Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai is best known as an author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūroku-kei, c. 1831) which includes the internationally iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Hokusai created the Thirty-Six Views both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji. It was this series, specifically The Great Wave print and Fine Wind, Clear Morning, that secured Hokusai’s fame both in Japan and overseas. As historian Richard Lane concludes, "Indeed, if there is one work that made Hokusai's name, both in Japan and abroad, it must be this monumental print-series". While Hokusai's work prior to this series is certainly important, it was not until this series that he gained broad recognition.
Hokusai's date of birth is unclear, but is often stated as the 23rd day of the 9th month of the 10th year of the Hōreki era (in the old calendar, or October 31, 1760) to an artisan family, in the Katsushika district of Edo, Japan. His childhood name was Tokitarō. It is believed his father was the mirror-maker Nakajima Ise, who produced mirrors for the shōgun. His father never made Hokusai an heir, so it is possible that his mother was a concubine. Hokusai began painting around the age of six, perhaps learning from his father, whose work on mirrors included a painting of designs around mirrors.
Hokusai was known by at least thirty names during his lifetime. While the use of multiple names was a common practice of Japanese artists of the time, his number of pseudonyms exceeds that of any other major Japanese artist. Hokusai's name changes are so frequent, and so often related to changes in his artistic production and style, that they are used for breaking his life up into periods.
At the age of 12, his father sent him to work in a bookshop and lending library, a popular type of institution in Japanese cities, where reading books made from wood-cut blocks was a popular entertainment of the middle and upper classes. At 14, he worked as an apprentice to a wood-carver, until the age of 18, when he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō. Shunshō was an artist of ukiyo-e, a style of woodblock prints and paintings that Hokusai would master, and head of the so-called Katsukawa school. Ukiyo-e, as practised by artists like Shunshō, focused on images of the courtesans and Kabuki actors who were popular in Japan's cities at the time.
After a year, Hokusai's name changed for the first time, when he was dubbed Shunrō by his master. It was under this name that he published his first prints, a series of pictures of Kabuki actors published in 1779. During the decade he worked in Shunshō's studio, Hokusai was married to his first wife, about whom very little is known except that she died in the early 1790s. He married again in 1797, although this second wife also died after a short time. He fathered two sons and three daughters with these two wives, and his youngest daughter Ei, also known as Ōi, eventually became an artist.
Upon the death of Shunshō in 1793, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art, including European styles he was exposed to through French and Dutch copper engravings he was able to acquire. He was soon expelled from the Katsukawa school by Shunkō, the chief disciple of Shunshō, possibly due to studies at the rival Kanō school. This event was, in his own words, inspirational: "What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō's hands."
Hokusai also changed the subjects of his works, moving away from the images of courtesans and actors that were the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e. Instead, his work became focused on landscapes and images of the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social levels. This change of subject was a breakthrough in ukiyo-e and in Hokusai's career. Fireworks at Ryōgoku Bridge (1790) dates from this period of Hokusai's life.