Hokusai (1760-1849) lived during the Tokugawa period (1600 to 1867). In a Japan of traditional Confucian values and feudal regimentation, Hokusai was a thoroughly Bohemian artist: cocky, quarrelsome, restless, aggressive, and sensational. He fought with his teachers and was often thrown out of art schools. As a stubborn artistic genius, he was single-mindedly obsessed with art. Hokusai left over 30,000 works, including silk paintings, woodblock prints, picture books, manga, travel illustrations, erotic illustrations, paintings, and sketches. Some of his paintings were public spectacles which measured over 200 sq. meters (2,000 sq. feet.) He didn't care much for being sensible or social respect; he signed one of his last works as "The Art-Crazy Old Man". In his 89 years, Hokusai changed his name some thirty times (Hokusai wasn't his real name) and lived in at least ninety homes. We laugh and recognize him as an artist, but wait, that's because we see him as a Western artist, long before the West arrived in Japan.
"From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. but all I have done before the the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten 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. I used to call myself Hokosai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing." -- Hokusai
Hokusai started out as a art student of woodblocks and paintings. During the 600-year Shogun period, Japan had sealed itself off from the rest of the world. Contact with Western culture was forbidden. Nevertheless, Hokusai discovered and studied the European copper-plate engravings that were being smuggled into the country. Here he learned about shading, coloring, realism, and landscape perspective. He introduced all of these elements into woodblock and ukiyo-e art and thus revolutionized and invigorated Japanese art.
Although Chinese and Japanese paintings had been using long distance landscape views for 1,500 years, this style had never entered the woodblock print. Ukiyo-e woodblocks were produced for bourgeoisie city gentry who wanted images of street life, sumo wrestlers, and geishas. The countryside and peasants were ignored.
In Holland in the late 1500s, artists such as Claes Jansz Visscher and Willem Buytewech developed landscape art, which focused on topographically-correct landscape representation. Landscape art reached its peak between 1630 and 1660 through Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan van Goyen. By the late 1700s, these Dutch paintings had become so common that the etchings were used as cheap illustrations. Dutch merchants smuggled their goods into Japan. These wares were often wrapped in paper that had been illustrated with these etchings. For Hokusai and other artists, the thrown-away wrappers were more interesting than the imports.
Hokusai learned from Dutch and French pastoral landscapes with their perspective, shading, and realistic shadows and turned them into Japanese landscapes. More importantly, he introduced the serenity of nature and the unity of man and his surroundings into Japanese popular art. Instead of shoguns, samurai, and their geishas, which were the common topics of Japanese illustrative art at the time, Hokusai placed the common man into his woodblocks, moving the emphasis away from the aristocrats and to the rest of humanity. In The Great Wave, tiny humans are tossed around under giant waves, while enormous Mt. Fuji is a hill in the distance.