Head of an elderly man who is balding and has wrinkled skin and bulbous eyes

Hokusai: old master

By Tim Clark, Head of the Japanese Section, British Museum

Publication date: 10 May 2017

People are living longer than ever before and society is constantly reevaluating what it means to be 'old'. Here, Exhibition Curator Tim Clark reveals why Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave focuses on the last 30 years of the artist's extraordinarily long life.

Hokusai: old master

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) died in Edo (modern Tokyo) on the 18th day of the fourth month, according to the pre-modern lunar calendar. This was equivalent to 10 May 1849 in London. He was 90 years old by traditional reckoning. In Japan at the time, people were considered to be one at birth and their age increased by another year at each New Year, so Hokusai would have been 89 by western reckoning.

Head of an elderly man who is balding and has wrinkled skin and bulbous eyes
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Head of an old man. Ink and slight colour on paper, early 1840s. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Coll. No. RV-2736-11/2.

The aged artist was then living in a humble rented dwelling in the precincts of Henjōin temple, Shōden-chō, Asakusa, together with and supported by his daughter Eijo (art name Ōi, c. 1800–after 1857), who was herself a talented painter. Hokusai’s last words were recorded as follows: ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years…’ then, after a pause, ‘If heaven will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll manage to become a true artist.’

Eijo rapidly brushed a note to inform Hokusai’s pupil Hokushin that her father had just passed away: ‘Manji [Hokusai] was ill and treatment was to no avail. He died from his illness early this morning at the seventh hour [about 04.00]. I wanted quickly to inform you of this situation.’ She then added in smaller characters next to the name of the addressee: ‘Funeral tomorrow, 19th day, fourth hour [about 10.00].’

The first important biography of Hokusai, Katsushika Hokusai den of 1893 by Iijima Kyoshin, described the funeral. In an interview with Yomo no Umehiko (1822–1896) he recalled that Hokusai’s pupils and old friends contributed funds for a funeral with a modest coffin. About a hundred mourners proceeded to the mortuary temple Seikyōji, including samurai with retainers carrying spears and lacquered travelling boxes. This was unheard of for the funeral of someone living in the backstreets of the commoner districts of Edo and people in the neighbourhood were envious. Hokusai’s grave is still carefully maintained at Seikyōji today.

Mt Fuji in clear weather with clouds parting to form a halo around the summit which has a little snow on it
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831.

Hokusai’s fervent belief was that the older he got the greater his art would become. In 1834, when he was 75, he famously stated the following in a postscript to volume one of his extraordinary illustrated book One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei):

...until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 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 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, 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.

[translation by Henry D Smith II]

A tiger leaps through a snowy landscape past tree branches laden with snow
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Tiger in the snow. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 1849. Private collection, USA.

The exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave culminates in a room of sublime painted works done when Hokusai was 88, 89 and 90, including this Tiger in the snow. Each scroll is signed with his age and bears a large red painting seal with a white character reading ‘hundred’. Hokusai was literally willing himself to live ever longer.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything ran from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun.

You can also buy the accompanying hardback book Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, from the British Museum Shop online.