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Katsushika Hokusai: Master of Ukiyo-e

Where design and craftsmanship artfully converge.

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Japanese Art

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1848)
Master of Ukiyo-e

“From the age of six, I had a mania for drawing the forms of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-five I have learned a little about the real structure of nature—of animals, plants and trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made still more progress. At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do—be it but a line or dot—will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I, to see if I do not keep my word. Written at the age of seventy-five by me—once Hokusai—today Gwakio-rojin, ‘the old man, mad about drawing.’”

MAY 8  2023, 10:55 PM
Surimono  By Hokusai_ A Crow Stealing a Sword. This sword is a famous heirloom of the anci

Surimono By Hokusai- A Crow Stealing a Sword. This sword is a famous heirloom of the ancient house of Genji, described in the old romance known as “Genji Monogatari."

Woodblock Master Katsushika Hokusai
Art of the Edo Period (1615-1868)

“ARS longa, vita brevis,” though a time-worn aphorism, seems the best comment upon these words of Hokusai, which preface the “Fugaku Hiak’kei” (Hundred Views of Fuji). Judging from what he had accomplished, before his death in 1849, at the age of eighty-nine, and the continual increase in his powers, it is easy to believe that had his life been extended to the limit he craved, the prophecy would have been fulfilled. 

M. Louis Gonse says of Hokusai, “He is the last and most brilliant figure of a progress of more than ten centuries—the exuberant and exquisite product of a time of profound peace and incomparable refinement."  From the standpoint of Buddhism, Hokusai was the crowning glory, the supreme efflorescence of countless previous incarnations. In his career he epitomized the theory of evolution, the embryonic stages being exemplified by his progress through the schools. Trained in the atelier of Shunsho, the most skillful exponent of Ukiyo--e art, he rapidly absorbed the methods of his master; but even the Popular School was trammelled by convention, and Hokusai’s genius, rejecting academic fetters, winged its flight through all the realms of oriental art.

He drank at the fountain-head of China, then absorbed the traditions of the “two great streams of Kano and Tosa, which flowed without mixing to the middle of the eighteenth century.” Kano, springing from Chinese models, was transformed by the genius of Masanobu and his followers, and became the most illustrious school of painting in Japan. It was the official school of the Shoguns, in opposition to “Tosa”—that elegant and exquisite appanage of the Mikados, which represented aristocratic taste.

The Tosa school is characterized by extreme delicacy of execution and fine use of the brush, as in Persian miniature painting. The splendor of the screens of Tosa has never been surpassed, with their precious harmonies in color and delicate designs (so often imitated in lacquer), against glorious backgrounds in rich gold-leaf.


He studied the technique of Okio, founder of the school of realism, which, maturing at Kyoto, led up to “Ukiyo-e,” the popular art of the masses of Yedo. Ukiyo-e, literally “The Floating World,” despised by the ascetic disciples of Buddha and Confucius for picturing the gay world of fashion and folly, was the name of the school which liberated Japanese art from the shackles of centuries of tradition.

Ukiyo-e is the supreme expression, the concentrated essence of the schools, a river of art whose fount was India, Persia and China. For centuries it was forced into narrow channels by the haughty and exclusive aristocracy; but ever widening, its branches at last united and swept into their joyous current the common people of Japan, who, intuitively art lovers, had ever thirsted for the living stream. Now they beheld themselves reflected, in all the naturalness of daily life, yet with a spiritual rendering, “appealing,” said Jarves, “to those intuitions with which the soul is freighted when it first comes to earth, whose force is ever manifested by a longing for an ideal not of the earth, and whose presence can only be explained as an augury of a superior life to be, or else the dim reminiscence of one gone; and the recognition of this ideal is the touchstone of art—art which then becomes the solution of immortality.”

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The originators of Ukiyo-e, which included in its scope painting proper, book illustration and single-sheet pictorial prints, were Iwasa Matahei and Moronobu, followed in long succession by Shunsui, the precursor of Hokusai’s master, Shunsho; and united with it were the engravers of the Torii school, culminating in Kiyonaga (with whose grace and beauty of line Hokusai could never compete), the refined offshoot of the Kitao, and the elegant scion of Kano—Yeishi.

Hokusai’s individuality and independence long galled his master, and a final rupture was caused by the pupil’s enthusiasm for the bold and sweeping, black-and-white, calligraphic strokes of Kano. Then began a hard struggle for the youthful artist, who had no money and no influence. His father was a maker of metal mirrors, Hokusai’s real name being Nakajima Tetsu Jiro, but his pseudonyms were legion. In the atelier of Shunsho, he was called Shunro—taking with the other disciples of this school of Katsukawa, the first syllable of his master’s name.

Cast adrift upon the streets of Yedo, he sold red pepper, and hawked almanacs, at the same time constantly studying, and seizing the best ideas from all the schools. Blent with an intuitive instinct for art, the Japanese nature is essentially histrionic, and throughout the whole career of Hokusai there is an element which is genuinely dramatic. C. J. Holmes, in his beautiful work on Hokusai, gives many romantic incidents in the artist’s life, and was it not by a theatrical tour de force that he first won popular favour?

He chose no doubt a national holiday, perhaps the festival of “Cherry Viewing,” when Uyeno Park is thronged with sightseers of every station in life. Here in the heart of the great city of Tokyo is a hallowed spot—majestic, grand and peaceful, where in mystic solemnity the sacred cedars enshrine that wondrous necropolis of illustrious dead—for at Uyeno lie buried six of the famous Shoguns.

In the courtyard of one of the temples, Hokusai erected a rough scaffolding, upon which was spread a sheet of paper, eighteen yards long and eleven in width. Here in the sacred heart of Japan, with tubs of water and tubs of ink, the master and predestined genius of his country manifested his power. He swept his huge brush this way and that, the crowd constantly increasing in density, many scaling the temple roof to see the marvelous feat—a colossal figure, springing into life at the touch of the creator. All who know his work can in imagination picture the grand sweeping curves and graduated shadings that the magic broom evolved; and the artistic people gazed spell-bound, while many a murmured “Naruhodo!” (Wonderful) and sibilant inhalation of the breath marked their recognition of the master’s power.

Displaying less of the artist than the genius at legerdemain were Hokusai’s street tricks—almost reprehensible did we not know the dire straits to which genius is often reduced. An eager expectant crowd dogged his footsteps and watched with delighted curiosity, while he sketched landscapes, upside down, with an egg or a bottle, or a wine measure, anything that came to his hand—changing with bewildering effect from huge figures of Chinese heroes and demigods to microscopic drawings on grains of rice, and pictures made out of chance blots of ink.

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