Print of a large blue wave with lots of white spray. Rowing boats in the water in the foreground below the wave, and a view of Mt Fuji in the background.

A timeline of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai

Revisit our past exhibition:

Discover the key moments in the life of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), one of Japan’s best-loved and most inventive artists. 

Follow his remarkable journey from lowly apprentice to rising star painting before the shogun. Then to the difficult years of the 1820s, when he lost his daughter and second wife. And finally to the 1840s, when he achieved a profound understanding of the world through his art. 

A brush that never stopped

Predominantly known outside Japan for his woodblock print Under the Wave off Kanagawa (popularly called The Great Wave), Hokusai actually produced thousands of paintings and prints, as well as illustrations for nearly 270 books. He began drawing at the age of six, and for the next 80-plus years, his brush never stopped moving.

Even towards the end of his life, when sharing a home with his artist daughter Ōi (around 1800–1857), he stationed himself at his drawing table round the clock to keep pace with the demand for his work and the ideas he generated. He used many artist names throughout his career, often representing a life stage or personal belief. The primary names include: Shunrō, Hokusai, Iitsu, Manji and Gakyō Rōjin.

Hokusai is often categorised as an artist of the Floating World (ukiyo), a reference to the Edo period's (1615–1868) distinctive world of the theatre, pleasure quarters and popular culture. But he was much more. He was a sympathetic observer of contemporary society, a synthesiser of East Asian and European painting techniques, and a teacher who shared his joy as an artist in dozens of manuals on drawing and painting.

Travel restrictions during the Edo period, meant that Hokusai never left Japan. He lived most of his life in Edo (present-day Tokyo), but that did not prevent him from imagining larger worlds. Today, Hokusai is a world-famous artist who continues to motivate, challenge, and inspire.



Early years

A male figure wearing a large coat and hat hold a stick looking towards his left.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Priest Mongaku disguised as a bandit. Colour woodblock print, Japan, 1791. Gift of Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth.
At the age of three, for unknown reasons, Hokusai was adopted into the household of a hereditary mirror polisher and in his early teens became an apprentice to a block-cutter, one of the key artisans in the woodblock printing process that dominated publishing at this time. In 1777, at the age of 19, he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, a successful Floating World artist who specialised in pictures of beautiful women and actors on stage. The next year, Hokusai began designing his own actor prints, signed Shunrō. He remained in Shunshō's studio until shortly after his master's death in 1793, at which time, again for unknown reasons, he was expelled. Throughout this period, he also wrote and illustrated popular short fiction.


Independent artist

Two female figures standing on a decking at the edge of a river, where a boat is floating. There is a wind blowing, as seen by their moving clothes and ripples in the water.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), view of the Sumida River, from 'Fine Views of the Eastern Capital at a Glance', vol. 1. Colour woodblock-printed illustrated book, Japan, 1800.
Following his expulsion from Shunshō's studio, Hokusai lost his bearings as an artist for a while. Then in the mid-1790s, he began connecting with poetry groups specialising in 'kyōka', a type of witty verse. Designing privately commissioned poetry prints ('surimono') and illustrated 'kyōka' books soon became a mainstay of his work. At this time, he is said to have studied the art of the decorative Rinpa school and from 1795, he used the artist name Sōri. In 1798 he transferred that name to a student (a customary practice) and began using the name Hokusai Tokimasa, reflecting his faith in the benevolent Buddhist deity Myōken, whose realm is believed to be the North Star (called 'Hokushin' in Japanese).


Always in demand

Figures sitting around a tree, another looks to be attacking them.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Minamoto no Tametomo and the Inhabitants of Onigashima Island. Hanging scroll, ink, colour and gold on silk, Japan, 1811.  
Hokusai achieved popular success during the years 1800–1810. In painting-performances at large temples, he demonstrated his mastery of the brush by producing enormous, building-sized paintings (around 210m x 105m) of familiar subjects such as Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and the lucky god Hotei. He also delivered a painting-performance before the shogun, Japan's military ruler. Hokusai's illustrations for serialised adventure stories by the novelist Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848) brought him even wider attention. Among the many acclaimed Bakin-Hokusai collaborations was 'Strange Tales of the Bow Moon'  ('Chinsetsu yumihari-zuki', 1807–1811), featuring the warrior Minamoto no Tametomo. He first used the name we know him by today, Katsushika Hokusai, in 1807.
See 'Strange Tales of the Bow Moon' on Collection online.


Sharing knowledge

17 drawings of different scenes illustrated in colour in a book.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the Seven Lucky Gods illustrated in 'Hokusai’s Sketches', vol. 1. Colour woodblock-printed illustrated book, Japan, 1814.
Around 1810, Hokusai began to produce the drawing manuals that would win him fame across Japan and the world. The first of these, 'Basic Instruction in Sketching' ('Ryakuga haya-oshie'), appeared in 1812. That year, he also travelled west to Nagoya where he met a group of painting enthusiasts led by the elite swordsman and samurai-retainer Maki Bokusen (1775–1824). At Bokusen’s home, Hokusai produced hundreds of quick sketches he called 'manga', suggesting 'drawings off the top of my head'. Amazed by their variety and skill, Bokusen and others compiled the drawings into a volume that became the first in the celebrated series, 'Hokusai’s Sketches' ('Hokusai manga', 15 volumes, 1814–78).
See 'Basic Instruction in Sketching' on Collection online.


Difficult years

A male figure standing outside wearing traditional Japanese clothing holding a rod.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Poem diviner. Hanging scroll, ink and light colour on paper, Japan, 1827. Gift of Sir William Gwynne-Evans.
In 1819, Hokusai turned 60. Looking forward to another journey around the 60-year East Asian calendrical cycle, he devised the new art name Iitsu, meaning 'one again'. A final burst of activity in designing 'surimono' (a genre of Japanese woodblock prints) followed in the early 1820s, but then commissions seem to have dried up. Relatively little work by him is known from the mid to late 1820s. He also seems to have suffered personal difficulties, including the deaths of a daughter and his second wife, a wayward grandson saddling him with gambling debts, and a possible stroke. Toward the end of the decade, his daughter Ōi left a failed marriage and returned to work with and look after her father.


A second (or third) wave

Print of a large blue wave with lots of white spray. Rowing boats in the water in the foreground below the wave, and a view of Mt Fuji in the background.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), 'Under the wave off Kanagawa' ('The Great Wave') (Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji). Colour woodblock print on paper, 1831. Acquired with the assistance of Art Fund.
Hokusai's fortunes revived once more in the early 1830s, when publishers began commissioning him to design landscape, bird-and-flower, and other commercial prints. Some versions of these nature subjects also appeared in his earlier illustrated books. Although he was already past 70, his passion for drawing constantly yielded new compositions and pictorial approaches. He famously wrote, 'maybe by the time I reach the age of 110, every dot and line will appear to have a life of its own.'

The achievements of this period include 'Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji' (1831–1833), two series conventionally called 'Large Flowers' and 'Small Flowers' (early 1830s), and many other innovative series. In Japan, Fuji is considered a sacred mountain associated with longevity. It may also have held personal significance for Hokusai, since he incorporated the mountain’s distinctive outline into one of his later seals and devoted a three-volume illustrated book to 100 views of Fuji. The art names 'Manji' ('Everything') and Gakyō Rōjin ('Old Man Crazy to Paint') both emerged around 1834.  
See the 'Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji' on Collection online.


Reaching higher

Black ink drawing of a person looking up and holding onto the moon in the sky, with Japanese writing down the left-hand side of the page.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), 'Daoist master Zhou Sheng ascends a cloud-ladder to the moon', from Banmotsu ehon daizen zu (Illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything). Block-ready drawing, ink on paper, Japan, 1820s–40s. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest, in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch, with support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation). 
Several of Hokusai's later publishing projects remained incomplete or unproduced, suggesting that his ambitions occasionally may have outrun the means or commitment of his publishers. For those who admire his work, this turns out to have been a fortunate occurrence, since rather than being destroyed by the woodblock cutter's chisel, a few rare examples of his original finished drawings for prints and illustrated books survive today. A superb recent discovery is the group of 103 block-ready drawings he produced for a picture-encyclopedia titled 'The Great Picture Book of Everything' ('Banmotsu ehon daizen', late 1820s–40s). Covering subjects related to India, China and the natural world, these drawings seem to have formed part of a larger project that Hokusai may have worked on intermittently from the 1820s onwards.
See 'The Great Picture Book of Everything' on Collection online.

1840s continued

Artist of the sublime

Two male mallards in flowing water, paddling against current: one diving amongst water-weed; maple leaves on water surface.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), 'Ducks in Flowing Water'. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, Japan, 1847. Gift of Sir William Gwynne-Evans.
In the 1840s, his final decade, Hokusai focused increasingly on painting. This medium allowed him to refine his technique and discover new depths in themes and motifs that he had previously explored. Though he was unsteady on his feet, he remained hearty in spirit, and left Edo for at least one extended stay with his loyal patron, the wealthy merchant Takai Kōzan (1806–1883), in mountainous Nagano (north-central Japan). Hokusai had already lived twice as long as most of his contemporaries but had every intention of living and working much longer, as expressed in the talismanic seal, 'Hyaku' ('One Hundred'), which he used on the paintings of his last three years. His late work combines keen observation, technical perfection, and a deepened sense of spiritual connection with his subjects.

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