Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), "the old man mad about drawing" (as one of his signatures had it) was one of the great masters - and one of the great innovative and creative geniuses - of the Japanese woodblock print, making the landscape print a major division of an art form that up until then had mostly focused on actors and bijin.
In addition, unlike almost all other ukiyo-e artists, (and most Japanese artists in general), his work has had a profound influence on art outside Japan. When his work reached Europe, it had a very significant impact on many artists, particularly the "Impressionists". (This was ironic turn of events, as he had been heavily influenced by the ideas of European art, particularly in technical areas like perspective.)
He was born in Edo in 1760, apparently the son of a mirror artisan (polisher and decorator) named Nakajima Ise. He was originally named Tokitaro, but in about 1774 he was renamed Tetsuzo, and apprenticed to a wood-carver, where he worked until 1777. (His training as a woodcarver would stand him in good stead in years to come, when his experience in actual carving gave him a depth in the field of woodblock prints which most other woodblock artists lacked. Sketches of his are still extant with profuse instructions to the carver on them in his own hand.)
He then was apprenticed to the woodblock artist Shunsho of the Katsukawa school, one of the masters of the woodblock print, and by 1779 Hokusai was done with his apprenticeship, and was given the name Katsukawa Shunro by his master.
Like many other woodblock artists, Hokusai seems to have started work on book illustrations, and moved on to actor prints, and later bijin, all in the classic woodblock style. During this period he seems to have been heavily influenced by the most popular leading woodblock artist of his day, Kiyonaga, who specialized in bijin. In 1790, he produced a series entitled "Festivals of the Green Houses" (i.e. brothels), of street scenes, in which the first signs of the artist we now know as Hokusai appear.
Shortly thereafter, in 1785, he broke with his master Shunsho, and was apparently forbidden to use the name Katsukawa. The cause is unclear, but it may be linked to Hokusai's lifelong interest for new methods and techniques, a contrast to Shunsho, whose output varied little from the start to the end of his career. The next ten years are not very well documented, but it appears that he went through some hard years, hawking small items in the street, according to some reports. He appears to have studied classical Japanese painting during this time, as well as the first Western art, then starting to appear in Japan.
Around 1796, he produced a small illustrated book, and over the next few years (1796-1798) he started to do a number of surimono, and this marked the start of his success as a woodblock artist.
It was toward the end of this period that he appears to have started using the name Hokusai. (It was common for Japanese to change their names, even more common for artists, who had go as well as their formal names, but Hokusai outdid them all, a sign of his life-long restlessness. In the period 1798-1806 alone, he used no less than six!)
During that period he attained success as a woodblock artists, doing a number of series on the theme of the Chushingura. He moved on from that to doing (during the period 1807-1819) mostly illustrated books, including the Manga, a series of sketchbooks for aspiring artists, which feature some of his best drawing, covering full scenes, as well as individual elements like faces, bodies and animals - in his own words, "everything in the Universe".
From 1820 to 1832 he produced the landscapes and "bird and flower" prints which we now consider his greatest works. Although Hokusai had done landscapes in small formats before (some as early as 1806), in 1823 he commenced the series which was to secure his places as one of the great artists of all time, the "Thirty-Six Views of Fuji" (although the series actually contains 46 prints).
In these, Hokusai produced a series of masterpieces that have affected the art world ever since, in particular the Impressionists, as well as imprinting themselves on the popular imagination as the canonical Japanese woodblock print (in the form of the famous print of this series, the "Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa"). They show the influence of both the classical Japanese painters and Western art he studied years before.
While this series was still coming out, he began his other famous series, such as "Waterfalls", "Bridges", and the bird and flower series, all in the period 1827-1830. His last great work was a series of black and white books entitled "One Hundred Views of Fuji", from 1834-1835, which although lacking color, more than make up for it in his fabulous draftsmanship. Jack Hillier says of this series:
Looking through the pages, we cannot fail to be impressed by the inexhaustable originality in presentation...-- "Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings and Woodcuts", London, 1955
During these last decades, Hokusai had travelled extensively, staying in both Osaka and Kyoto, as well as Edo. Some problems with a scapegrace grandson resulted in his exile from Edo from 1834 until 1836. His last notable work was a series entitled the "One Hundred Poets", begun in 1836, when Hokusai was seventy-six. Although only 27 were released, the designs for at least another 64 were completed, and some are as good as any of his earlier work.
In 1839 he suffered the calamity of the loss by fire of all his paintings and drawings, but at the age of almost eighty, it seemed only to spur him on. Although he continued to produce more works, principally brush-painting, for the next ten years after the loss of his collection in the fire, the quality does not match his earlier works.
He died in 1849, at the age of ninety, and his last words reportedly were:
If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.
Perhaps the best sense of him comes from his own words:
From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees; and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reached eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.More than perhaps any other Japanese artist, he is felt today to be an integral part of our common global artistic heritage, and not just of chiefly local renown.-- "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji", preface