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Katsushika Hokusai


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is thought of as the greatest master of Japanese landscape woodblock prints - only followed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858).

But Katsushika Hokusai is also the author of the ubiquitous "Great Wave" that you see in all art history books.An impossible wave, highly decorative which impressed, along with the rest of his work, Western artists since the 1850s when art merchants in Paris and London started to show his works.

Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji
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The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from 36 views of Mount Fuji), c.1829
The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from 36 views of Mount Fuji), c.1829
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The above pictures are from the famous "36 views of Mount Fuji", where the sacred mountain-vulcano appears both as a stand-alone subject as an apparent distant detail in prints portraying normal daily activities of the common people.


They were actually prints, wood-block prints (a technique imported from China to Japan in the 8th century) made for the growing working middle-class of pre-industrial Japan of the Edo period. Edo was the ruling city in what there is Tokyo, today. It was a period of strong isolationism (1639 - 1859) where movements and contacts abroad were forbidden and movement inland were restraint for security reasons.

Hokusai prints costed the price of a bowl of rice and were very popular. They were intended as temporary pieces of art.

He was the leading artist of his time, followed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) as we said, in developing landscape art, also influenced in turn, the both of them, by the European perspective probably seen in Dutch paintings.

Other great masters of Japanese wood-block prints were Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806), Toshusai Sharaku (17??-1801?), Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825),,Utagawa Kunyoshi (1798-1861) and Utagawa Kunosaga (1786-1865)

And Katsushika Hokusai is not only a universal artist but a remarkable one:

"....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, animals, 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 every stroke will be as though alive. "

"If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter. " (said before dying)

	-- "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji", preface  

Hokusai DioramaA Diorama portraying Hokusai in the Hokusai Museum, Tokyo, Japan (source)

The wood-block technique required specialized knowledge and four groups of people: the publisher, the artist, the wood carver and the printer.So there were wood-carvers doing the actual carving job as it was the case for Albrecht Durer who let others transfer his drawings to the wood or metal sheet.

An interesting part (for me) was the transfer of the drawing to the wood block (aged cherry wood). A problem also very much discussed among today's metal hand engravers.

"The carver would paste the original drawing to the block, face-down. The paper would then be made transparent by either treating with oil, or peeling off a thin layer of paper with the flat of the finger, thus revealing the reverse of the lines which the block had to produce.

He would then outline the areas which were desired to print with a sharp knife; during the Edo period, outlines were cut following the original direction of the brush stroke. All outlines were cut at a slightly inward sloping side, to prevent chipping of the wood. The carver would then carve away the material where no ink was to be printed, using a large set of chisels specially made for this task. (Although a wide variety of tools was available, most work was done with just a few.) This would produce the block to print the black lines, called the "key block".
[J. Noel Chiappa, source]

However, I read that Hokusai spent several years learning wood carving and so did the wood-blocks himself.

A fascinating reading by J. Noel Chiappa.

Hokusai production listing:


  • Famous Places of Edo (1800)
  • Treasury of Loyalty (1806)
  • Seven Courtesans (1806)
  • The Sketches of Hokusai (1816-1834)
  • Shells for Genroku Poems (1821)
  • Portraits of Suikoden Heroes (1829)
  • Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1829-1833)
  • Rare Views of Famous Bridges in All the Provinces (1832-1834)
  • A Tour of Japanese Waterfalls (1833-1834)
  • Rare Views of Famous Landscapes (1833-1834)
  • One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (1834-1835)
  • Imagery of the Poets (early 1830's)
  • One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (1835-1838)

And here an excerpt of the iTuneU book:

Hokusai & Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts September 23, 1998 – January 17, 1999

The society of Japan's Edo period (1615-1867) embraced a number of intriguing contradictions. It was a time of unprecedented stability, when Japan, previously a mosaic of violently warring feudal states, finally achieved unity as a nation. Though strictly stratified in four hereditary classes — nobles, farmers, artisans, and merchants — Edo society nevertheless produced a vigorous middle class of enterprising commoners. By the 1800s, commoners enjoyed the numerous amenities of Edo (Tokyo), the world's largest city. They launched businesses, perfected crafts, gained leisure time and literacy, traveled a system of safe roads, and enjoyed art and poetry. While print makers initially illustrated the denizens of the pleasure quarters, or Ukiyo-e ("floating world"), the print also became an acceptable and affordable medium for the full range of expression common to Japanese art, including landscape, flowers and birds, and genre scenes. The most important and prolific were the 19th-century artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose prints constitute the most recognizable images of Japanese art throughout the world.

A further detail of what just said:

"[society was composed by a]rigid class system with social and economic constraints. The highest class was composed
of the samurai, followed by farmers, craftsmen, and at the lowest level, merchants.
Nobility, Buddhist monks, Shinto priests, and social outcasts (beggars and
prostitutes) were exempt from these classifications" [ibidem]

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