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Who Is Ukiyo-e Artist Katsushika Hokusai? The Life and Works of this World-Renowned Genius

Katsushika Hokusai is a master ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) artist that has gained world recognition. His excellent ability to draw or depict scenes has had a significant influence on the succeeding generation of artists inside and outside Japan. The year 2020 will mark the 260th anniversary of Hokusai’s birth, so his life and his works are gaining renewed attention. Read on to find out what makes Hokusai so special.

What Kind of Era was the Edo Period when Ukiyo-e was Born?

The Edo period (1603-1867) refers to the 265 years in Japanese history that began in 1603, when Ieyasu Tokugawa was appointed as a Seii Taishogun (commander-in-chief of the samurai government) and a government called “bakufu" (shogunate) was established in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and ended in 1867, when the 15th shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa returned the political power to the Imperial Court (an institution that conducted politics with the emperor at the center of power). During this period, Japan was a peaceful country with virtually no wars for about 260 years under the strong rule of the shogunate. Society was stable, land and sea transportation networks were developed, and the economy thrived. The lives of people also became more relaxed, entertainment such as kabuki (Japanese classical drama) and sumo were born, and popular culture dubbed the “townsmen culture” flourished, with craftsmen and wealthy merchants living in the cities during the Edo period serving as leaders of the new culture.

A view of Nihonbashi in the Edo period as depicted by Hiroshige Utagawa in the “Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi" (53 Stations of the Tokaido)

What Is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e is one of the genres of Japanese art that was born at the dawn of the Edo period. There are two types of ukiyo-e: “nikuhitsuga" (picture painted by hand) that is drawn by ukiyo-e artists directly on silk (that is woven for use as painting canvas) and paper using their own brush or pen, and “mokuhanga" (woodblock print) that is made by making a woodblock print based on the original drawing created by an ukiyo-e artist and then having that woodblock print transferred or printed on Japanese paper. Woodblock prints were made by three people undertaking specialized works, and they are the Eshi who drew the image, the Horishi who carved a wooden board, and the Surishi who printed the woodblock image on paper.

Ukiyo-e depicted the daily lives of people, landscapes, trends, actors, and all other facets of life, as ukiyo-e themes included popular kabuki actors and actors performing on stage, beautiful women such as poster girls in teahouses, famous places depicting the popular spots throughout Japan, flowers, birds, fish and other animals and plants, and sexual culture, among others.
Woodblock ukiyo-e, which could be mass-produced, became popular and turned into a form of entertainment for the masses as they became affordable with their low prices.

"Sumo-e" (prints of sumo wrestlers) is another one of the popular genres

What Sort of Person was Katsushika Hokusai?

Born in the area presently known as Sumida City, Tokyo, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) spent most of his life around Sumida City. He apparently created more than 30,000 works throughout his lifetime, from the time he was an aspiring artist when he was 19, up to the time of his death at 90.
Hokusai had an extremely strong inquisitive mind about painting, so he studied not just ukiyo-e, but also the techniques of the two major schools of Japanese painting: Kano and Tosa schools, as well as Western art. It is believed that such experience led to the diverse styles in Hokusai’s works.

He had many apprentices and he established a permanent place in the world of art as a famous painter, but he did not lose his passion for creating, as he still aimed for greater heights even in his final years. They say that at the end of his life, he said, “If I could live for five more years, I would have become a real painter.”

Hokusai has drawn all things in the universe, but he was also known as quite an eccentric, having moved 93 times and changed his pseudonym (penname used by painters and writers) 30 times in his lifetime.

Hokusai's hand-drawn painting "Taka" (Hawk on its Perch)

What Are Hokusai's Works?

Hokusai drew ukiyo-e prints of various themes, and his works number more than 30,000 if you include his illustrations in textbooks!
Some of his representative works are the “Fugaku Sanjurokkei" (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji), a compilation of prints of Mt. Fuji from different areas and angles; the “Shokoku Takimeguri" (A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces), a series of prints of famous waterfalls in Japan; and the “Hokusai Manga" (Hokusai’s Sketches), a book of sketches that was published as an art manual.
The vivid portraits in Hokusai Manga are also said to have influenced French Impressionist painters. If you look at the works of impressionist artists, you will find many poses that appear in the Hokusai Manga.

Where Can I See Hokusai's Works?

There are many museums in the world that exhibit Hokusai's works, but if you want to see a collection of his works in Japan, then it would be best to visit Sumida Hokusai Museum in Sumida City, the birthplace of Hokusai.
Sumida Hokusai Museum is a museum that collects and displays the works of Katsushika Hokusai and his disciples. It was designed by Kazuyo Sejima, an internationally renowned Japanese architect.
The museum consists of two areas: the permanent exhibition and special exhibition areas. In the permanent exhibition area, you will get to witness the relationship between Sumida and Hokusai, and Hokusai’s achievements as a painter and his life through plenty of videos about his life and replicas of his works.
When you visit, you will learn about Hokusai and his works while having fun, thanks to high-definition monitors that will let you magnify ukiyo-e works in detail, touch panel monitors that showcase his works such as "Hokusai Manga", and a reproduction model of "Hokusai's Atelier"!

Where Can I See Hokusai's Works?

2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

The works of Hokusai, an artist who kept going and persevered to become a true painter until the end of his life, continue to fascinate people all over the world. Make sure to catch a glimpse of his works so you can feel the power emanating from them.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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