Hokusai: A Mad Man Before His Time

The sacred mountain appears in the distance, framed by the "A" support securing a large timber as two carpenters saw planks and another sharpens his saw under a straw lean-to.
In the Mountains of Totomi Province, from the series “Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” S2004.3.211

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

What could be more intriguing than the image of a man so unsettled that at the end of his long life he had lived in ninety-three places? Or an artist who changed his professional name so often that one of his contemporaries remarked “no artist ever had more names”? And how can one resist the determination of one who, on his deathbed and with faltering breath, implored the gods to grant him an extension of just five or ten more years—so that he might yet become a true artist? Even an inventory of this man’s possessions—one earthenware pot, two or three teacups, and a single cotton robe—exerts a curious hold on the imagination.

In approaching the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), one of Japan’s most renowned artists, it is tempting to linger over the engaging and eccentric facets of his life. Indeed, such colorful images provide ready toeholds as one attempts to grasp the scope of a visual master endowded with boundless creative energy and technical virtuosity. “He was seemingly oblivious to the practicalities of everyday life. Not because he was absent-minded, but because he was single-minded in his devotion to uncovering the truth through the use of his brush,” says James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Hokusai had an abiding desire to excel—not in a competetive worldly way, but as a means for sharing. “For Hokusai, transmission was what art was all about,” says Roger S. Keyes, an art historian and consultant for the 2006 Hokusai exhibition at Freer|Sackler. “It’s what he got out of art, and it’s what he hoped to accomplish through art. It was about transmitting the conviction of what he knew through his experience to others.”

The sheer volume of Hokusai’s brushwork beggars both the imagination and the intellect. Over the course of seven decades, which included occasional periods of profound personal distraction, this “man mad about painting,” as he called himself, created an estimated thirty thousand images—and wrote novels and poetry as well. He turned out ink drawings, paintings, and prints that varied greatly in both subject and format—actor portraits; landscapes; beautiful women; the spiritual and supernatural; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono (highly refined, privately commissioned prints); fan paintings; manga; illustrated albums, books, poetry anthologies; and novels; teaching manuals for artists, and even performance art. His illustrated books alone number some 270 volumes. “There is so much you have to look at before you get a sense of this artist,” says Keyes. “I’ve never caught up with him.”


  • Wow! I’ve looked at Hokusai’s work a lot but I never really knew much about him as a person. So interesting!

    • His life seems as fascinating as his art. Thanks, Elaine, for the comment. The exhibit opens tomorrow (March 24) and we are expecting a Hokusai-fest!

  • Thank you for this essay on one of my favorite artists. Hokusai is so very talented, yet few are aware of his great body of work beyond The Great Wave. I have always been drawn to the whimsy and humanity of his art. I look forward to visiting the Hokusai exhibits this summer.

    • Peter, thanks for writing. We’re glad you’re a fan of Hokusai! Our exhibition closes on June 17, so you have a little more than a week to catch the wave!

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