7 Things You Didn’t Know about Hokusai, Creator of The Great Wave

Abigail Cain
Oct 21, 2016 3:01PM

Although you may not know the name Katsushika Hokusai, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve seen at least one of his works: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (ca. 1830–32), more commonly known as The Great Wave. Arguably the most famous image in all of Japanese art, this iconic woodblock print depicts a huge, frothing wave as it crests over a distant Mount Fuji. Born in Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1760, the influential artist and printmaker led a life that was both intensely productive and undeniably eccentric. Here are seven things you probably don’t know about Hokusai.

1. He was originally destined for a career as a mirror polisher to the upper classes, not an artist.

At a young age, Hokusai was adopted by an uncle who held the prestigious position of mirror polisher in the household of the shogun, the commander-in-chief of feudal Japan. It was assumed that the young Hokusai would succeed him in the family business, and he likely received an excellent education in preparation for a job that would place him in direct contact with the upper class. In 19th-century Japan, learning to write also meant learning to draw, since the skills and materials required for either activity were almost identical.

When Hokusai’s formal education began at age six, he displayed an early artistic talent that would lead him down a new path. He began to separate himself from his uncle’s trade in his early teens—perhaps because of a personal argument, or perhaps because he believed polishable metal mirrors would soon be replaced by the silvered glass mirrors being imported by the Dutch—and worked first as a clerk at a lending library and then later as a woodblock carver. At age 19, Hokusai joined the studio of ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunshō and embarked on what would become a seven-decade-long career in art.


2. He relocated 93 times and changed his name 30 times.

Hokusai was never in one place for long. He found cleaning distasteful—instead, he allowed dirt and grime to build up in his studio until the place became unbearable and then simply moved out. All told, the artist changed residences 93 times throughout his life. Hokusai also had difficulty settling on a single moniker. Although changing one’s name was customary among Japanese artists at this time, Hokusai took the practice even further with a new noms d’artiste roughly each decade. Together with his numerous informal pseudonyms, the printmaker claimed more than 30 names in total. His tombstone bears his final name, Gakyo Rojin Manji, which translates to “Old Man Mad about Painting.”

3. He was a born showman and a savvy self-promoter.

As the story goes, Hokusai was once called before the shogun’s court to demonstrate his artistic talent. In response, he painted a long blue mark on a sheet of paper—then dipped a chicken’s feet in red paint and chased it across the image, creating a clever riff on the traditional motif of maple leaves floating on Japan’s Tatsuta River. Hokusai was also a savvy self-promoter, creating massive paintings in public with the help of his students. At a festival in Edo in 1804, he painted a 180-meter-long portrait of a Buddhist monk using a broom as a brush. Years later, he publicized his best-selling series of sketchbooks with a three-story-high work depicting the founder of Zen Buddhism.

Yakko-odori; Happy Dance, 1815-1865
Ronin Gallery

4. He also illustrated board games, drawing instruction books, paper lanterns, and cut-out dioramas.

Hokusai was one of the 19th century’s leading designers of toy prints—sheets of paper meant to be cut into pieces and then assembled into three-dimensional dioramas. He also made several board games, one of which depicted a pilgrim’s route between Edo and nearby religious sites. Consisting of several small landscape designs, it probably served as a precursor for his eventual masterpiece, the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (ca. 1830-32). He illustrated countless books of poetry and fiction, and even published his own how-to manuals for aspiring artists. One of these guides, titled Hokusai Manga (1814-19) and filled with drawings he originally made for his students to copy, became a best-seller that gave the artist his first taste of fame.

5. He began his most famous work at the age of 70.

Although Hokusai was prosperous in middle age, a series of setbacks—intermittent paralysis, the death of his second wife, and serious misconduct by his wayward grandson—left him in financial straits in his later years. In response, the elderly artist funnelled his energy into his work, beginning his famous series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (which included The Great Wave) in 1830. Another catalyst for the iconic set of images was the introduction of Prussian blue to the market. As a synthetic pigment, it lowered the price enough that it became feasible to use the shade in prints for the first time.

6. He produced a staggering 30,000 works in his lifetime.

This number is due in part to the exceptional length of his career, which officially began in 1779 and lasted until his death in 1849 at the age of 89. Hokusai was also intensely productive, rising with the sun and painting late into the night. Although a fire in his studio destroyed much of his work in 1839, he is thought to have produced some 30,000 paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, and picture books in total. His last words were said to have been a request for five or 10 more years in which to paint.

7. His works shaped the course of the Impressionist movement.

During Hokusai’s life, the Japanese government enforced isolationist policies that prevented foreigners from entering and citizens from leaving. However, that didn’t stop his work from influencing some of the biggest names in Western art history. When Japan opened its borders in the 1850s, Hokusai’s work crossed continents to land in the hands of artists such as Claude Monet, who acquired 23 of the Japanese artist’s prints. Edgar Degas also took cues from Hokusai, in particular his thousands of sketches of the human form. The rapid embrace of his prints by European artists may have been in part due to his use of a Western-style vanishing point perspective. Other print designers in Japan employed the Asian perspective, which positioned far-away objects higher on the picture plane, an effect that, to a Western eye, made it appear as though the ground was tilting upwards.

Abigail Cain