Beyond the Great Wave — Hokusai at 90

A fisherman and a woodcutter — at age 90, the great Japanese artist Hokusai painted these moving images of contentment.


A conversation with Dr. Frank Feltens, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, in front of Katsushika Hokusai, Fisherman, 1849, ink and color on silk, 113 x 39.6 cm and Woodcutter, 1849, ink and color on silk, 113.6 × 39.6 cm (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Charles Lang Freer in 1920, F1904.181 and 1904.182)

Additional resources:

These paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art (the Fisherman and the Woodcutter)

Upcoming exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art: Hokusai: Mad about Painting

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] We’re here in the storage room at the Freer Gallery of Art, looking at two exceptional paintings by a Japanese artist that we mostly know through his woodblock prints, but here we’re looking at his paintings, paintings made at the very end of his life.

Dr. Frank Feltens: [0:00] We are looking at a diptych by famous artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] Hokusai lived to be a very old man.

Dr. Feltens: [0:29] Hokusai writes about his desire to live even up until the age of 110. This wish appears in “100 Views of Mt. Fuji.” He writes, “I started sketching everything around me at age six,” and wishes to live up until the age of 110, when he thought his ability would reach such a level that every line that he paints comes to life.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] He’s such a prolific artist. He’s produced so much that any other artist would have felt so accomplished.

Dr. Feltens: [1:00] As he saw his end approaching, he experienced this final burst of creativity, and the medium that he chose was painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We can think about these as expressing something more personal for Hokusai.

Dr. Feltens: [1:13] Let’s talk about “The Woodcutter” first.

[1:15] This may be based on a Noh play, in which a imperial emissary was sent out to find the spring of eternal life. The emissary comes across a woodcutter, and asks him, “Have you heard of such a spring?” The woodcutter sends him to that spring, and the emissary can return with the happy news to the emperor.

Dr. Harris: [1:44] This is a folk tale. We can identify that this particular woodcutter is likely from that folk tale because of the gourd that he has around his waist, which he would have used to collect the water from the spring of eternal life.

Dr. Feltens: [1:57] In combination with “The Fisherman,” another theory was also raised. There is a ancient Chinese story about a woodcutter and a fisherman conversing about the meaning of life. Because both of them are men of nature, in tune with the world around, so they become a symbol for a perfect balance between the world, the cosmos, and a life.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] It’s important for us to recognize that although these are figures that have simple professions, what’s going on here, there’s something much more serious for Hokusai at age 90.

Dr. Feltens: [2:28] These distant mountains are taken from the Chinese tradition, where distant peaks serve to create a sense of spatial depth. They also are part of the woodcutter’s natural environment. He goes into the mountains to gather wood and bring it back to the village, whereas the fisherman, this vast expanse of the ocean is being alluded to by leaving the upper portion of the painting blank.

[2:57] In their combination, it makes perfect sense to have this earthbound creature that is the woodcutter beneath these towering peaks, whereas the fisherman is gazing out into this emptiness, asking us, “What am I looking at? What am I thinking?”

Dr. Harris: [3:07] The image of the fisherman feels much more contemplative. I immediately wondered whether this was a self-portrait of Hokusai. He’s sitting on this wonderful wicker basket that’s overflowing with fish and feathers, and behind him is seaweed. And although he’s very simply dressed, a sense of abundance, the life well-lived, but also a future that’s unknown.

Dr. Feltens: [3:30] Both of these paintings may have been created as a quasi self-portrait of Hokusai. The feathers have puzzled scholars for as long as these paintings have been known. Why would a fisherman have feathers in his basket? Or are these real feathers? Are those fins? These may be references to another play of the Noh theater.

[3:50] The fisherman comes upon a feathered robe hanging from a tree and he takes it home because he finds it beautiful. One night, a heavenly being comes to him and says, “Give me back my robe, because without it I cannot return to the heavens.” The fisherman says, “Why should I give it back to you? It’s now mine and I like it. But if you dance for me, I will return it.”

[0:00] So she performs a heavenly dance and he obeys the bargain and gives her back her robe.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] So perhaps he’s looking out at the dancing supernatural figure?

Dr. Feltens: [4:22] Perhaps, or he’s trying to find another feathered robe to take home with him. What I always find so striking about these paintings is the smile on the fisherman’s and the woodcutter’s faces. There is this satisfaction with the world around you and also with yourself.

Dr. Harris: [4:40] The way that he leans forward has a very positive feeling to it. I’m thinking too just about the kinds of infirmities that happen when one is 90. The difficulty of holding a brush still, of creating fine lines.

Dr. Feltens: [4:56] The woodcutter is a very moving image. Hokusai, of course, was an extremely accomplished painter — one that could draw any line he wanted — but looking closely, you find a certain hesitancy in the black outlines of the robe, [a] brush that is not held quite steady.

[5:20] But it also gives the painting a certain sense of vibrancy because the robe, by those staggering lines, also seems a little crumpled. It almost enhances this feeling of an accomplished day of work.

Dr. Harris: [5:27] At the same time, he’s also showing us this mastery that we see throughout his career in creating figures that have a sense of very naturalistic movement and also different textures. I’m struck by the fuzziness of his hair compared with the fabric that he wears around his head.

Dr. Feltens: [5:45] He really was one of the most accomplished painters of his own time, or of the entire Edo period, or perhaps even of the entire history of Japanese art.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Perhaps of the 19th century broadly.

Dr. Feltens: [5:56] Exactly. The signatures in both of these paintings record Hokusai’s age. Literally, the signature says, “Old man, aged 90.” Below is a Buddhist symbol. In Japanese, you pronounce this “manji,” which was Hokusai’s last artistic name. He didn’t always call himself Hokusai. At this very late stage in his life, he called himself Manji.

[6:18] Beneath this, you find a seal reading “100.” In that seal, Hokusai is declaring, “OK, I’m 90, but actually, I do want to live until the age of 100.” Sadly, that was not to be. The signature also reverberates, perhaps, Hokusai’s frail health, because the characters are not in a fully straight line.

[6:40] There is a hesitancy in the brush; he had to pause midway in the strokes, whereas a few years ago, this would have been a swiftly brushed signature. Among those 12 paintings that he made at age 90, we don’t know which one came last. Personally, I choose to believe that this diptych, with its contentment, with its sophistication, may perhaps even be one of the last, if not the last, paintings that Hokusai made.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Frank Feltens, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Beyond the Great Wave — Hokusai at 90," in Smarthistory, November 1, 2019, accessed July 19, 2024,