Hokusai (1760 - 1849)

Sei Shonagon

Series: A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poems
Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1833
Size (H x W): 20 x 9 (inches)
Publisher: Moriya Jihei (Kinshindo)
Seals: Kiwame
Signature: Saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu
Condition: Good color, very good impression, light surface soiling, faint mat mark, light foxing throughout.



In this design, Hokusai conveys this 11th century Japanese poet’s adamant spirit as she refuses the intentions of a suitor. Her poem alludes to a Chinese tale in which a lord’s retainers trick the roosters into crowing in order to open a gate. The poem reads: Although, still wrapped in night/ the cock's false cry/ some may deceive,/ never will the Barrier/ of Meeting Hill let you pass. (trans. Joshua S. Mostow). As Sei Shonagon assures her suitor that she will not fall for such trickery, Hokusai portrays the Chinese retainers before an insurmountable barrier. With a rooster poised in the lower right, Hokusai assures the viewer that the bird will not be tricked to crow this time – the gate to Sei Shongaon’s heart will remain closed. Other impressions of this print can be found in institutions such as the British Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, Tokyo National Museum, Harvard Art Museums, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

About the artist

The Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika was born in Honjo district of Edo as Tokitaro Kawamura. Adopted by the mirror maker Ise Nakajima, Hokusai was raised as an artisan, learning to engrave at an early age. As a teenager, he assumed the name Tetsuzo Nakajima and took his first steps towards the world of print. He worked as a delivery boy for a book rental shop for a time, then around age 14, tried his hand at carving woodblocks for prints at the apprentice to an engraver. Around 1779, he formally pursued his artistic education through the workshop of the preeminent ukiyo-e master of actor portraiture, Shunsho Katsukawa (1726-1792). Hokusai dedicated himself to the Katsukawa school until 1785, when he was dismissed due to a disagreement with Shunsho. From 1785 until early 1798, Hokusai under the name "Sori" as part of the Tawaraya workshop. Between 1785 and 1797 Hokusai established himself as a popular surimono (lavish, privately commissioned prints) designer, painter, and illustrator. As the turn of the century neared, Hokusai freed himself of all school associations and became an independent artist under the name "Hokusai" and "Tokitaro."The following decades were marked by personal struggles and profound professional success.

In 1814, the first volume of Hokusai Manga was published, where Hokusai captured the spectrum of daily life and Edo-period imagination with a spontaneous and sketch-like quality. Between 1817 and 1835, Hokusai Katsushika’s personal life was unsettled. While his artistic career flourished and his students proliferated, his second wife died. Continually changing residences within Edo, he spent time in Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto as well. In the 1830s, Hokusai entered his most prolific period as a print artist. He achieved great fame through his meisho-e (famous place pictures), such as the acclaimed series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1831-1833), which includes the iconic Under the Wave Off Kanagawa. Hokusai incorporated daring composition and aspects of one-point perspective into his landscapes. He revolutionized the Japanese landscape print, capturing the familiar and the imagined alike with innovative techniques and contemporary resonance. Following a devastating fire in his home in 1839, Hokusai turned away from print design and focused on painting during the final decade of his life. Hokusai Katsushika died in 1849. It is said that on his deathbed, his words were a plea for just five more years to paint, "for then he could work as a truly great artist."

Though Hokusai Katsushika died in 1849, his woodblock prints and other works inspired generations of artists worldwide long after his death. While works such as the "Great Wave" brought Hokusai ubiquity, his persistent spirit of exploration, innovation, and sensitivity to his world that built his revelatory legacy.