The Great Wave: 10 things you didn’t know about Hokusai

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The image of Hokusai’s majestic wave arcing a dwarfed Mount Fuji is one of the most iconic representations of Japan, and arguably the most famous piece of Japanese art internationally.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa has reproduction prints, keyrings, backpacks, t-shirts, scarves, cushions and phone cases (we even found it on a pair of pants). It’s left such an impression that there are countless Great Wave tattoos and it has been immortalised as an Apple emoji.

Apple Wave Emoji, inspired by Hokusai

Many though have little knowledge about the artist himself. With a new exhibition coming to the British Museum in London, and the recently opened Sumida Hokusai museum in Tokyo, we’re taking a look beyond the wave with 10 top Katushika Hokusai facts.

1. Katsushika Hokusai wasn’t his only name…

Nakahara in Sagami Province by Katsushika Hokusai
Nakahara in Sagami Province

Hokusai went by more than 30 names throughout his career including Shunro, Sori, Kako, Taito, Gakyojin, Iitsu, and Manji. Towards the end of his life, he went by Gakyojin, “I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself “The Old Man Mad about Drawing””.

2. The Great Wave is one of a series

South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai
South Wind, Clear Sky

The Great Wave off Kanagawa isn’t actually a stand-alone piece, but just one image in a print-series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

3. His work influenced many artists in the west

Cover of Claude Debussy La Mer manuscript
Cover of Claude Debussy La Mer manuscript

The Great Wave uses a blue pigment imported from Prussia, but it was actually painted between 1830-32 during Sakoku, a period of time when Japan was secluded from the rest of the world.

When the borders opened in the 1850s, Hokusai’s work was recognised by his European contemporaries; Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec became collectors and Vincent Van Gogh’s own work was heavily influenced.

Claude Debussy was even inspired to write La mer after seeing The Great Wave.

4. He had planned to live until 110

Poppies by Katsushika Hokusai

Hokusai’s date of birth is believed to be 30 October 1760, but even he wasn’t completely sure! Despite being 70 when he painted his seminal series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, he was convinced that he wouldn’t see his best work until he reached 110.

“When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age.”

He didn’t see 110, passing away on 10 May 1849 at the age of 90. On his deathbed, he reportedly said “if heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter”.

5. He was one of the first users of the term “manga”

Hokusai Manga by Katsushika Hokusai
Hokusai Manga

Between 1814–19 he created an illustrated series titled Hokusai Manga, with amusing images for his students and other aspiring artists to copy. It became a best-seller and one of the earliest recorded uses of the term manga – unrelated to the modern comic book equivalent!

6. Hokusai was a Buddhist

Misaka Suimen by Katsushika Hokusai
Misaka Suimen

Hokusai followed the Nichiren school of Buddhism and it is believed that his repeated representations of Mount Fuji, and the name Hokusai are related to religious symbolism. In 1804, he also created a 600ft (180m) portrait of Buddhist priest Daruma for a festival in Tokyo using a broom and buckets of ink.

7. He produced 30,000 pieces of work

Ejiri in Suruga Province by Katsushika Hokusai
Ejiri in Suruga Province

Long days and a long life allowed Hokusai to amass an incredible 30,000 pieces of work, but unfortunately, a fire in 1839 destroyed many of his pieces.

8. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is on rotation

Kajikazawa in Kai Province by Katsushika Hokusai
Kajikazawa in Kai Province

The remaining copies of The Great Wave vary in quality and colour intensity; woodblocks degrade over time so early prints tend to be brighter and more defined. There are few remaining early pieces from the series, so the prints are exhibited on rotation to protect the colour.

9. Hokusai’s daughter was also an artist

Three Women Playing Musical Instruments by Katsushika Oei
Three Women Playing Musical Instruments by Katsushika Oei

Hokusai’s daughter Eijo (art name Ōi) was also a gifted artist and moved in with her father to work alongside him in his later years. Her life is immortalised in the manga series and anime film Miss Hokusai.

10. The Great Wave wasn’t the only wave

A Wild Sea at Choshi by Katsushika Hokusai
A Wild Sea at Choshi

Throughout his career, Hokusai also depicted waves in Chōshi in Shimōsa Province, Kajikazawa in Kai Province and Ono No Takamura.

Take our Tokyo art scene tour to get beneath the surface of renowned art galleries, architecturally unique places and exclusive exhibitions with an insider from this magical city.

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