Portrait of Hokusai by Keisei Eisen

World’s Famous Artist Born in Sumida ― Katsushika Hokusai

Sumida City has a longstanding history which preserves rituals and emphasizing on traditional skills, particularly as one of 23 wards of Tokyo. Sumida has an impressive record for producing of many great politicians, philosophers, religious leaders, writers, and artists.
The ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was no exception. His enticing life and diverse artworks spanning over 70 years are being recognized more than ever before, even 160 years after his death. Today, he takes the spotlight as one of the world’s greatest acclaimed artist.
Hokusai was born in Sumida. Although it is said that he has moved residence more than 90 times in his 90-year life, Hokusai spent most of his life in Sumida. He left many works that he had created, most depicting the landscapes of Sumida, such as the Ryogoku Bridge, Mimeguri Shrine, and Ushijima Shrine.
Hokusai claimed his name “Katsushika” after the Katsushika District of Musashi Province where his hometown “Sumida” existed.

Honjo minami-warigesui before the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923

World-known Hokusai

Hokusai’s work had already been recognized outside of Japan during his lifetime. For instance, Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a visiting doctor at a Dutch trading post in Japan, adopted works of Hokusai Manga (“Hokusai Sketchbooks”) into his book “Nippon,” which was published between 1832 and 1851. However, it was only after the onset of Japonism popularity upon the International Exposition of 1867 held in Paris that his name became highly acknowledged. Ukiyo-e was introduced along with a number of artifacts during the world’s fair. The dynamic composition and bright coloring were revolutionary to the European art world causing a major impact towards European artists, and triggering the birth of impressionism.
The influenced artists include Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas made a figure painting he learned from the Hokusai Sketchbooks. Inspired, Henri Rivière (1864-1951) created a series of lithographs called the “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower,” modernising Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.”
Émile Gallé (1846-1904), a famous glass artist of the Art Nouveau movement made a flower vase that adopted designs from the Hokusai Sketchbooks. The composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) drew inspiration from “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” one of the prints from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series, for his symphonic poem La Mer.
Hokusai had a profound influence on European artists and continues to gain international acclaim to this day. In 1960, he was honored at the Congress of the World Peace Council in Vienna for his contribution to the promotion of culture worldwide. In 1998, he was the only Japanese person given a place “The 100 Most Important Events and People of the Past 1,000 Years” in "THE LIFE MILLENNIUM".

Under the Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji 25.3×37.6 1831
Thirty-Six Views of Eiffel the Tower Henri Rivière Series of lithographic prints 22.5×26.8 1902

Rich Style of Art and Imagination

Hokusai was a prolific artist who worked in a variety of different styles over a period of some seven decades. The styles vary significantly, as if different artists have created them. At the age of 19, Hokusai became a disciple of the ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunshō and was given the name Shunrō. By the end of the period in which he worked under this name, it is said that Hokusai was already studying other styles of art. After leaving Katsukawa, Hokusai went on to study a completely different style under the Sōri School, which was derived from the highly ornamental Rinpa style of art. There he took the name Tawaraya Sori. Hokusai eventually left the Sōri School, and he thought of nature and the universe to be his true masters and began pursuing work that reflected his fascination towards them. The rich experiences he had over the years, is perhaps the source of Hokusai’s diverse style.
His inspirations are depicted in many of his works. In order to draw Tokaido and Kisokaidou, which extends from east to west in one picture, he composed the road as if it were a winding maze. The illustrations in the book have a dynamic composition expressed with only black and white inks. He became the forerunner in the style of drawing. When drawing for manual books, he made them practical for other craftsmen which were much different from conventional pictures. He would draw a tall tower over a few pages of lithographic prints. From there, Hokusai suggested new possibilities of expression in a limited page space by structuring the pages into an animation-like continuous story, such as a scene in which a cannon is fired and hits a target on the following page. Instead of drawing simple states of landscapes and people’s lives, the Nishiki-e artworks that he produced in his later years, such as his masterpiece, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, puts focus on how many viewpoints exist in an object and how they change over time.

Views of Tokaido’s Famous Spots Large-size Nishiki-e 43.9×58.2 1818
Royal Men and Woman Silk canvas painting 35.4×60.7 1839

Hokusai’s Life and Words

We can learn about Hokusai’s personality and beliefs through the fragments of words he has left in prefaces of manual books, epilogs, letters, and Senryu, a form of short poetry constructed with syllabic rules.
One of his most famous works is the epilog of the manual book “A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji,” which Hokusai published at the age of 75. Hokusai, who started drawing at the age of 6, stated that what he has drawn until the age 70 was nothing but a trivial matter and that he finally understood the bones of fauna and flora, as well as its birth when he was 73. He remarked that his art will improve until 80 years old, by 90 his drawings will become rich in depth, and by 100 his drawings will attain a mystical state of mastership. He stated that every dot and kink would come to alive after he is 100, showing his bottomless dedication for growth well over 100 years old.
Hokusai demonstrated a sense of humor not only in his Toba-e style paintings but also in his Senryu. Hokusai’s work has been found in Haifu Yanagidaru as another alias of Manji, since 1809. For example, his verse goes, “Dragonflies make a knot on stone jizo hair.” This humorously depicts a situation where a dragonfly is perched on the head of a jizou (a small stone statue) which appears to be a Japanese topknot haircut. Moreover, in his statement of debt he sent to a lithograph publisher, he satirically wrote his name as “Hekusai,” instead of “Hokusai,” which suggests a person whose fart is smelly.
Prior to his death, Hokusai was said to have remarked, “If the son of heaven retains my life five years longer, I will become a true artisan.” His last poem reads, “My soul makes a trip in the summer field.” Hokusai, who pursued the path of a painter, composed a poem, imagining his soul hiking and flying over the summer field.

A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, First Chapter Hanshi Book 22.6×15.7 1834
Measurement Survey in Countryside Large-size Nishiki-e 37.4×52.7 1848

Sumida and Hokusai