strokes and a method of coloring that imparted a more somber mood to his work. Hokusai said that from the time he was 6 years old he had a “mania for drawing” and at 73 he felt he had learned “a little” about structure of nature. He thought that by the time he reached 89 he would have made some progress, and by the time he reached 110 “everything I do…will be alive.” However he died in 1849, at the age of 89, saying that if heaven would give him 10 more years he would become a real painter. The last name that he used on his painting was “An Old Man Mad About Art”.

THE GREAT WAVE (In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa) - This magnificent and powerful wave is a woodcut print. The wave’s whitecaps curve up and over and numerous finger-like curls pointing downward to the slender boats below with their tiny terrified occupants. The eye is led to snow-capped Mt. Fuji, Japan’s mountain, low and distant behind the turbulent ocean. The waves are firmly yet gentle, outlined in black with dark and light contrasts of color, adding drama to the event. 

It was through these inexpensive woodcuts that Europeans and Americans came to be familiar with Japanese art, as prior to the 1600’s, painting was the primary means of expression in the Far East.


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