Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave.
Large print exhibition text.

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Mt Fuji and ‘The Great Wave’

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Exhibition Guide

About the Guide

This guide provides all the exhibition text in large print for the period Friday 7 July until Sunday 13 August. There are further resources available for blind and partially sighted people.

Books with large print images and descriptions of selected objects can be found at the exhibition entrance, along with books containing tactile images of selected objects, labelled in Braille.

There will be a live audio descriptive tour and handling session on Saturday 22 July at 16.00. An audio introduction to the exhibition can be found on the Access section of the exhibition webpage: britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/hokusai/access.aspx

For any queries about access at the British Museum please email access@britishmuseum.org

Information on the doors: No photography. No mobile phones. Light levels in the exhibition are low. This is because some of the artwork is light sensitive and can only be displayed for short periods.

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Wall quote on left:

己六才より物の形状を写の癖ありて 半百の比より数々画図を顕す といえども 七十年前画く所は実に取 るに足るものなし

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.

From Hokusai’s postscript to One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, volume 1, 1834

Large panel on the right: Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave


The world-famous print ‘The Great Wave’ was published about 1831, when artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was in his early seventies. Within just a few years, however, he had largely withdrawn from the commercial world of colour woodblock printing in which he excelled. The self-styled Gakyō Rōjin (Old Man Crazy to Paint) believed the older he got, the greater his art would become. He was determined to create a legacy of sublime painted works. Living with his artist daughter Ōi, in the great city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), Hokusai painted ceaselessly, right up to his death at the age of ninety. This is the story of Hokusai’s art in old age.

Map caption:

Map of north-east Asia showing Japan’s neighbouring countries, its major cities and Mt Fuji. Modern political boundaries are for reference only. The names shown and the designations used do not imply endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum.

Image caption:

Both Banks of the Sumida River at a Glance by Hokusai, 1806. Hokusai was born in Edo in 1760. He grew up in the merchant and artisan neighbourhood on the east bank of the Sumida River. In the early 1800s, Edo had more than one million inhabitants, as did London.

Image caption:

Hokusai in his eighties, illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi during the 1840s. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Hokusai’s early years: from twenty to sixty

Panel on the left: Hokusai’s early years: from twenty to sixty


Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) emerged from the floating world (ukiyo-e) school of art, which celebrated the hedonistic pleasures of the vast city of Edo, present-day Tokyo. As a young child named Tokitarō (later Tetsuzō), the artist was adopted by Nakajima Ise, a mirrormaker. He trained as a woodblock cutter in his teens. Then in 1779, aged twenty, he joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, a leading floating world artist, until his teacher’s death in 1792. From his thirties onwards, Hokusai began to develop an encyclopaedic and eclectic repertoire of new subjects and styles. His forties and fifties were particularly successful, with a flood of illustrations for popular fiction and special commissions for figure paintings. By the time he was sixty-one in 1820, he had both expanded and exceeded the boundaries of floating world art.

Image caption:

Hokusai published his first image of a wave in 1779. It can be seen on the screen in the background of this print.

Photo © Tokyo National Museum

Tall case on the left: Chinese immortal Yuzhi and her dragon, about 1798


Ancient China represented a great cultural storehouse for Japanese artists. Hokusai was no exception. He explored Chinese themes and beliefs throughout his long career. Here, Yuzhi, an immortal in Chinese mythology, summons a white dragon to bring her single-stringed chin, a kind of harp.

At the bottom of the left scroll, Hokusai has signed this work ‘Hokusai Sōri’. Beneath this, he impressed in red one of his personal painting seals, ‘Creation is my master’.

Pair of hanging scrolls, ink and colour on paper. Private collection, USA

Family label: Fancy that!

Hokusai wasn’t always known as Hokusai. His childhood name was Tokitarō. During his lifetime he changed his name over 30 times. Look out for the different seals and signatures he used as you go around the exhibition.

Beauty with an umbrella under a willow, 1801–1804


A young woman looks back as she walks in high clogs. The green tresses on the willow and red azaleas signal late spring. Paintings of beautiful women were a staple of the floating world (ukiyo-e) style of art, which celebrated the pleasures of urban living. Hokusai developed his own style of idealised beauty.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Hokusai Museum, Obuse

Warrior hero Tametomo, 1807


In his forties, Hokusai illustrated adventure stories, collaborating with famous authors such as Takizawa Bakin. Strange Tales of the Bow Moon, published from 1807 to 1811, ran to 29 volumes, making the publisher a great deal of money. In the story, warrior hero Minamoto no Tametomo (1139–70) subdues imaginary islands on Japan’s periphery.

From Strange Tales of the Bow Moon, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Warrior hero Tametomo, 1811


Warrior hero Minamoto no Tametomo (1139–70) possessed the strength of many men. According to legend, the inhabitants of the imaginary island of Onoshima struggled, even as a team, to bend the string of his mighty bow. With its richly layered colours and cut gold leaf, this is one of Hokusai’s most technically complex paintings. The scroll was specially commissioned by publisher Hirabayashi to celebrate the successful publication of Strange Tales of the Bow Moon. It is inscribed with a Chinese-style poem by author Takizawa Bakin. With his own earnings from the project, Hokusai was able to build a new house.

Hanging scroll, ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on silk. Trustees of the British Museum.

Alcove on the left: Hokusai, Buddhism and the cult of the North Star


The artist took the name Hokusai in 1798, when he was thirty-nine. This change of name announced his independence as an artist and signified his spiritual beliefs. Hokusai was a fervent follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. The name ‘Hokusai’ means ‘North Studio’, reflecting his lifelong faith in the power of the North Star, the one fixed point in the heavens. He specifically worshipped Bodhisattva Myōken, the deity who personifies the Big Dipper, a constellation that points to the North Star. Taito, the name Hokusai used in his fifties, also reflects these beliefs. It means ‘Receiving the Big Dipper’.

About 1810, Hokusai used the painting seal ‘Raishin’ (Thunder Tremor), referring to an incident in his life. According to one story he was struck by lightning after worshipping at the Myōken hall at Yanagishima, on the eastern edge of Edo.

Myōken hall, 1785–1787

風流東部方角 柳島法性寺妙見堂の図

This drawing for an unpublished print shows the Myōken hall at Yanagishima in Edo, where the artist worshipped. People are admiring the sacred pine tree where the deity is known to appear. Hokusai was an ardent believer in the power of the Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Myōken. This is a significant work from his earliest period in the 1780s, when he used the name Shunrō (Spring Brightness).

Block-ready drawing, ink on paper. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Monk Nichiren, about 1811


Monk Nichiren (1222–82) founded a leading sect of Japanese Buddhism. Here, Hokusai depicts Nichiren seated on a rock reading a holy sutra (sacred text). The ritual chant inscribed on the painting was adopted by Nichiren himself, ‘Praise the marvellous law of the Lotus Sutra’. Hokusai was said to chant sutras when walking in the street.

Hanging scroll, ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on paper Hikaru Museum, Takayama

Panel behind on the left: Hokusai’s changing art names


Hokusai had a restless and enquiring nature. During a long career lasting more than seventy years, he signed and sealed his prints, paintings and books with dozens of different art names.

The six most important were: Shunrō, Sōri, Hokusai, Taito, Iitsu and Manji.

Hokusai, his most famous name, was adopted in about 1798, when he was thirty-nine. A small print, Three Terrapins (left), announced this change of name to his friends and acquaintances. In old age, Hokusai most commonly used the art names Iitsu and Manji, which he used from the ages of sixty-one and seventy-five, respectively.

Each name change reflected a significant life event, artistic goal or spiritual belief. Sometimes he would pass on one of these names to a pupil.

Image caption:

Photo © Private collection, Japan

Image caption:

Signature aged 39, 1798 ‘Drawn by Hokusai Tokimasa’

Signature aged 75, 1834 ‘Brush of Manji, Old Man Crazy to Paint, changed from the former Hokusai Iitsu, aged seventy-five’

Hokusai frequently combined his art names and as he grew older the strings of names grew longer. His red painting seals, impressed after the signature to authenticate the work, often contained more names.

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Mt Fuji and ‘The Great Wave’

Panel on the right: Mt Fuji and ‘The Great Wave’


In 1820, Hokusai renamed himself Iitsu (One Again), reflecting the East Asian belief that at sixty-one a person’s life cycle begins again.

And indeed, many of his greatest works were still to come. Hokusai’s most famous print, popularly known as ‘The Great Wave’, was probably published in 1831, when he was in his early seventies.

It was one of a series, Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, which celebrated the sacred mountain in many different guises. As he aged, Hokusai increasingly identified with Mt Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.

The prints in Thirty-six Views were striking for their sense of deep perspective, learned from European art, and for the use of imported Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment new to printing in Japan.

Image caption:

Boar Hunt at the Foot of Mt Fuji by Hokusai, 1806. During this period Mt Fuji was venerated as a deity in both the Shinto and Buddhist religions that are jointly practised in Japan.

Photo © Hie Jinja shrine, Kisarazu

Wall behind: Spring view, Enoshima, 1797

『柳の糸』 江島春望

Travellers from the city ask local children for directions. Hokusai’s print of this island has a perspective and composition like Shiba Kōkan’s painting of the same view (right). The small wave about to break on the shore, seen here, is a precursor of the print ‘The Great Wave’, produced 25 years later.

From Willow Tresses, album, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Tall case on the right (label on the wall): Shichirigahama beach, about 1800. Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818)

司馬江漢筆 七里浜図

This distant view of Mt Fuji from the beach at Kamakura, past the island of Enoshima, is by Shiba Kōkan, the leading European-influenced artist of the day in Japan. He has used a deeply receding perspective and painted it to look like an oil painting. Hokusai’s print of 1797 (left) copied an earlier version of this painting that was displayed in 1796 at the Atago shrine in Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Hanging scroll, oil pigment on silk. The Museum Yamato Bunkakan, Nara.

Wall to the right: Traditional perspective


Mt Fuji, painted between 1802 and 1816 by Kano Isen’in Naganobu (1775–1828), shows how perspective was traditionally shown in East Asian painting. Distant objects were placed high up in the composition.

A career-changing commission: scenes of Japanese life, 1824–1826


These scenes of Japanese life are from a larger group painted for visiting Dutch merchants of the East India Company (VOC). Contact with the outside world was strictly regulated until 1859, ten years after Hokusai’s death, when the country reopened to international trade. Although unsigned, the paintings are considered to be by Hokusai and his pupils.

This foreign commission was unusual for Hokusai and it emboldened him to continue his experiments with European techniques: a low horizon, a vanishing-point perspective and effects of light and shade. The smooth ‘old Dutch paper’ supplied by the VOC enabled him to paint in extremely fine detail.

After this, Hokusai radically changed the way he composed landscapes, as can be seen in many of the prints in the series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji.

Flower-viewing party, 1824–1826


Two merchants’ wives are on a spring outing to enjoy the blossoming cherry with their servant and a boy: there is surely a picnic in their bundles. Hokusai paints the flowers and the patterns on their robes in minute detail. The figures are more deeply coloured on their left sides, suggesting light is coming from a single source, as in European art.

Ink and colour on old Dutch paper. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV-1-4482m.

Object label (top): Boys’ Festival, 1824–1826


This is a rooftop platform for drying laundry – an unconventional setting for a picture. Surrounded by banners and a flapping carp kite for the summer Boys’ Festival, a baby reaches for his mother’s breast. The faces are sensitively modelled and there is elaborate light and dark patterning on the robes. Traditionally, Japanese artists did not paint the way light falls on objects in this way.

Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV-1-4482h

Object label (bottom): Fisherman’s family, 1824–1826


A fisherman and his wife patiently knot a net, while boys play on a large anchor. The cuckoo in the sky signifies early summer. On the right, dwellings are perched on a rampart of eccentrically shaped rocks. The shadows cast by the objects on the beach were revolutionary for Japanese art at this time.

Ink and colour on old Dutch paper. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV-1-4482k

Object label (top): Honmoku, off Kanagawa, 1807–1809


Two cargo boats navigate a giant wave. Hokusai is experimenting with a European-influenced style. A printed picture frame surrounds the novel perspective view with its low horizon and light and dark shading. The title gives evidence for the precise location of Hokusai’s later print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, otherwise known as ‘The Great Wave’ (1831).

Colour woodblock. Kawasaki Isago-no-Sato Museum.

Object label (bottom):Tone River in Sōshū province, 1833

千絵の海 総州利根川

Bracing his legs against the side of the boat, a fisherman pulls up a large scoop net. On the far riverbank a village can be glimpsed through the delicate gradation (shading) of the net. The location is the mighty Tone River, perhaps its lower reaches.

From A Thousand Pictures of the Sea, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Case on the right: Whirlpools at Awa, 1817

『北斎漫画 七編』 阿波の鳴戸

Swirling whirlpools splinter into fingers of foam against a rock. Looking at Hokusai’s picture, people in Edo could imagine travelling to Awa, a famous beauty spot in Japan’s inland sea. In his preface, author Shikitei Sanba (1776–1822) confesses, ‘… rousing myself, I discovered I had been at my desk by the window all along, asleep with this little book as my pillow’.

From Hokusai’s Sketches (Hokusai manga), illustrated book, woodblock. Uragami Mitsuru collection, Japan.

Carved waves, 1823

『今様櫛雛形』 さいくなみ他

Hokusai offers several hundred miniature designs for craft artists to copy for decorative hair combs and tobacco pipes. He instructs them to flip the design for the reverse side of the comb (right page, top left). The lower design on the left page, ‘Waves striking against each other’, anticipates the power and dynamism of ‘The Great Wave’.

From Modern Designs for Combs and Tobacco Pipes, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Fuji from the sea, 1835

『富嶽百景 二編』 海上の不二

Just a few years after ‘The Great Wave’, Hokusai created this version for an illustrated book. Seen from out at sea, a flock of startled plovers rises from the waves like spray over Mt Fuji and tentacles of foam coil extravagantly. The printing block was expertly cut by Chōhyaku, whose name, unusually, appears bottom right.

From One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Panel on the right: A life-saving commission: Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, 1831–1833


Hokusai’s late sixties were a time of personal hardship. During the late 1820s he suffered a minor stroke, but recovered using a home remedy. His second wife, Koto, died in 1828 and a grandson ran up huge debts. Publisher Nishimuraya’s commission for the print series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji restored his fortunes.

Early designs from the series, in Hokusai’s bold new style, made extensive use of the imported pigment Prussian blue, which had been recently adopted by Japanese publishers. Later designs, including ‘The Great Wave’, progressively introduced more colours, evoking how light steadily illuminates the landscape as the sun rises.

The series proved so popular that an additional ten designs were published. Landscape views, thereafter, became a major new genre in Japanese prints.

Case below the panel: The deity Konohanasakuya-hime, 1834

『富嶽百景 初編』 木花開耶姫命

Mt Fuji is venerated as a deity in both the Shinto and Buddhist religions that are jointly practised in Japan. Konohanasakuya-hime (Princess of the Flowering of Tree Blossoms), the Shinto deity of Mt Fuji, holds a sacred mirror and branch from the sakaki tree. For Hokusai, this mountain was a talisman of long life, a possible source of immortality.

From One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Mt Fuji combs, 1823

『今様櫛雛形』 なつのふじ他

Hokusai shows Mt Fuji in various seasons and settings as haircomb designs. The book includes an advertisement for the series Eight Fuji Views: ‘Expressing with the tip of the brush how the landscape changes in the four seasons, fair weather, rain, wind, snow and mist, in accordance with heavenly creation’. Although that series was not published, the idea must have developed into Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, published from 1831 to 1833.

From Modern Designs for Combs and Tobacco Pipes, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Wall to the right:Famous places on the Tōkaidō highway at a glance, 1818


Mt Fuji is by far the largest natural feature in the Japanese archipelago. Here, Hokusai manipulates the 500 km of the Tōkaidō highway, with its 53 post stations, to fit into an extra-large print. Edo, present-day Tokyo, is at the bottom right and Kyoto is at the top right. Hokusai designed four aerial views of Japan and one imagining China

Colour woodblock. Leiden University Library, Special Collections.

Early designs entirely in blue


The first five designs of Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji were printed entirely in shades of blue, combining Prussian blue and traditional indigo. This subdued palette evoked, perhaps, the muted colours of the landscape just before dawn.

The publisher Nishimuraya promoted this novelty in another of his publications issued at the beginning of 1831: Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, drawn by Old-man Iitsu, the former Hokusai, printed in blue, one view on each sheet, published progressively. These pictures show how the form of Mt Fuji varies from place to place, for example as seen from Shichirigahama beach or Tsukuda island, all different and particularly helpful to those studying landscape. If carved progressively in this manner, they could even exceed one hundred. They are not limited to thirty-six.

Object label (top): Tsukuda island, Musashi province, early 1831

冨嶽三十六景 武陽佃島

The island of Tsukudajima was situated in Edo bay, home to a thriving fishing community. Here the bay is busy with passenger, pleasure and cargo boats. This is one of two blue prints mentioned by name in publisher Nishimuraya’s first advertisement for the series in the New Year, 1831.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Henry L. Phillips Collection, bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939.

Object label (bottom): Lake Suwa, Shinano province, early 1831

冨嶽三十六景 信州諏訪湖

Lake Suwa is surrounded by the mountains of present-day Nagano prefecture. Shapes often echo one another in the Thirty-six Views. Here, the shape of the shrine’s roof echoes that of Mt Fuji’s slopes.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Howard Mansfield Collection, purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936.

Wall quote:


This spring, no money, no clothes, barely enough to eat. If I can’t come to an arrangement by the middle of the second month, then no spring for me. Hokusai’s letter to a publisher, 1830.

Umezawa manor, Sagami province, early 1831

冨嶽三十六景 相州梅澤左

Umezawa was a stopping place on the Tōkaidō highway. Clouds of pink-tinted morning mist part to reveal a blue Mt Fuji. Cranes, symbols of good fortune, feed and preen in the foreground. In this second group of five prints from the series, Hokusai begins to introduce colour into designs that are still mainly blue – suggesting dawn breaking.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Family label: Fancy that!

This was printed using a colour called ‘Prussian blue’. It was very unusual to use just one colour, but Hokusai wanted to capture the soft tones of the early morning sky before the sun had risen.

Ejiri, Suruga province, early 1831

冨嶽三十六景 駿州江尻

With a single line, Hokusai draws Mt Fuji in silhouette. Playfully, he shows how a strong wind affects the landscape and the people travelling along the Tōkaidō highway. Stripping leaves from the bending trees, the wind sends a hat and a stream of tissues flying up into the sky.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Family label:Fancy that!

Mt Fuji is Japan’s highest peak and considered a sacred place by people there. This print is part of a series called Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, but Hokusai actually designed 46 prints of the volcano.

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Pink Fuji’), late 1831

冨嶽三十六景 凱風快晴(ピンク富士)

Although the design is abstract and monumental, Hokusai manages to convey a particular time of day and type of weather. The southern breeze in the title suggests late summer when little snow is left on the summit of Mt Fuji. The view is from the eastern side of the mountain, its upper slopes struck by the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean. This is expressed in early impressions of the print with a delicate pinkish-brown. The light blue was inked unevenly between the clouds to create a ‘mackerel sky’ and subtly gradated (shaded) around the peak to give Mt Fuji a halo.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. Bequeathed by Mme Charles Jacquin 1938

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’), late 1831

冨嶽三十六景 凱風快晴(赤富士)

This version of the print is known affectionately in Japan as ‘Red Fuji’. This is because for most impressions a darker orange-red pigment was used for the slopes of Mt Fuji, combined with a darker blue for the sky.

Over time, the wooden printing blocks become worn and small breaks appear in the printed lines. Careful examination of these breaks has confirmed that ‘Pink Fuji’ is the earliest colour scheme for this design and that this one is later. In general, the earliest impressions are considered to represent the artist’s original vision most faithfully.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Wall on the right: Sudden rain beneath the summit, late 1831

冨嶽三十六景 山下白雨

Hokusai imagines Mt Fuji on a late afternoon in summer, casting its shadow on clouds to the right, behind the peak. The dramatic flash of lightning on the lower slopes signals a summer storm down at the level of human habitation. The massive scale of the mountain dwarfs even the weather.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label (top): Viewing sunset over Ryōgoku bridge from the Onmaya ferry, about 1832

冨嶽三十六景 御厩川岸より両国橋夕陽見

Setting out from the east bank of the Sumida River, ferry passengers look away from us to admire Mt Fuji silhouetted against the evening sky. Hokusai captures the psychology of strangers who are brought together, but who studiously ignore one another.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label (bottom): Snowy morning, Koishikawa, about 1832

冨嶽三十六景 礫川雪ノ旦

After heavy overnight snow, people are enjoying the view of Mt Fuji in crisp morning sunshine. Koishikawa was an area of wealthy samurai residences and large religious complexes.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by R.N. Shaw.

Object label (top): Sumida River, Sekiya villages, about 1832

冨嶽三十六景 隅田川関屋の里

Three samurai horsemen, perhaps official messengers, race along the dykes through empty fields. The repetition of the forms of the horsemen with their wind-blown robes accentuates their speed. On the north bank of the Sumida River, Sekiya was a rural area on the edge of Edo.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA.

Object label (bottom): Various people climbing the mountain, about 1833

冨嶽三十六景 諸人登山

Since at least the AD 600s, pilgrims have climbed sacred Mt Fuji. Here, they climb towards a cave to rest. A pink sky suggests they will shortly make their final ascent to view the sunrise from the peak. This is the only design to show what it was like to be on Mt Fuji and perhaps completed the series, which was so successful that Hokusai was commissioned to design ten more. As here, they were printed with black outlines rather than the earlier blue.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA

Wall behind: Reproducing ‘The Great Wave’: cutting the woodblocks


This film shows some of the stages involved in creating a reprint of ‘The Great Wave’ using the traditional colour woodblock technique. Here, the master cutter creates the ‘keyblock’ by reproducing the outlines of Hokusai’s block-ready drawing. The original print was probably produced using four printing blocks of seasoned cherry wood, each carved on both sides.

Duration: 2 minutes. There is no sound.

© The Adachi Foundation for the Preservation of Woodcut Printing, Tokyo.

Reproducing ‘The Great Wave’: printing from the woodblocks


This film shows some of the stages involved in creating a reprint of ‘The Great Wave’ using the traditional colour woodblock technique. Here, the master printer can be seen adding each colour individually and in sequence within the outlines of the design produced from the ‘keyblock’. For ‘The Great Wave’, one side of a woodblock would have been used to print the indigo outlines and text first. Three more sides were used to print the Prussian blue shades of the sea. Another four sides were used to print the pale grey, dark grey, pale yellow and pink (now faded, for the clouds in the sky).

Duration: 2 minutes. There is no sound.

© The Adachi Foundation for the Preservation of Woodcut Printing, Tokyo

Wall on the right: Poet Fujiwara no Tadamichi, 1835–1838

百人一首うばが絵説 法性寺入道前関白太政大臣(版下絵)

Oarsmen row hard to steer through crashing waves away from treacherous rocks. In order to create a woodblock print, such as ‘The Great Wave’, Hokusai first did a neat ‘block-ready’ drawing, like this one. This was then pasted face-down onto an uncut block made of cherry wood. The block maker cut through the drawing, thereby destroying it. He cut away the background of the design, leaving behind delicate ridges of wood that printed the outlines.

The poem reads: As I row out into, the wide sea-plain and look, all around me, the white waves of the offing, could be mistaken for clouds! By Fujiwara no Tadamichi (1097–1164), translated by Joshua Mostow.

From One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, block-ready drawing, ink on paper. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Wall quote:


… these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it. Letters between artist Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, 1888

Under the wave off Kanagawa (‘The Great Wave’), late 1831

冨嶽三十六景 神奈川沖浪裏

Three fast boats, delivering fish to market in Edo (present-day Tokyo), head heroically into a great storm wave. Oarsmen crouch forward, ready to battle the elemental power of the ocean. Playing with a European-influenced perspective, Hokusai dwarfs Mt Fuji by inviting us to look through the hollow of the wave from out at sea. Spray falls from its tentacles like snow onto the sacred peak. The vibrant tones of the imported pigment Prussian blue emphasise the depth and force of the wave.

As many as 8,000 impressions of this popular design were printed. For the price of little more than a double-helping of noodles, anyone in Edo could have purchased their own impression of ‘The Great Wave’.

From Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Acquired with the assistance of the Art Fund and a contribution from the Brooke Sewell Bequest.

Family label: Fancy that!

Hokusai was over 70 years old when he created ‘The Great Wave’ for which he is world famous. It’s also a picture of Mount Fuji. See if you can find the volcano.

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Worlds seen

Panel on the left: Worlds seen


Hokusai gave dynamic expression to the Japanese Buddhist belief that all phenomena – both animate and inanimate – have a spirit and are interconnected. He began with a close investigation of the ‘form of things’. He then used his unique style and inventive compositions to transform the commonplace into the extraordinary, encouraging us to identify closely with the world around us. In the early 1830s, following the success of Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, Hokusai collaborated with the same publisher, Nishimuraya, to produce several follow-on print series. These featured large and small flowers, waterfalls and bridges.

From 1839 onwards, when Hokusai was in his eighties, he received important painting commissions for nature, still life and figure subjects. He began to concentrate more and more on these painted works, always including his age as part of the signature.

Image caption:

Hokusai’s 1828 woodblock illustration of the Edo premises of Nishimuraya, the publisher of Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji.

Wall on the left: Large flowers, about 1831–1832


In the 1810s and 1820s, Hokusai produced several brush drawing manuals in which he demonstrated three traditional brush styles: precise brushstrokes (formal), controlled sketching (semi-cursive) and rapid sketching (cursive).

In this series of ten prints he experimented with the standard brush techniques by designing five prints in the formal style and five in the cursive style. Differences between the signatures suggest that the cursive-style prints were issued first.

Object label (top): Hibiscus and sparrow, 1831–1832


A single sparrow darts out of a hibiscus bush.

The flowers are outlined in a style similar to Poppy (right), but the leaves are an even more daring example of rapid sketch-like (cursive) brushwork, which brings the entire flower to life.

From ‘Large flowers’, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label (bottom): Iris and grasshopper, 1831–1832


It takes a few moments to spot the grasshopper hidden amongst the delicate and precisely depicted leaves. A band of Prussian blue pigment rises from the bottom to represent the water in which the irises are growing.

From ‘Large flowers’, colour woodblock. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Poppy, 1831–1832


A strong wind blows in from the left, but, led by the central flower, the poppies resist. The open blossom almost appears to be snarling in self-defence. Hokusai outlined this flower with a single, writhing rapid brushstroke that seems to have a life of its own. In contrast, the patterning of the petals is delicate, giving the poppies a lively presence.

Here, in one of his finest designs, Hokusai combines a mastery of painting technique with a deep understanding of nature that seems to endow his subjects with an intense, inner life.

From ‘Large flowers’, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Morton Harcourt Sands.

Small flowers, about 1834


Publisher Nishimuraya advertised this print series as ‘brightly coloured bird-and-flower pictures in poetry-card format’. He was offering the public inexpensive versions of detailed brush paintings done in brilliant pigments. The prints were grouped in five pairs, each pair sharing a similarly coloured background.

Mirabilis jalapa and grosbeak, about 1834


Hokusai depicts the blooms of mirabilis jalapa, the ‘four-o’clock flower’, in all their variety. Native to the Americas, the flower may have reached Japan via Holland, entering the country through the port of Nagasaki. The short verse at the top right reads: Four-o’clock flowers, thrive on the far side of fences, behind the peonies.

From ‘Small flowers’, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Weeping cherry and bullfinch, about 1834


Hokusai depicts a male bullfinch, distinguished by its pink marking from cheek to throat. The bird and flower stand out in relief against the background of deep Prussian blue. In his 1848 Picture Book: Essence of Colouring, Hokusai explains in detail how to draw and colour a bullfinch like this.

From ‘Small flowers’, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Case on the right: Iris, 1819

『北斎写真画譜』 杜若

Among Hokusai’s many illustrated books, this one stands out for its high production values. The subjects range from deities to landscapes, flowers, birds, and animals. Many are drawn meticulously with the neat and precise brushstrokes of the formal style. The irises, here, were later reworked as a print, published between 1831 and 1832.

From Hokusai’s Album Drawn True To Life, album, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label on the back wall: Plum and warbler, about 1821


A warbler swoops down as if by invitation from the just-opening plum blossoms. Done in the precise, formal brush style, this typical spring design (above) has a bright, festive charm.

Fan print, colour woodblock. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. Bequeathed by Isaac de Camondo, 1911

Cockerel, hen and chick with spiderwort (proof print), 1832


Proof prints were used by Hokusai to check his designs and indicate colour separation before the individual colour woodblocks were cut. Red ink indicated where a particular colour or printing effect should be used. In this rare survival, Hokusai changed the patterning of the hen’s breast before the final print (left) was made.

Fan print mounted in a folding album, woodblock proof with red ink. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by the Misses Alexander. Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Dragon’s Head waterfall, no. 1, 1837

『日光山志』 龍頭滝 其一

This guidebook explains the history, geography and festivals of Mt Nikkō, north of Edo, present-day Tokyo. It was published jointly by ten Edo firms and illustrated by many different artists. Both of Hokusai’s illustrations capture the torrents of water rushing down the mountain’s gorges. Their realism suggests that Hokusai actually visited Nikkō.

From Record of Mt Nikkō, illustrated book, woodblock. Ebi Collection, UK.

Wall behind: Wondrous Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces, about 1834


Hokusai was particularly inspired by the structure and shape of bridges. In the spring of 1834 the publisher Nishimuraya commissioned a print series about famous bridges, following their collaboration on a series about waterfalls. Bridges also appear throughout Hokusai’s Sketches (Hokusai manga), the artist’s popular series of manuals for drawing with a brush, published from 1814 onwards.

Kintai bridge, Suō province, about 1834


Hokusai probably used a guidebook as reference to depict this famous bridge in Suō province (present-day Iwakuni city, Yamaguchi prefecture) in western Japan. Later printings omit the atmospheric slanting rain.

From Wondrous Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label (right):Picture of land surveyors, 1848


One of Hokusai’s last-known dated prints, this depicts samurai officials surveying land for sea defences. The inscription celebrates the achievements of master surveyor Hasegawa Zenzaemon II and his adoptive father, the late Zenzaemon I, a famous mathematician. It also instructs beginners on the basics of surveying.

Extra-large colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Old picture of Eight-plank bridge in Mikawa, about 1834


The Eight-plank bridge in Mikawa province features in the literary classic of the early AD 900s, Tales of Ise. Hokusai has added an eccentric raised section to the bridge and dressed the figures in contemporary clothing.

From Wondrous Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA

Wall on the left: Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, about 1833


This series features eight different waterfalls from across Japan. Throughout his life Hokusai explored nature in transformation, particularly water in all its different forms: waves, rivers, waterfalls, rain and snow. Here, he emphasises the waterfalls’ contrasting forms, endowing each with a distinctive personality. Some were undoubtedly drawn from life, while others suggest he referred to illustrated guidebooks.

Amida waterfall, deep beyond the Kiso highway, about 1833


Hokusai’s lively imagination produced this striking design, which contrasts the marbled currents at the top with the sudden drop of the waterfall. Three travellers warm saké (rice wine) as they enjoy the view.

From Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, colour woodblock Tōyō Bunko (The Oriental Library), Tokyo

The waterfall where Yoshitsune washed his horse in Yoshino, Yamato province, about 1833


The dynamic zigzag of this waterfall is echoed in the shape of the horse and the two men. Several Yoshino guidebooks of the time claim a famous warrior from the 1100s, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, rode through the area on horseback.

From Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA.

Family label: Fancy that!

Nature was a big inspiration for Hokusai. He lived near rivers and canals in Edo (now called Tokyo). Fascinated by the constant movement of water, he spent his life trying to capture it in his paintings and prints.

Birds and animals, 1820s–1840s


Leaping, diving or standing proud, Hokusai’s birds and animals have vivid personalities rather than mere surface grace or beauty. In this way, he completely reinterprets some of Japan’s most commonly depicted subjects — carp ascending a waterfall, hawks and chickens. His sensitively controlled brushwork produces soft breast feathers, slippery scales and spiky hairs protruding from a bird’s beak. The insistent gaze of these creatures communicates not merely the ‘form of things’, but also a life force within.

Tall case on the right: Eagle and cherry, 1843


An eagle grips a rock with its talons and scans the sky with a beady eye. Hokusai gives the bird gravity and dignity, as well as a physical reality. Each bud and flower of the blossoming cherry is observed with extraordinary accuracy.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Ujiie Ukiyo-e Collection, Kamakura

Wall on the right: Hawk and cherry, 1833–1834


A hawk rests on a decorated perch. Hokusai’s bird is particularly animated, scanning the sky for a possible meal. This large vertical print imitates the format of a hanging scroll painting, but it would have been available at a more affordable price.

Colour woodblock. Tokyo National Museum.

Wall behind: Horses, 1822


In the spring of 1822, a horse year in the East Asian zodiac calendar, the Yomo poetry circle commissioned Hokusai to create a series of 30 luxurious prints with poems, known as surimono. Each print featured several horse-related poems. Most of the compositions are still lifes, but they also include landscapes and scenes of daily life. Over more than four decades, Hokusai created inspired designs for large numbers of surimono.

Talisman, 1822

馬尽 馬除

In Japan, mirrors can be seen as talismans with magical powers that bring good luck and avert evil. Here, the smooth metallic surface of the water in the basin resembles a mirror. The reference to horses is oblique. In Japanese, the name of the print is Mayoke (Talisman), which includes the word ‘ma’ (horse).

From Horses, surimono, colour woodblock with metallic pigments and embossing. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA.

Bamboo horse, 1822

馬尽 竹馬

A ‘bamboo horse’ is a frame carried on a person’s shoulders to transport loads. This one has transported a luxurious tobacco set to a plum blossom-viewing party. The swastika on the green fabric (right) is a Buddhist symbol of eternity, as well as the mark of the commissioning poetry circle.

From Horses, surimono, colour woodblock with metallic pigments and embossing. Trustees of the British Museum.

Tall case on the left: Young man composing a letter, 1840


This youth is pre-occupied with composing a letter, possibly to a lover. Hokusai captures the textures of the various fabrics and still-life objects with some of his most intricate brushwork.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Ujiie Ukiyo-e Collection, Kamakura.

Portraits of young men (7–20 July)


Hokusai did many paintings of beautiful women in the early 1800s. Here, unusually, he features two sexually alluring young men. It is difficult to determine the social status of the sitters, although the style of dress, particularly the dangling sleeves, evokes that of contemporary actors who specialised in female roles. Their youth and hairstyles suggest they may also represent young male sex workers.

If the sitters are based on real people, the paintings were likely commissioned by an admirer. They form a pair, but have rarely been displayed together.

Still life and portraiture (21 July – 13 August)


In his still lifes Hokusai gave fresh interpretations even to ordinary subjects, such as food being prepared. He also showcased some of his most intricate brushwork – capturing light reflecting off different surfaces and distinguishing between textures.

In his later years, Hokusai occasionally portrayed sexually alluring young men. It is difficult to determine the social status of the sitters, although the style of dress, particularly the dangling sleeves, evokes that of contemporary actors who specialised in female roles. Their youth and hairstyles suggest they may also represent young male sex workers.

Young man seated on a bench, 1840 (7–20 July)


A beautiful youth, dressed in luxurious fabrics decorated with cherry blossom patterns, sits deep in thought. He sits awkwardly on the bench, but Hokusai’s composition is balanced by the long sharkskin-covered scabbard of the sword. The poem reads: Spring breezes and spring rains assail, his lovely form. Even the dew weighs heavily on branches, of the evanescent cherry. Why does he seem so lost in thought, like a beautiful woman, As he rests there on the bench, overcome, with waves of tears? By ‘Your Servant’, translated by Robert Campbell, Tim Clark and Kobayashi Tadashi

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Sir W. Gwynne-Evans, Bt.

Boys’ Festival decorations, 1844 (21 July – 13 August)


The Boys’ Festival is celebrated annually on the fifth day of the fifth month. Here, the decorations consist of a model samurai helmet on a lacquer stand with a bunch of irises in a ceremonial wrapper.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk Saga-Arashiyama Institute for Japanese Art, Kyoto

Panel on the left: Worlds imagined


China has always been a major source of cultural inspiration in East Asia. People were forbidden to travel abroad in the Edo period (1615–1868), so Japanese scholars and artists took classical, rather than contemporary, China as their point of reference. Japan, too, had its own proud canon of literary classics and military history.

In his late career, especially, Hokusai imaginatively reinterpreted the traditions of both China and Japan, making them accessible to ordinary people. He began with what he saw, but the boundary between this and the worlds he imagined was often porous. As old age advanced, Hokusai regularly painted holy men, protective deities and terrifying ghosts, invoking and releasing their power through the force of his art.

Picture of famous places in China, 1840


This is the last of five large bird’s-eye views that Hokusai produced between 1818 and 1840. It is the only one to depict China. Unable to travel there, Hokusai and most educated Japanese of the Edo period saw China as a realm of the imagination, a distant source of ancient culture and wisdom. Hokusai creates a detailed impression of the region’s topography, with the Great Wall marking the northern border. Cartouches label China’s districts, geographic features, major cities and provinces, while its houses are represented by a multitude of small triangles nestling amongst the valleys and ravines. The craft artist Egawa Sentarō cut the woodblocks for this print.

Colour woodblock. The British Library.

Family label: Fancy that!

During Hokusai’s lifetime, visiting countries like China was off-limits, so people had to imagine what a place was like. Hokusai enjoyed creating fantastical images of places he’d never been to.

Tall case on the left: Chinese hero Lu Zhishen, 1823–1826

花和尚 魯智深図

Lu Zhishen is one of the bandits from Outlaws of the Marsh, a Chinese novel of the 1300s. Chinese editions describe him as ‘the old monk who loved to kill’. Here, he fells a pine tree with a single blow of his staff to intimidate corrupt guards plotting to kill his friend, Lin Zhong.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Private collection, Japan.

Wall behind: True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poems, 1833–1834


This series of ten tall-format prints depicts subjects from Chinese and Japanese poetry of the classical period from the AD 600s to the 1300s. Hokusai conjures up a distant age of high culture. He shows Japanese poets in court costume on the right and Chinese poets dressed in, to Japanese eyes, exotic foreign robes on the left.

Many educated people during the Edo period (1615–1868) could read both Japanese and classical Chinese fluently. They admired the poetry of both countries. These prints, however, have no inscribed poem, suggesting that they were aimed at an audience familiar enough with the classics to interpret the subjects unaided.

Object label (left): Untitled (Poet Du Fu), 1833–1834


This is a revised version of an illustration that Hokusai produced for Illustrated Anthology of Tang Poetry (see case right). The scene relates to a farewell poem that Chinese poet, Du Fu, wrote in the AD 700s for a friend who had departed for war. Hokusai shows the warrior looking back to the poet’s hut, an echo of the poem’s sense of lament.

From True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poems, colour woodblock. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Object label (right): Poet Minister Tōru, 1833–1834


Tōru, a Japanese minister during the AD 800s, recreated the shoreline of northern Japan in his garden, importing seawater every day to keep his marine fish and shellfish alive.

Here, Hokusai may have based his design on Tōru, a play of the early 1400s, which tells the story of the garden. From True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poems, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Case on the right: Song Jiang rescues a woman, 1835

『新編水滸画伝 巻之二十九』 宋江婦女の難を救ふ

Set during the late Song dynasty (AD 960–1279), Outlaws of the Marsh, a Chinese historical novel from the 1300s, relates the adventures of 108 rebellious warriors. Specialising in vigilante justice they punish evil bureaucrats and help the poor. Hokusai illustrated at least the first six parts of this popular edition.

From New Illustrated ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, illustrated book, woodblock. Uragami Mitsuru collection, Japan.

Poet Du Fu, 1833

『唐詩選画本 六編』 杜甫

Late in his career Hokusai took on many projects related to Chinese culture. In this Japanese edition of a Chinese poetry anthology, he shows a general riding to war based on a poem written in the AD 700s by Du Fu. The anthology took almost 50 years to complete, employing many artists along the way.

From Illustrated Anthology of Tang Poetry, illustrated book, woodblock. Ebi Collection, UK

Priest Mongaku beneath a waterfall, 1836

『和漢 絵本魁』 文覚上人

Mongaku (1139–1203) mistakenly killed a married woman he loved, so paid penance beneath icy Nachi waterfall. This unusual composition transforms the book’s horizontal format into a dynamic vertical. Hokusai produced four picture books depicting Japanese and Chinese military heroes engaged in heroic deeds.

From Picture Book of the Warrior Vanguard in Japan and China, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Netsuke of Priest Mongaku beneath a waterfall, after 1836


Signature: Shunkōsai Chōgetsu

Hokusai’s illustrated books provided inspiration for craft artists in many fields, including carvers of netsuke (toggles). The front of this manjū, a rice cake-shaped netsuke, shows Priest Mongaku doing penance beneath Nachi waterfall, based on an illustration in Hokusai’s Picture Book of the Warrior Vanguard in Japan and China, displayed alongside.

Netsuke, ivory. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Oscar Charles Raphael.

Wall quote above the case:


If you cut for me, please do not cut this style ... Recently, these eyes and noses have been very popular. But I really, really hate them!

Hokusai’s letter to the woodblock cutter Sugita Kinsuke, warning him not to get the faces wrong again, 1836

Wall on the right: One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, mid-1830s


One Hundred Poems is an anthology of classical Japanese verse. Many books were published to help young readers understand the poems. In this series Hokusai’s educator is a nurse, someone with down-to-earth experience of the world. She explains the poems through scenes of everyday life. Hokusai created 91 designs but only 27 were made into colour prints. Fortunately, almost all the artist’s superb unused block-ready drawings have survived.

Object label (top): Poet Chūnagon Kanesuke, 1835–1838


Two men steer a ferry along a river channel. Towards the stern sits a young samurai woman (wearing a white head cloth and facing the viewer). A young samurai sits in the centre of the group. He represents the poet Kanesuke from the AD 900s, who kept thinking about a young woman, but could not recall where he had seen her.

The poem reads: Like Izumi River, that wells up and flows, dividing the Moor of Urns – when did I see her, I wonder, that I should yearn for her so? By Fujiwara no Kanesuke (AD 877–933), translated by Joshua Mostow

From One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, block-ready drawing, ink on paper. Trustees of the British Museum.

Object label (bottom): Poet Kōka Mon’in no Bettō, 1835–1838


The poem is based on a pun in Japanese between the phrases ‘to exhaust oneself’ and ‘channel-marker’. Hokusai depicts a team of exhausted workmen carting a harvest of reeds toward a seaside inn, indicated by the posts (channel-markers) along the shore.

From One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, block-ready drawing, ink on paper. Trustees of the British Museum. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon, RA.

Poet Kan Ke (Sugawara no Michizane), 1835–1836


In AD 898, the poet Kan Ke accompanied retired Emperor Uda (AD 867–931) on an autumn excursion to Offering Hill in Nara, south of Kyoto. Recognising the beauty of the foliage, the poet suggested that a ‘brocade of autumn leaves’ might make a suitable gift for the gods. This is one of the few prints in the series to give an ancient, courtly setting to its poem.

From One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, about 1835–1836


A famous verse by Hitomaro, a poet from the late AD 600s, compares the endless feeling of a night spent alone with the dragging tail of a pheasant. Hokusai’s image of fishermen hauling a dragnet upstream as night descends captures the mood exactly. A plume of campfire smoke carries the eye to a tiny figure in a hut, perhaps the poet awaiting a visitor.

From One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Tall case on the right: Poem-diviner, 2nd day, first month, 1827


New Year in Japan was a time for social events and fortune-telling. Hokusai may have produced this as an ‘impromptu painting’ during such a gathering. The painting is based on a play of the early 1400s about a man able to predict the future by interpreting verses selected from those tied to his bow.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Sir W. Gwynne-Evans, Bt.

Imagining Japanese history


Like many Japanese of the Edo period (1615–1868), Hokusai possessed a strong sense of history. The ruling samurai family at the time, the Tokugawa, traced their lineage back to the Shogunate of the late 1100s, Japan’s first warrior government. The Tokugawa encouraged everyone to read historical accounts, classical fiction and drama, and even popular legends from these earlier periods – all could be treated as history. In the richly detailed narrative paintings and illustrated books of his late period, Hokusai generally focused on just the main characters from each scene.

Shirabyōshi dancer, about 1820


Shirabyōshi were female entertainers. Their costumes combined elements of men’s court attire, including a court hat and sword. This figure’s pose recalls the climax of a dance in a drama of the late 1400s, Benkei on the Boat. Hokusai animates the costume with distinctive segmented outlines.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Hokusai Museum, Obuse.

Wall on the right: One Hundred Ghost Tales, about 1833


This series of medium-sized prints is based on the popular custom of friends gathering on hot summer nights to tell chilling ghost stories. Candles would be lit and then blown out one by one after each tale in the hope – or fear – that a ghost would appear when the final wick was extinguished. The modest print format allowed Hokusai to demonstrate his mastery of composition. By focusing on essential details only, he manages to capture both the horror and humour of the uncanny. Only five of the projected 100 designs were in fact published.

Kohada Koheiji, about 1833


Spectral flames surround the ghost of Kohada Koheiji, as he pulls down the edge of a mosquito net. He is haunting his sleeping wife who, with her lover, had drowned him in Asaka swamp in north-east Japan. His evil grimace signals that his victim is in for a shock. Hokusai brings the supernatural to life with chilling details such as the Buddhist rosary necklace, the white death shroud and the net’s rim. He drew on a story that seems to have been in circulation for much of the 1700s, before being turned into a novel in 1803.

From One Hundred Ghost Tales, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch.

Family label: Fancy that!

Today during summer, people in Japan hold ‘ghost story evenings’. Starting with 100 candles, they blow one out after each story has been told. When it is totally dark they hope – or fear – that a ghost will appear.

Oiwa-san, about 1833


Oiwa-san first appeared as a character in a ghost play of 1825 from the popular kabuki theatre. Tricked into using a disfiguring face cream, she dies after her husband abandons her. Here, her scarred face emerges from a paper lantern lit to honour the dead. A Buddhist prayer for the soul, ‘Namu Amida butsu’ (Praise to Amida Buddha), is inscribed on its side.

From One Hundred Ghost Tales, colour woodblock. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. Given by Henri Vever, 1894.

Laughing demoness, about 1833


Hokusai combines Hannya, the horned ghost of a jealous woman from traditional theatre, with Yamamba, a mountain woman of folk legend. The latter was said to devour infants. Here, she looms in a round window, delighting in her own evil.

From One Hundred Ghost Tales, colour woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch.

Tall case behind: Shōki painted in red, 1846


Shōki is a talismanic figure with the power to quell both demons and disease. Here, he stands ready to take on all evil. Vigorous outlines underscore his energy, while Hokusai’s sophisticated shading almost enables Shōki to leap from the confines of the painting. A deluxe commission, this painting was probably used to ward off smallpox as there was an epidemic of the disease in Edo (present-day Tokyo) at the time.

Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith, Charles Stewart Smith Jr and Howard Caswell Smith.

Wall on the left: Religious and mythological subjects


A powerful driver of Hokusai’s artistic ambitions throughout his career was a faith in both human and divine spiritual forces. His devotion to the North Star sustained his creative energies throughout his career, but later in life he also seemed to sense the divine all around him.

Hokusai’s late work celebrates both the otherworldly power of unseen deities and the deep humanity of spiritual figures such as the Buddha and Shōki, the demon-queller. Religious themes in his late paintings and illustrated books encourage us to consider how, as human beings, we relate to the divine world, to nature and to one another.

Tall case on the left: Shakyamuni on a lotus, 1823–1826


Shakyamuni (formerly Prince Siddhartha), the founder of Buddhism, sits on a lotus pedestal performing moxibustion, a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment. He holds burning rolls of dried mugwort (moxa) over acupuncture points to relieve his leg, stiff from meditating. This humorous and human depiction of the Buddha may have been an ‘impromptu picture’ done at a party.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. Private collection, Japan.

Prince Siddhartha tested by a demon, 1845

『釈迦御一代記図会 巻之三』

After training as a mountain ascetic for six years, Prince Siddhartha (later Shakyamuni Buddha) is confronted by a six-metre-tall demon with eight faces and nine limbs. Hokusai revels in depicting the awesome power of supernatural forces, as he did in the One Hundred Ghost Tales series. This unusual composition transforms the book’s horizontal format into a dynamic vertical.

From Illustrated Life of Shakyamuni, illustrated book, woodblock. Uragami Mitsuru collection, Japan

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Hokusai’s world

Tall case on the left: The Seven Lucky Gods, 1823–1826

北斎一門合作 七福人図

Hokusai and six pupils

Hokusai may have had as many as 200 pupils, including both professionals and amateurs. He lived and worked in a part of Edo called Katsushika, which he adopted as a family name. Hokusai’s pupils are therefore referred to as the Katsushika school of artists. They were strongly influenced by his style. Here, Hokusai and six of his leading pupils have together painted the Seven Lucky Gods. Hokusai playfully represents the warrior deity Bishamon by showing only an old pine tree, a helmet and spear. The pine overlooks the scene, much like a teacher supervising his pupils.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto.

Panel on wall behind: Hokusai’s world


Until his mid-seventies, Hokusai’s artistic influence and his broad popularity rested on his work as a prolific commercial artist. This required close collaboration with publishers, woodblock cutters and printers. He was also an important teacher, training pupils in person and publishing manuals for painters and craft artists. Aged seventy-five, Hokusai entered deep old age with two new art names: Manji (Everything) and Gakyō Rōjin (Old Man Crazy to Paint). Even in his eighties, Hokusai made long journeys across Japan to Obuse in Shinano province to carry out painting commissions for particular patrons.

During these final decades he lived with his daughter Ōi, also an artist. They moved constantly around Edo (present-day Tokyo), living humbly in rented rooms.

Image caption:

Hokusai sketched himself covered in a blanket and with a piss bottle at his side. He sent this playful drawing to a publisher who was trying to hurry him.

Image caption (above):

Hokusai sometimes worked in other places in central Japan, such as Nagoya, where the project to publish Hokusai’s Sketches (Hokusai manga) began. In Obuse, he stayed with his patron Takai Kōzan.

Image caption (right):

Places associated with Hokusai are shown on this map of Edo (present-day Tokyo), which became the capital of Japan’s new military government in 1603. A defensive moat system radiated out from Edo castle, the Shogun’s headquarters. Edo had separate residential areas for samurai lords, their followers, merchants, artisans, monks and priests.

Case on the right:Making woodblock prints, 1825


Hokusai, who had been a woodblock cutter in his teens, illustrates contemporary cutting and printing techniques. Using chisels, gouges and wooden mallets, the man is cutting text characters into a cherry woodblock. The woman is rubbing a baren, a printer’s pad, over the back of a sheet of paper to transfer the pigment from the printing block beneath.

Surimono, colour woodblock with metallic pigments and embossing. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Baren (printer’s pad), early 1900s


The woodblock printer’s essential tool is the baren. A tight coil of bamboo twine is sandwiched between two rigid discs of lacquered paper. This is then wrapped in a thin sheet of bamboo bark, which is knotted over the back to form a handle. Printers use barens to transfer pigment from the woodblock onto a sheet of paper to create the printed image.

Bamboo, lacquered paper, silk. Trustees of the British Museum.

Hokusai’s Sketches (Hokusai manga), 1814–1878

『北斎漫画 初編~十五編』

Manga originally meant sketches or drawings done quickly as ideas occurred to an artist. Hokusai manga is 15 volumes of manuals for drawing with a brush. In 1812, while staying in Nagoya with one of his pupils, Hokusai produced more than 300 sketches for volume 1. Effectively distributed by its publishers, Hokusai manga became widely known throughout Japan and, after 1859, overseas.

Illustrated book, colour woodblock. Uragami Mitsuru collection, Japan.

Block-ready drawings of warriors, about 1836


Tawara Tōda Hidesato, a warrior of the AD 900s, here recovers treasure from the palace of the legendary Dragon King of the sea. These block-ready drawings were intended for an illustrated book of warriors. To create each printing block the master cutter pasted the appropriate drawing face-down onto a block of cherry wood and cut through the back of it. Had the book been produced these drawings would have been destroyed in the process.

From Picture Book in the Katsushika Style, folding album, ink on paper, with woodblock-printed borders and title. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith.

Miniature drawings for craft artists, 1829–1831


Used to make decorative art objects such as the netsuke (toggle) displayed alongside, these preparatory drawings were guides for craft artists. Each vertical pair is a front and back view of a single design. Hokusai published a number of books of such craft designs.

Two albums, ink and colour on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Fletcher Fund 1941.

Netsuke of twelve zodiac animals, about 1880

十二支 (根付)

Unsigned, style of Kaigyokusai Masatsugu (1813–1892)

This netsuke (toggle) depicts the 12 animals of the East Asian zodiac as a miniature menagerie, including a rat, a tiger and a cockerel. The design is strikingly similar to the preparatory drawing by Hokusai displayed alongside.

Ivory with inlaid horn. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks.

Album of model paintings, spring 1843


Hokusai would have produced many model paintings for his students to copy, but few have survived. This album contains simple plant, fish and insect subjects. It is introduced by a figure, surely Hokusai himself, declaring, ‘this is the auspicious spring of my eighty-fourth year’.

Folding album, ink and colour on paper. Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Frog and strawberry geranium, 1835–1836


Hokusai produced this album of model paintings for students to purchase and copy. Done in painstaking detail on thin paper, the paintings may have been traced from preparatory drawings and then individually coloured. During the Tenpō famine of 1835 to 1836 Hokusai relied on the income from replicating such albums to have enough to eat.

Folding album, ink and colour on paper. Hokusai Museum, Obuse.

Panel on the wall behind: Gakyō Rōjin (Old Man Crazy to Paint)


From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine are not false.

From Hokusai’s postscript to One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, 1834, translated by Henry D Smith II

Case on the left: One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, 1834, 1835, about 1849


This three-volume book depicts Mt Fuji in a sequence of ever-changing and sometimes eccentric views, further strengthening the artist’s relationship with the sacred mountain. The extraordinarily fine cutting of the printing blocks was supervised by Hokusai’s woodblock cutter of choice, Egawa Tomekichi.

Illustrated book, woodblock. Uragami Mitsuru collection, Japan.

Wall on the left: Fisherman seated on a rock, mid-1820s


Hokusai produced both the picture and one of the poems. The figure of the fisherman may be an idealised self-portrait, reflecting perhaps the artist’s longing for a simple life close to nature. The other poem is by Ōi, Hokusai’s daughter, who jokingly signs it with the character for ‘Tipsy’. The celebratory tone of both poems seems to reflect joint successes.

Surimono, colour woodblock with metallic pigment and embossing. Trustees of the British Museum.

Head of an old man, early 1840s

伝北斎筆 老人図

Attributed to Hokusai

The dynamic lines and ecstatic, open-mouthed expression of the old man compel the viewer’s attention. Wearing a simple jacket and blessed with prominent earlobes, the figure resembles Hokusai’s Self-portrait, aged eighty-three, displayed alongside.

Ink and slight colour on paper. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV2736-2

Self-portrait aged eighty-three, 1842


Hokusai included a lively self-portrait when he sent this letter to a publisher. He is pointing energetically and chatting. Hokusai writes that he is also sending drawings produced in his early forties. He hopes some might be usable if suitably edited, even though they were created by an immature artist.

Drawing in a letter, ink on paper. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV-3513-1496

Hokusai in old age, 1840s–1890s

伝北斎、または北斎門人筆 晩年の北斎肖像

Attributed to Hokusai or one of his pupils

An old man rests his hands on a walking stick, turning his head to one side. The large ears correspond to descriptions of Hokusai. It is debated whether this portrait is by Hokusai or a close pupil. A similar portrait showing just the head and shoulders was published in 1893 in the first biography about the artist.

Ink and red pigment on paper. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. Given by Henri Vever, 1912

Wall quote above the portraits:

翁の面貌は、痩せて鼻目常人に異な らざれども、たゞ耳は、頗巨大なりと

Hokusai indeed had a lean face: his nose and eyes were not particularly different from those of other people, but his ears were very large.

Iijima Kyoshin, Biography of Katsushika Hokusai, 1893

Case behind on the left: Fuji of letters, about 1835


The decorative cloud emphasises the different worlds of the courtier-poet gazing at Mt Fuji and a scene of contemporary salt-making on Tago beach. The poet is probably Yamabe no Akahito (active AD 724–736), who composed a wellknown verse celebrating Mt Fuji.

Preparatory drawing, red and black ink on paper. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris.

Fuji and evening shower, about 1835


Tiny villagers scurry for shelter during a sudden summer storm with lightning. As thatched roofs and trees are buffeted below by the squall, Mt Fuji appears impervious to the ragged lightning on its lower slopes. The cloud formations are much more extensive in this preparatory drawing than in the printed book displayed in the case behind.

Preparatory drawing, ink on paper. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris.

Tall case behind:Chinese lion, 21st day, intercalary ninth month, 1843

日新除魔 閏九月二十一日

Each day in his early eighties, Hokusai did an energetic brush drawing of either a Chinese lion or a lion dancer. He called these ‘Daily Exorcisms’ (Nisshin joma) and apparently tossed them out the window to ward off misfortune. This daily practice reveals a superstitious side to Hokusai’s spiritual beliefs. Happily, the drawings were retrieved by his daughter and pupils. Hokusai inscribed this comic poem directly onto his painting of a Chinese lion. It is full of words that sound like ‘lion’ (shishi). No lion [lying] around – implion [implying] that this lion feels quite sullion [sullen], except when he starts to draw: then he feels he’s flion [flying] high.

Translated by Alfred Haft. Ink on paper. Hokusai Museum, Obuse.

Photograph on the right: Hokusai and Ōi in their lodgings, before 1893 (photograph)

三代為一(露木孔彰)筆 北斎仮宅図(写真)

Tsuyuki Kōshō (Iitsu III, died after 1893).

In the early 1840s, Iitsu III, one of Hokusai’s pupils, visited the artist and Ōi at their temporary lodgings in the Fukagawa district of Edo, presentday Tokyo. Much later he drew this vivid picture from memory. Hokusai leans forward in a quilt to paint, watched intently by his daughter. The text says that the quilt was lice-infested and the room littered with food wrappers. On the left side of the drawing is an old tangerine box on the wall, enshrined with an image of monk Nichiren (1222–82).

Ink on paper. Photo © National Diet Library, Tokyo.

Family label: Fancy that!

Ōi, Hokusai’s daughter, was a talented artist. They were very close and often worked together. Some experts even think some of his works were actually created by her.

Wall quote above the photograph:

如何なる人に面会すとも、嘗巨燵を 離るゝことなし。画くにもまた此のご とし。 倦む時は、傍の枕を取りて睡る。睡り さむれば、又筆を採りて画く。

No matter who comes to visit, I never leave the heater… When I’m tired I pick up the pillow beside me and go to sleep. When I wake from sleep I pick up my brush and keep drawing… Hokusai explaining his winter routine to one of his pupils, 1842–1843

Case on the right: Shrine with Nichiren and possibly Nichizō, 1700s–1800s


This portable lacquered shrine houses images of monk Nichiren (1222–82) and, possibly, his follower Nichizō (1269–1342). They are protected by deities associated with the Lotus Sutra, the central text of Nichiren belief. Hokusai’s artistic practice was guided throughout his life by his faith in Nichiren Buddhism.

Portable shrine, ink, colour, gold, gold leaf and lacquer on wood, with metal fittings. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks

Wall on the right: Letter with instructions for mixing pigment, 1840s–1850s.

応為栄女筆 絵具製法の指導状(書状)

Katsushika Ōi (about 1800 – after 1857)

Hokusai’s daughter Ōi sent this letter to a pupil, probably in the town of Obuse where her father had important patrons. It instructs them how to produce a red pigment, ‘Grind a pellet about this size [she draws a circle] to a fine powder and bury it in the ground for around sixty days’.

Ink on paper. Hokusai Museum, Obuse.

Panel and tall case behind: Hokusai and Ōi


Hokusai married twice and had five or six children. Eijo (about 1800 – after 1857), a daughter from his second marriage, also became a talented artist. The art name she adopted, Ōi, means ‘Following Iitsu’, that is, following Hokusai. Ōi left an unsuccessful marriage to artist Minamizawa Tōmei, perhaps in the late 1820s, to live with Hokusai until his death in 1849. Only a handful of her signed paintings is known. Unacknowledged, she may have assisted her father with some of his later works. Works bearing Hokusai’s signature would almost certainly have attracted higher fees for their household income.

Image caption:

Types of women, an 1847 illustration by Ōi, shows women of different social classes, including a merchant’s wife, a farmer’s wife and a high-ranked sex worker. Ōi has signed the picture jokingly with the character for ‘Tipsy’. She was known to have been fond of alcohol.

Woman pounding cloth by moonlight, 1840s

葛飾応為筆 月下砧打ち美人図

Katsushika Ōi (about 1800 – after 1857)

Under a full moon, a woman pounds cloth on a block. The detailed brushwork features subtle gradations of blue. Hokusai’s daughter Ōi was one of his most talented students and a remarkable artist in her own right. This is a rare confirmed example of her work. The signature has been partly scraped away, suggesting an attempt to pass Ōi’s painting off as a work by her father.

Ink and colour on paper. Tokyo National Museum.

Tall case behind to the left: Chrysanthemums, possibly late 1840s

北斎または応為筆(共作ヵ) 菊図

Hokusai and/or Katsushika Ōi (about 1800 – after 1857)

This is one of a pair of scrolls featuring varieties of chrysanthemum painted in hyper-real detail. The compositions recall Hokusai’s earlier Large flower print series. The signature and seal, however, do not appear to be genuine. Scholars have suggested that the paintings were in fact done, or completed, by Ōi, Hokusai’s artist daughter.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Hokusai Museum, Obuse

Tall case on the right: Waves, 1845


Frames completed by Takai Kōzan (1806–1883)

All is engulfed by the sea. Spiralling waves open like portals to another dimension. Here, Hokusai’s interest in Chinese Daoist philosophy may have led him to represent the ‘supreme ultimate’, from which everything originates. The paintings were created in 1845 as ceiling panels for a festival cart in the town of Obuse. Hokusai also designed the decorative frames of mythical birds and beasts – and even an exotic European winged cherub. They were completed in 1846 by his pupil and patron Takai Kōzan, a wealthy and educated saké (rice wine) merchant in the town.

Ink and colour on paulownia wood. Kanmachi Neighbourhood Council, Obuse.

Image caption:

Hokusai designed the warrior and the dragon sculptures for this magnificent five-metre-high festival cart, as well as the ceiling panels.

Photo © Hokusai Museum, Obuse

Wall quote on the right:

齢八旬にちかしといへど 眼気筆力 壮年にかわらず百歳の命を保ちて 独立のこゝろざしをじょうじゅせん事 を思ふ

Even though I’m nearly eighty, my eyesight and the strength of my brush are no different from when I was young. Let me live to be a hundred and I will be without equal!

Hokusai in Picture Book for Various Crafts: New Models, 1836

Wall behind: Phoenix, preparatory drawing for the ceiling at Ganshōin temple, about 1845


This preparatory drawing shows Hokusai designing on a grand scale. The mythological phoenix or hōō, a multi-coloured omen of peace and prosperity, was commissioned for the ceiling at Ganshōin temple in Obuse. Here, the artist indicates what colours to use. Takai Kōzan (1806–83), Hokusai’s local patron and pupil, coordinated production. The painting took several years to complete, finally covering about 35 square metres. Some of the subtlety of Hokusai’s design was lost, but still it overawes the worshipper in the hall beneath.

Ink and colour on paper. Ganshōin temple, Obuse.

Image caption:

The ceiling of the worship hall of Ganshōin temple showing the magnificent giant phoenix, which was based on Hokusai’s design, displayed alongside.

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Panel on the left: Immortality


Hokusai died after a short illness in 1849 in the fourth month of his ninetieth year. From the age of eighty-eight in 1847, Hokusai exclusively began to use a large red painting seal with the character ‘Hundred’. Like a talisman, it expressed his wish to reach an even greater age – and immortality beyond. The following year, he published his testament and legacy to the world of painting, Picture Book: Essence of Colouring. This manual includes many of the bird, animal and plant motifs that appear in his late paintings.

Hokusai believed the older he got, the better his art would become. Supported by his artist daughter, he was painting sublime and technically brilliant works to the end. He revisited dragons, tigers, holy men, Mt Fuji – powerful images from his long career – one final time.

Image caption:

This lost portrait was painted in the early 1840s by Keisai Eisen, a contemporary of Hokusai, so it may be the most accurate portrait of him. It was later inscribed with Hokusai’s deathbed poem: Maybe I’ll unwind, by roaming the summer fields, as a will-o’-the-wisp.

Translated by Alfred Haft. Photo © The Sumida Hokusai Museum, Tokyo.

Tall case on the left:

九十歳よりは 又々画風を改め 百才の後にいたりては 此道を改革せんことをのみねがふ

… from ninety years I will keep on improving my style of painting. After I reach one hundred, my only desire will be to revolutionise this vocation.

Hokusai’s postscript to Picture Book: Essence of Colouring, volume 1, 1848.

Picture Book: Essence of Colouring, 1848


The male mallard duck (right) in volume one also appears in one of Hokusai’s late paintings. In volume two, he depicts Chinese lions with contrasting poses, their mouths open and closed, surrounded by a swirling mass of manes, tails and fur. In the accompanying text Hokusai gives advice on colours and how to apply them.

From Picture Book: Essence of Colouring, illustrated book, woodblock. Trustees of the British Museum.

Mt Fuji through pines, 1847


Hokusai has used the natural colour of the silk to depict snow-covered Mt Fuji as seen between the trunks of two pine trees. In contrast, the foothills to the right are painted with rich colour washes. The small size of the painting belies its monumental composition.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Private collection, Japan.

Cormorant on a post, 1847


In this eccentrically composed painting, a cormorant inspects us warily. The viewpoint is from mudflats around breakwater posts. Hokusai encourages us to focus on this unpicturesque scene. When we look longer, new qualities are revealed: yellow candocks at different stages of flowering, flashes of blue plumage and stalks stretched taut.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by the Trustees of James Martin White.

Scattered fans, 1849


Five decorated folding fans lie scattered in a heap. Hokusai recorded with extraordinary care how the light catches differently on each of the folds. He died in the fourth month of the year this was painted. His paintings, signed ‘aged ninety’, must have been completed within a short space of time, perhaps assisted by Ōi, his artist daughter.

Hanging scroll, ink, colour and gold on silk. Tokyo National Museum.

Yorimasa killing the Nue monster, 1847


Warrior Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104–80) was ordered to subdue the Nue monster that was disturbing the sleep of Emperor Takakura (ruled 1168–80). Yorimasa aims an arrow into pitch blackness with grim intensity. A flash of lightning heightens the drama. As in many other late paintings, Hokusai here condenses the scene to its essential elements.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Private collection, USA.

Dragon in rain clouds, 1849


A dragon writhes up out of the tornado seen inside its tail and glares diagonally down to the left. Its intense expression and gaze exudes a living, almost human consciousness. The dragon was painted in a complex sequence of ever-darkening tones – from highlights of unpainted paper to jet-black ink flicked from the brush for final excitement. Originally the painting formed a pair with a scroll of a snarling Tiger in rain.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. Given by Nobert Lagane.

Family label: Fancy that!

Hokusai was born in the Japanese year of the dragon and painted dragons throughout his life. He always felt he could improve his technique so practised every day of his life.

Ducks in flowing water, 1847


A male mallard looks quizzically at us, while another dives for pond weed. Ripples of reflected light eddy towards us as fallen maple leaves sink slowly into the water. Hokusai invites us to savour the moment.

In his 1848 manual, Picture Book: Essence of Colouring, Hokusai provides instructions on how to paint ducks just like these.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Trustees of the British Museum. Given by Sir W Gwynne-Evans, Bt.

Tiger in snow, first month, 1849


Gazing heavenward, a tiger leaps through thickly falling snow, surrounded by swaying bamboo. The shapes of the leaves echo that of the tiger’s paws and claws. Hokusai is surely expressing a joyous identification with the universe. His inscription refers to the first month of 1849, a tiger month in the calendar. In the final year of his life, Hokusai is counting out the days and months, willing additional longevity.

Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Private collection, USA.

Wall on the left:

栄女筆 北岑宛北斎死亡通知書(書状・写真)

Ōi’s letter to Hokushin about Hokusai’s death, 18th day, fourth month, 1849 (photograph) Manji [Hokusai] was ill and treatment was to no avail. He died from his illness early this morning at the seventh hour [about 4am]. I wanted quickly to inform you of this situation… Funeral tomorrow, 19th day, fourth hour [about 10am].

Ink on paper. Private collection, Japan.

Wall quote above the letter:

天我をして十年の命を長ふせしめ ば… 天我をして五年の命を保たしめば、真 正の画工となるを得べし

If heaven will extend my life by ten more years… If heaven will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll manage to become a true artist.

Hokusai on his deathbed, 1849

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World artist

Panel on the left:World artist


In 1859, after more than 200 years of relative isolation, Japan began to engage more fully with the wider world. Hokusai’s colour woodblock prints and illustrated books flooded out of the country as trade goods, spreading his reputation around the world. The British Museum purchased its first Hokusai print in 1860.

For the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, French artist Félix Bracquemond copied designs from Hokusai’s Sketches (Hokusai manga) to decorate a dinner service. Japonisme, the cultural movement of enthusiasm for the art and design of Japan, became popular in many countries, with Hokusai as a standard-bearer. In 1888, the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh wrote, ‘All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art’. One hundred and fifty years on, ‘The Great Wave’ has become a global icon, affirming the immortality to which the artist aspired.

Image caption:

Picture of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise by Utagawa Sadahide, 1861.

The port and foreign settlement of Yokohama was established for international trade between Japan and the wider world in 1859.

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The Trustees of the British Museum thank the following for their generous support and assistance in the creation of the exhibition:

Supported by Mitsubishi Corporation

Research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Abeno Harukas Art Museum; Angus Lockyer; Art Fund; Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University; The Asahi Shimbun; Asano Shūgō; Embassy of Japan; Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Israel Goldman; JAPAN AIRLINES; The Japan Foundation; Japan House; Roger Keyes; Kochūkyo, Co. Ltd; Matsuba Ryōko; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Nagata Seiji; NHK; NHK PlanNet, Inc, Kinki Branch Office; SOAS University of London; Sumida Hokusai Museum; Ellis Tinios


  • The British Library
  • Chiba City Museum of Art
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Ebi Collection, UK
  • Ganshōin Temple, Obuse
  • Hikaru Museum, Takayama
  • Hokusai Museum, Obuse
  • Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto
  • Kanmachi Neighbourhood Council, Obuse
  • Kawasaki Isago-no-Sato Museum
  • Leiden University Library, Special Collections
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • MOA Museum of Art, Atami
  • Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris
  • The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shōzōkan, Tokyo
  • The Museum Yamato Bunkakan, Nara
  • Myōkōji Temple, Koga
  • Nagoya City Museum
  • Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden
  • Okada Museum of Art, Hakone
  • Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo
  • Private Collections, Japan
  • Robert and Betsy Feinberg Collection, USA
  • Saga-Arashiyama Institute for Japanese Art
  • Sano Art Museum, Mishima
  • Sebastian Izzard Collection
  • Sumishō Art Gallery, Inc., Tokyo
  • The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
  • Tokyo National Museum
  • Tōyō Bunko (The Oriental Library), Tokyo
  • Ujiie Ukiyo-e Collection, Kamakura
  • Uragami Mitsuru Collection, Japan
  • Victoria and Albert Museum

All exhibition services British Museum unless otherwise credited

Graphic design: Northover & Brown

3D design support: AFSB Associates

Lighting design: Lux Lucis Ltd

Construction: Factory Settings Ltd

Graphic production: Echo Studios Ltd

Object mounts: British Museum and Colin Lindley

Fine art transport: Momart

Tactile and large print image books: VocalEyes

All images copyright the Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise stated.

Additional images and film supplied by The Adachi Foundation for the Preservation of Woodcut Printing, Tokyo Hie Jinja Shrine, Kisazaru National Diet Library, Tokyo

This exhibition has been made possible by the provision of insurance through the Government Indemnity Scheme. The British Museum would like to thank the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council England for providing and arranging this indemnity.

As part of the Museum’s efforts to lessen its environmental impact, materials, fittings and equipment are reused where possible. The Museum aims to make its exhibitions as sustainable as possible, sharing best practice, resources and the latest innovations with other museums and galleries.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright owners of images and other print and digital media in the exhibition. If you are a rights holder of an item in this exhibition and are concerned that you did not grant permission to use it, please contact the Museum’s Exhibitions Department at exhibitions@britishmuseum.org

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Find out more

Highlight events

Special evening events include a panel discussion on Hokusai’s impact on western art on 2 June, a study of the flowering of artistic genius in old age on 30 June and an evening of themed performances and activities on 14 July presented in collaboration with Japan House.

Free lunchtime lectures and talks cover a range of themes and include curators’ introductions and gallery talks.

Films presented in collaboration with Japan House include Miss Hokusai (2015) and a groundbreaking documentary made to accompany the exhibition. Filmed in Japan, France and the UK, it focuses on Hokusai’s work, life and times in urban Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the early 1800s. Using extraordinary close-ups and groundbreaking ultra HD video technology, Hokusai’s paintings and prints are examined by world experts who provide fascinating insights into the artist’s techniques and practices.

Enjoy free family events during half-term (29 May – 2 June) and special under 5s workshops on 9 June, 19 July and 11 August. For the full programme and to book, visit britishmuseum.org/hokusai

For blind and partially sighted audiences there is an audio described tour and handling session on 22 July. For Deaf and hard of hearing audiences there is a live subtitled curator’s talk on 10 June and a Deaf-led BSL tour on 24 June. To book email access@britishmuseum.

Free related galleries and display

Japan, Rooms 92–94, The Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries

The Asahi Shimbun Displays, Japanese woodblock printing: a craft of precision

25 May – 16 July 2017, Room 3

Follow the fascinating processes of 19th-century woodblock printing, illustrated through beautiful works by Kunisada, Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.


The accompanying book and a range of related products are available from the Museum shops or http://britishmuseum.org/shop


Combine your exhibition visit with a delicious afternoon tea, lunch or dinner in the Great Court Restaurant.

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