Hokusai was born in around 1760. Details of his early years are sketchy, though he seems to have been adopted by an uncle who worked as a mirror polisher for the Shogun. Aged 14, he became apprentice to a wood-carver, before going on to enter the studio of the ukiyo-e master, Katsukawa Shunsho.
Upon his death in 1793, Shunsho was replaced at the head of the studio by his chief disciple, Katsukawa Shunko. Hokusai and Shunkō soon had a dramatic falling out, apparently over the former’s incorporation of western features such as shading and perspective into his imagery. French and Dutch engravings had recently started to be smuggled into Japan, at a time when all contact with the outside world was forbidden — and Hokusai was fascinated by them. The fusion of western and eastern elements would be key to many of the successes of his career.
He experienced a number of setbacks over the years: from the death of his two wives, to suffering a stroke, and having to pay off a profligate grandson’s massive gambling debts. No setback could halt his restless creativity, though. Hokusai is estimated to have produced 30,000 artworks.
Probably the most celebrated are those in 36 Views of Mount Fuji: a woodblock-print series he began in around 1830. It depicts the sacred Japanese peak of Mount Fuji from different viewpoints in different seasons.
One of the images from that series is Under The Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (more commonly known as The Great Wave). In 2023, a print of it sold at Christie’s for $2.8 million, making this the most expensive work by Hokusai ever sold at auction.
Waterfalls, ghosts, bridges and large flowers provided the subjects for other successful series.
Hokusai continued working into old age, assisted in his latter years by his daughter, Eijo, an accomplished artist in her own right. He died in 1869, aged 88.
THE COMPLETE SET OF TEN PRINTS FROM THE SERIES A TRUE MIRROR OF CHINESE AND JAPANESE POEMS ( SHIIKA SHASHINKYO )
Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa) [“Great Wave”]
Fugaku hyakkei (One hundred views of Mount Fuji), 1834-35; ca. 1849 (vol. 3)
Tokaido Ejiri Tago no ura ryakuzu (Tago Bay near Ejiri on the Tokaido)
Tokaido Ejiri Tago no ura ryaku zu (Tago Bay near Ejiri on the Tokaido)
Kanagawa oki nami ura (In the well of the great wave off Kanagawa), from the series Fugaku sanjurokkei (The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji)