Asia Society

Hokusai and His Circle: The Literary Network

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), a household name in his own time and world-renowned within fifty years of his death, is synonymous with dramatic landscapes, such as the “Great Wave,” and hundreds of illustrations with subjects ranging from feathers to Mount Fuji. Hokusai also designed paintings and woodcuts with poems for private circulation among a well-educated, wealthy, and aesthetically discerning clientele. In Hokusai’s time, this audience included members of the samurai stratum and even the imperial court.

Hokusai and his associates cultivated connections in the literary circles of the day in order to secure commissions for luxury paintings and prints. Among the most popular entertainments was the composing of witty, often ribald, poems called kyōka, “mad verse.” Guests at poetry parties, where kyōka were often composed, included courtesans, kabuki actors, writers, artists, publishers, shopkeepers, and officials. Sophisticates such as Santō Kyōden (1761–1816) might, for a fee, inscribe impromptu verses on a painting or fan. Poetry clubs commissioned deluxe albums and surimono, individual prints for New Year’s and other special occasions. As the kyōka movement exploded in the early nineteenth century, and as Hokusai’s reputation grew in tandem, he was obliged to share his commissions with members of his artistic circle, including his daughters.