In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Katsushika Hokusai

  • Introduction

Art History Katsushika Hokusai
Matthi Forrer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0157


While the best-known Japanese artwork is the iconic “Great Wave,” less known is that this was a creation of the artist Hokusai. Even more surprising is the fact that the artist was seventy years of age when he designed the print. Hokusai had already been working as an artist for fifty years, training many pupils, including two of his daughters, and enjoying followers even in far-away Osaka. This article focuses on research concerning the life and works of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (b. 1760–d. 1849) from an art historical perspective. The three main sections are preceded by a discussion of the various sources for a biography of Hokusai (The Life of the Artist). Biography is followed by a review of his oeuvre, starting with his illustrations of various kinds of books (Hokusai’s Oeuvre in the Format of Books). We still lack a full bibliographic overview of all the books that Hokusai composed, illustrated, or where he contributed designs for illustrations, let alone an adequate catalogue of the various editions and how to distinguish them. This is followed by a discussion of his works in the format of single prints, mostly organized according to his six main periods of activity, each associated with one of his six names, Shunrō, Sōri, Hokusai, Taito, Iitsu, and Manji (Hokusai’s Oeuvre in the Format of Prints). Scholars and students still await a catalogue raisonné, like the Bartsch or Hollstein volumes, that inventories all the known—primarily German and Dutch—woodblock prints, copperplates, and etchings, organized by school and artist. Most people who are engaged with Hokusai’s work, especially since the passing of the scholar Peter Morse, lack the proper training in art history and never heard of Bartsch or Hollstein. In the West they are often Japanologists, while in Japan they are historians, specialists of Japanese literature, and in so far as they have training as art historians, this background is still quite different from the Western tradition. However, now many Western institutional holdings have become accessible online, facilitating further study but, no Japanese ones. For Hokusai’s early period, especially, problems remain concerning works with signatures that can either be identified with Hokusai or with his pupils. The discussion of Hokusai’s works concludes with his paintings (Hokusai’s Painted Oeuvre) and his preparatory sketches for either prints or book illustrations. In fact, this is the most problematic part of Hokusai’s oeuvre where consensus will not occur until a new methodology of research is accepted. At present, there are two museums devoted to Hokusai in Japan: the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, Nagano Prefecture; the recently opened Sumida Katsushika Hokusai Bijutsukan in Tokyo, whereas the holdings of the Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art in Tsuwano, that is the Nagata Seiji collection, was bequeathed to the Shimane Prefectural Museum after his untimely death in 2018. There is also a magazine devoted to Hokusai research, the Hokusai kenkyū, volumes 1–56 (Tokyo: Hokusaikai, Kazusa Museum and Sumida Arts Foundation, 1972–2016.

The Life of the Artist

There have been various approaches to the study of Hokusai’s biography. Some, such as the Ukiyoe ruikō and Ikeda Yoshinobu’s Mumeiō zuihitsu were already being compiled during Hokusai’s lifetime; others, such as Iijima Kyoshin’s Katsushika Hokusai den date from the late 19th century. Iijima Kyoshin was the pen-name of Iijima Hanjūrō (1841–1901), who was the first to bring together the available information on the life of Hokusai, trying to identify and interview many people who knew Hokusai directly or through some personal connection. Iijima also obtained access to some of Hokusai’s correspondence with his publishers and used the information in prefaces to the books Hokusai illustrated. Edmond de Goncourt’s Hokousaï, which benefited from Iijima’s pioneering work, dates from the 19th century, as does the work of Revon, which appeared in the same year as De Goncourt’s study. Revon’s work is especially impressive because he did not have access to the Katsushika Hokusai den and relied on other material instead. In his 1944 work Hokusai ron, Narazaki brought some order to what was then known of Hokusai’s life. Beginning in the 1960s authors such as Suzuki, Hayashi, Yasuda, Nagata, and Sakai, made an effort to organize a strict chronologicaI narrative. Hokusai’s use of different names—six in all, not the thirty often mentioned in most popular accounts—provides an essential key to both dating his works as well as understanding the artist’s focus during a particular period.

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