Art History Lab

The Artistic Legacy of Katsushika Hokusai: From The Great Wave to Modern Day

Katsushika Hokusai: The Life and Art

Have you ever heard of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai? His iconic work, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is one of the most recognizable pieces of Japanese art worldwide.

However, his life and career were far from ordinary. In this article, we will explore the life of Katsushika Hokusai, as well as the art movement he spearheaded: ukiyo-e.

Early Life and Education

Katsushika Hokusai was born in Edo, present-day Tokyo, in 1760. He was adopted by his uncle, who was a mirror-maker by trade.

At the young age of five, Hokusai began his artistic training by learning how to draw and paint on lanterns for a local festival. Hokusais adoptive father was not supportive of his artistic pursuits, but that did not stop him from honing his skills.

Hokusais life changed when he apprenticed with a woodblock printer, Shunsho. Under Shunshos tutelage, Hokusai learned the woodblock printing technique used to create ukiyo-e art.

However, it was not until Shunsho died in 1793 that Hokusai began to make a name for himself as an artist.

Career and Personal Challenges

During his artistic career, Hokusais style evolved and matured. Early on, he focused on depicting Buddhist figures and deities.

Eventually, he would pivot towards ukiyo-e, which depicted everyday life in Japan, including the lives of the common people in rural areas.

In addition to his artistic pursuits, Hokusai had a complicated personal life and faced numerous challenges.

Throughout his life, he had two wives and fathered at least three children. He was also interested in Buddhism, and his interest in the religion was reflected in many of his works.

Unfortunately, his art and passion for divinity did not save him from poverty. At one point in his life, he was even forced to sell his own artwork to keep from starving.

In 1849, Hokusai suffered a stroke, a condition that left him partially paralyzed. Despite this hardship, he was still able to continue his work thanks to the help of his daughter who served as his assistant.

He continued to produce artwork until his death at the age of 89 in 1849.

Ukiyo-e as an Art Movement

Hokusai was not just an artist; he was a pioneer of the ukiyo-e art movement. Ukiyo-e translates to pictures of the floating world, which depicted the daily life of common people in Japan, including scenes of entertainment, fashion, and everyday life, including the lives of the workers in rural areas.

During the Edo period (1615-1868), Japan was isolated from outside influences, yet ukiyo-e art managed to flourish amongst the people. The popularity of ukiyo-e art made it affordable enough for everyday people to purchase prints and enjoy artwork in their everyday lives.

Influence and Popularity of Ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e art had significant influence, not just in Japan, but throughout the world. The 19th century saw the opening of Japans borders, allowing Westerners to get a glimpse of Japanese culture, art, and traditions.

This cultural exchange sparked interest in Japanese art in the West and created a movement known as Japonisme. The popularity of ukiyo-e art continues today.

Its influence can be seen in contemporary Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comic books), as well as its influence on Western art, like the works of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.


In conclusion, the life of Katsushika Hokusai was full of challenges, but his passion for art and the creation of ukiyo-e left an impact that continues to this day. His artwork provides a unique glimpse into the everyday life of the people of Japan during the Edo period.

His art reflects the interests of eastern culture as well as has a significant influence that has transcended time and culture. Katsushika Hokusai: The Art and its Lasting Influence

Hokusai’s artwork has left a lasting impact on art, culture, and history.

In this expansion, we will explore some of his most famous works and the influence they had on modern art.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

One of Hokusais most famous works is the

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. This series of landscape prints, published between 1830 and 1832, depicted Mount Fuji from different angles and in various weather conditions.

The series became an instant hit and was incredibly popular amongst the Japanese public due to the cultural significance of Mount Fuji, which was seen as a symbol of Japanese identity. In addition to cultural significance, the

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji played with the traditional composition of landscape prints.

Rather than using the usual vertical format, which emphasized the height of the mountains, Hokusai created new and innovative techniques such as the “cut off” composition, where the subject is partially cut off to create a sense of tension.

The Great Wave and Other Famous Prints

However, the piece that Hokusai is best known for is his iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. First published in 1831 as a part of the

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, this print has become a global symbol of Japanese art.

It also showcased Hokusai’s mastery of the technique of woodblock printing. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a stunning monochromatic print, with the waves of the ocean depicted as getting higher and higher, contrasting with the serene and static outlook of Mount Fuji in the background.

The use of Prussian blue color is what makes The Great Wave stand out. The color, derived from imported Prussian blue pigment, creates an unmatchable mood and tension, adding to the dramatic nature of the image.

Hokusai’s art was not limited to just landscapes. Some of his more popular prints depict people, animals, and even fantastical creatures like dragons and spirits.

The prints often had titles that were playful and witty, reflecting Hokusai’s sense of humor and artistic experimentation.

Japonisme and European Artists

Hokusai’s art inspired a movement amongst European artists known as Japonisme. During the 19th century, Japan opened up its borders to trade and cultural exchange with the Western world, and Japanese art began to gain popularity in Europe.

The influence of ukiyo-e on artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin paved the way for new movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, was a great admirer of Japanese art, and his correspondence with his brother Theo often included descriptions and sketches of Japanese prints.

Van Gogh was known for his experimentation with bold colors, and his style was greatly influenced by how Japanese artists utilized space, composition, and color. Paul Gauguin’s bold use of colors and flat two-dimensional forms in his Tahitian paintings were also inspired by Hokusai.

Legacy and Revival of Ukiyo-e

Today, ukiyo-e continues to inspire artists and enthusiasts. New generations of artists continue to explore and innovate in the medium, and new techniques have emerged to fit modern technology.

Traditional Japanese woodblock printing remains a time-consuming and demanding craft, yet its legacy still attracts contemporary artists seeking new ways to express themselves.

Moreover, modernism and the revival of interest in traditional and handmade crafts have led to a renewed interest in ukiyo-e and other forms of Japanese art.

The rise of new technology has also brought new ways to appreciate and experience Japanese art. Modern printing methods, for example, have made it possible to recreate Hokusai’s intricate and delicate prints in an affordable and accessible way, ensuring that his art remains relevant and beloved by people around the world for generations to come.


The lasting impact of Hokusai’s art is undeniable. His innovative techniques and unique perspective continue to influence artists worldwide.

His ability to capture the essence of everyday life in Japan, combined with his artistic talent and dedication, made him one of the greatest artists of the Edo period. Today, his legacy continues to inspire new generations of artists and enthusiasts to explore and appreciate the beauty of Japanese art and culture.

Katsushika Hokusai: The Later Years and Artistic Contributions

Hokusai’s legacy as one of Japan’s most prominent artists is undeniable. In this expansion, we will explore Hokusai’s eccentricities, his final works, and his continuing artistic journey.

Hokusai’s Eccentricities and Final Works

Towards the end of his life, Hokusai became more cantankerous and eccentric but continued to produce some of his most impressive works. His overriding ambition was to paint until his dying breath, and he famously referred to himself as “the old man crazy to paint.”

As Hokusai continued to paint, he developed his unique style, which included bold use of color and strong lines.

Many of his later works showcased mythical creatures and dragons, which were particularly special to Hokusai due to his lifelong interest in divinity. Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji, painted when Hokusai was in his 80s, is a stunning example of his lifelong passion for divine creatures.

The painting depicts a giant dragon, with Mount Fuji in the background. The dragon is fierce and dynamic, with its scales and color perfectly rendered by Hokusai’s skillful brushstrokes.

Continuation of Hokusai’s Artistic Journey

Despite his advanced age and declining health, Hokusai continued to produce art until his death at 89. His last major series was The 100 Views of Mount Fuji, which he began working on in his late 80s and completed just a few years before his death.

The 100 Views of Mount Fuji continued the tradition of landscape prints that Hokusai had perfected throughout his lifetime, depicting Mount Fuji in various weather conditions and from different perspectives. The series featured both woodblock prints and paintings, and the paintings exhibit more freedom of expression.

For example, the painting entitled Fine Wind, Clear Weather is a masterpiece of watercolor painting. Hokusai layered diverse tones to create a sense of depth, and to depict the mountain and sky, he utilized an ink wash that allowed the colors to blend in a way that was soft yet vibrant.

In the final years of his life, Hokusai’s eyesight began to fail, and he became increasingly aware of his own mortality. In his later years, he referred to himself as “Old Man Crazy to Paint”.

This pseudonym indicates his desire to paint as much as possible before he passed away. However, despite the difficulties he faced, Hokusai never stopped painting, and his artistic and personal challenges have made him an inspiration to artists and enthusiasts worldwide.

He made an indelible mark on the world of art, and his works continue to be celebrated to this day.


The life and artistic contributions of Katsushika Hokusai are a testament to the power of passion, dedication, and creativity. Through his innovative techniques and lifelong dedication to his art, Hokusai left behind a lasting legacy that continues to influence artists worldwide.

His enormous body of work stands as a testament to his artistry and his great love of nature and divinity. Hokusai’s works and his eccentricities showcased a creative spirit that never flagged, inspiring the generations of artists who followed him.

In short, Katsushika Hokusai was one of Japan’s greatest artists, whose work and influence will live on for generations to come. Katsushika Hokusai’s life and art left an indelible mark on the world of art and continue to inspire artists today.

From his early struggles and personal challenges to his iconic works such as The Great Wave and

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai’s innovative techniques and unique perspective transformed the art world. His influence spread beyond Japan, inspiring the Japonisme movement in Europe and influencing artists like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.

Hokusai’s dedication to his craft, even in his later years, serves as a reminder of the power of passion and creativity. His legacy endures, reminding us of the importance of artistic expression and the ability of art to transcend time and culture.

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