Hokusai, “The Mansion of the Plates” • Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum

Currently on view until January 21st at the Seattle Art Museum, Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, on loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection, showcases over 300 works, most of which are viewable outside of Boston and Japan for the first time. Artist Katsuhika Hokusai’s most well-known work, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” is so ubiquitous that it inspired an emoji.

The most internationally recognized, influential Japanese artist to date, Hokusai, was a prominent artist in Japan’s Edo Period, which spanned from 1615 to 1868, and created his work during Japan’s Ukiyo-e Movement. Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures of the floating world.” It encompasses a body of work characterized by depictions of famous actors and courtesans, picturesque scenes of daily living, magnificent landscapes, and historical events depicted in woodblock prints and paintings.

Hokusai, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” • Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum. Exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts.

An early and pioneering artist associated with the Ukiyo-e movement was Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), credited with creating the first Ukiyo-e prints. He was a significant figure in the genre’s development.

Katsuhika Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo, Japan, or present-day Tokyo. He was born with the name Tokitarō; it was customary to live under different names throughout one’s life. Breaking tradition, Hokusai went by over 30 names throughout his life, which was an unusually large number, and he rose to prominence as an artist under the pen name Shunrō. His most famous and enduring pen name, Hokusai, translates to “North Studio” and is an abbreviation of Hokushinsai or “North Star Studio.” He practiced Nichiren Buddhism, which associates the North Star with the Buddhist deity Myōken.

Mount Fuji is symbolically linked with eternal life, which explains his affinity for it throughout his work, including his most famous series titled “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, which his famous work “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” belongs to.

His father was a mirror-maker and artist, likely inspiring Hokusai’s interest in the arts at a young age, which he would continue to nurture while developing a prolific career until his death at age 88. Early in his artistic career, Hokusai studied under Ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunsho, who was well-known for portraying Kabuki actors in expressive woodblock prints. Later, Hokusai trained about 50 students in woodblock production and taught over 100 at the Katsuhika School. Among his students was his youngest daughter Ei, also known as Katsuhika Ōi, who would become a successful artist herself and has work included in this exhibit.

Hokusai, “Red Fuji” • Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum. Exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts.

Hokusai produced more than 30,000 paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, and illustrations during his career.

Ukiyo-e was considered low-brow art due to the highly reproducible nature of woodblock prints, which reigned supreme during the movement. Woodblock prints allowed artists to create a high volume of prints that they could sell cheaply. Even so, the level of detail and sophistication of technique found in woodblock prints is awe-inspiring.

A lovely example in this exhibit is Utagawa Toyoharu’s “Perspective Picture of a Snow-viewing Party” (1771.) One can gaze at this masterfully done woodblock print for a long time and continue to find hidden details, such as the knowing glance exchanged between two beautiful courtesans dressed in flowing kimonos in the left corner.

Not only is a sizable body of Japanese art influenced by Hokusai’s mastery on display in this exhibit, but also a considerable selection from other centuries and locales, including the Japonisme movement from 19th century Europe.

Hokkei_Liu, “Bang Kills the White Serpent” • Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum. Exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts.

One striking example of a French work that appears to be influenced by Hokusai’s iconic wave imagery is Henri Rivière’s “Vague frappant contre le rocher et retombant en arceau (pounte de Leide),” a seaside landscape image with a foamy wave nestled between two large cliff rocks. The Japonisme movement originated in 19th century Europe due to Japanese ports reopening to Western trade in 1854 after remaining closed for over two centuries. A cross-cultural exchange ensued, and Hokusai himself drew inspiration in the later half of his career from Western styles, especially Dutch copperplate prints. He even began signing his name horizontally to imitate Western artists.

As evident in this expansive and diverse collection of stunning works, Hokusai’s inimitable yet deeply inspiring body of work has transcended its popularity during his lifetime by continuing to impact generations of artists and admirers, spawning many beautiful works influenced by his iconic style. This exhibit highlights some of these works, many never before seen outside of Boston or Japan, from the 19th century to contemporary times, and is a must-see. 

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