This section introduces a range of Japanese woodblock print artists whose work comes through our gallery.
One of the the leading figures in the ukiyoe world during the Meiji era, and perhaps the greatest amongst his contemporaries.
1760 - 1849
Katsushika Hokusai is considered to be one of the greatest artists not only by Japanese people, but by the entire art world.
In the late 18th century, while prints of beautiful women (bijinga) and prints of actors (yakusha-e) were popular in the ukiyo-e world, Hokusai developed a new field in ukiyo-e, landscapes. He devoted almost all of his 90 years of life to drawing and painting. Never satisfied with one technique or mastering one style of drawing, he always sought to improve as an artist.
The following text summarises what is known about Hokusai’s life and highlights his artistic development.
Katsushika Hokusai was born into the Kawamura family in Honjo Warigesui, Edo (present-day Tokyo) and was named Tetsutaro. A few years later, he was adopted by Nakajima Isei who was possibly his biological father. Isei worked as a mirror maker for the Tokugawa shogunate. At the age of 10, Hokusai was given the name Tetsuzo.
In his autobiography Hokusai writes that he had begun sketching when he was five or six years old. At the age of 15, he started an apprenticeship at a woodcut workshop and continued it for several years. This experience must have given him direction and must have been a decisive factor in him becoming an ukiyo-e artist. It is also said that he worked in a rental bookshop and read illustrated books whenever his time allowed, which might have influenced him in publishing the Hokusai Manga and the One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji book series.
At the age of 19, Hokusai became a student of the famous ukiyo-e master Katsukawa Shunsho, by whom he was given the artist name Shunro. He belonged to the Katsukawa school for nearly 15 years, designing his first actor print in 1779. He also designed some prints of beauties and sumo wrestlers, as well as genre prints. His works produced in this period, show the influence of already accomplished ukiyo-e masters including Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Toyoharu and of course Shunsho. It seems that in those years Hokusai was trying to absorb these artists’ styles as much as possible, in order to build the foundation of his own style. Though he officially belonged to the Katsukawa school, he secretly also took lessons from Kano Yusen, a painter utilising the kano style. He ended up being discovered, which perhaps was the reason why he was expelled from the Katsukawa school after the death of Shunsho in 1792.
Not satisfied with having mastered the Katsukawa and Kano styles, Hokusai continued studying with other artists: he studied Chinese painting with Tsutsumi Torin III and learned the tosa style from Sumiyoshi Naiki and the korin style from Tawaraya Sori. He also studied Shiba Kokan’s etchings and Western-style painting. It is believed that he tried to master many more styles of art. Chinese painting should be pointed out among his artistic influences for most likely becoming the core of the detailed works of his later years. It is likely that none of his contemporaries attempted to master such a wide variety of styles.
From the 1790s to 1800s, Hokusai designed many privately commissioned prints (surimono) and drew illustrations for comic books (kyoka), which were growing in popularity. It was during this period, when his Western-style landscape series “Eight Views of Omi” (Omi Hakkei) and “Eight Views of Edo” (Edo Hakkei) were published. The techniques used for these prints and the style in which they were executed, are so unusual for the artist that these works do not quite appear to be his.
In the mid-1810s, following his trip to the Kansai area, the first volume of Hokusai Manga was published. This series of sketchbooks consists of 15 volumes in total, covering a wide variety of subjects and is often referred to as a series of instructional drawing manuals intended to serve as a kind of textbooks for those who wanted to become artists. During this time period, he also amazed the public by drastically playing with scale: He painted two giant Dharma of approximately 200m x 200m, one each at two Buddhist temples, and drew a couple of sparrows on a grain of rice.
In the early 1820s, Hokusai started working on the series “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji” (Fugaku Sanjurokkei), which was finally published in 1830. It is certainly his most famous body of work and is often considered his best. The series actually consists of 46 images, including the “Great Wave at Kanagawa” (Kanagawa oki Namiura), “Fine Wind, Clear Weather” (Gaifu Kaisei) and “Rain Storm beneath the Summit” (Sanka Hakuu), which are known worldwide and are thought to have influenced French impressionists. His other famous series “Journeys to the Waterfalls in All Provinces” (Shokoku Taki Meguri) also appeared around this time period. In the mid-1830s, his illustrated book “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji” was published. Filled with depictions of the mountain in often dynamic compositions, this book, alongside “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji”, established Hokusai as the ‘Mt. Fuji artist’.
Through his artistic and commercial successes in the 1830s, Hokusai’s status as a great ukiyo-e master was firmly established. However, thereafter he stopped designing as many prints as he had previously done. Perhaps, he felt that it was impossible to perfect his own style of art within the constrains of the field of ukiyo-e, which required him to be assisted by carvers and printers to complete his works. It seems that he designed prints merely to earn a living in his later years, while he concentrated on painting. The latter he could complete by himself, without relinquishing control to anybody else.
Hokusai becoming estranged from ukiyo-e after this successful period in his life, presented quite a sharp contrast to Hiroshige who increased the production rate of his prints to meet the public demand for his work after achieving great success with his landscape prints around the same time as Hokusai did.
According to his autobiography, Hokusai moved residence 93 times and used more than 30 different artist names. One of the reasons for the severe restlessness was quite likely that moving house helped the artist break a deadlock when he became stuck in a certain style of drawing or painting (though it is also thought that he hated cleaning so much that he preferred leaving his house to tidying it up). The following is an incomplete list of the names Hokusai used:
Hyakuri Sori i (1795-1798)
Hokusai Sori (1797-1798)
Gakyojin (Meaning “Man Crazy about Drawing”) (1800-1808)
Gecchi Rojin (1828)
Zen Hokusai Iitsu (1812-1833)
Husenkyo Iitsu (1822)
Gakyo Rojin (Meaning “Old Man Crazy about Drawing”) (1805-1806, 1834-1849)
Miuraya Hachiemon (1834-1846)
Tsuchimochi Ninzaburo (1834)
Hokusai had many students, among whom were Hokuju, Hokuba, Hokkei and Bokusen. His fame was so great that he even had students in remote cities, such as Nagoya and Osaka.
Hokusai had two daughters Omiyo, and Oei. Omiyo married one of his students, Shigenobu, but later divorced him. Oei also had an unsuccessful marriage with an artist, but more importantly, she was talented in drawing and painting herself and made some contributions to her father’s works. Despite the wide-spread recognition for him, Hokusai remained poor. It is known that although he lived in poverty, he always took care of his health and ate delicious food. He was a devoted Buddhist and a devotee of the radical sect of Buddhist priest Nichiren, dating back to the 13th century.
“At fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I was firmly established. At forty I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I was ready to listen to it. At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing what was right.”
“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 that 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, insects and fish. Thus when I reached 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 stroke will be as though alive.”
The above words can be seen as a manifestation of his obsession, tenacity and self-confidence in his artistic ability, as well as his fretfulness about life, which was probably what made him move his residence and change his artist name so many times. However, 10 years short of his 100th birthday when he would have become a ‘true master’, Katsushika Hokusai died.
His farewell poem:
Hitodamade Iku Kibarajiya Natsunohara
Will-o’-the-wisp / Goes carefree / In a summer field”
1842 - 1894
1826 - 1869
Hiroshige II was one of pupils of Ando Hiroshige (1757-1858) originally named ‘Shigenobu’. A year after the master’s death he was married to Hiroshige’s daughter Otatsu. The artist was able to succeed his master’s styles and completed his series ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ when Hiroshige I left it unfinished.
His series such as ‘Eight Views of Sumida River’ and ‘One Hundred Famous Places in Various Provinces (1861-1862) ‘ are thought to be his best works of art.
In 1865 the marriage with Otatsu was dissolved. Hiroshige II renamed ‘Rissho’ and continued producing prints.