Between 1791 and 1794 Hokusai, his wife and five or six children lived in extreme poverty. His contacts failed. He had no commissions for full color woodblock prints or book illustrations. He eked out a bare living as he could by designing poor quality inexpensive portraits of kabuki actors. In desperation he was driven to sell almanacs and aromatic seasoning (shichimi tôgarashi) in the streets. He was mortified to meet his former teacher Shunshô one day while he was doing this.
In the spring of 1794 a client found his way to Hokusai’s cheap lodgings and asked him to paint a picture of Shôki to display for the Boy’s Day Festival in the fifth month as a talisman to protect his children against smallpox. The painting was successful, the client paid the artist two ryô, an enormous sum to him at the time. Fee in hand, the artist realized that with hard work he actually could support himself and his family as an artist. Hokusai at this time was a devotee of the Bodhisattva Myôken, the deity of the North Star, so he soon visited the Myôken Hall at Hosshôji Temple in Yanagishima to offer thanks and prayers, and to vow to Myôken that he would do absolutely everything in his power to succeed as an artist. From that day on, he later said, he worked all day everyday, rising at dawn and drawing till dusk. He soon received two private commissions for from musical performers for surimono and threw himself into designing them, concealing references to the sacred Ekô Pine Tree at Hosshôji Temple and the Seven Stars of the polar constellations.
That autumn, completely out of the blue though no doubt through then kindness and intercession of a friend, an artist family invited Hokusai and his family to come live with them. The artist was to train their young son to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps as a professional painter.
The Tawaraya family, as they were called, not only gave the family a roof over their heads, they gave Hokusai the run of the family’s painting studio. Not only that, they encouraged him to adopt the father’s art name, Sôri, to use on his own pictures while he lived with them, reasoning that would keep the name in the public eye until their son was ready to step forward and formally assume that name himself. Hokusai agreed and before the end of 1794 had designed his first picture calendars and his first book illustration as Sôri; these were distributed in the first month of 1795.
In 1795 Hokusai ‘spread wide the borders of his tent’, viewing paintings in the family collection, meeting painters of many stripes, studying their work, and continuing his own exploration of drawing and painting. His excitement and enthusiasm must have been contagious because by the middle of 1795 many kyôka and haikai poets began hiring him to design pictures for verse surimono they meant to distribute to their friends and acquaintances during the following spring. At this juncture the artist chose the secondary name Hokusai, or North Studio (another hidden testament to his Myôken North Star worship), to modify Sôri and distinguish him from his predecessor.
In the spring of 1796, poets of many schools distributed over fifty Hokusai picture calendars and surimono. No artist until then had grasped the new possibilities of this marriage of image and text and the poets were astonished, even overcome by Hokusai’s intelligence, understanding, empathy, light-handed playfulness, wit and brilliance. More commissions flooded in, for paintings as well as prints, going Hokusai opportunities to apply everything he had been learning through his diligent study about painting design and visual art.
For two more years he supported himself with private commissions, as other painters did, although unusually most of his commissions were still for surimono, or privately commissioned and published woodblock prints.
Then one afternoon as he was napping at his desk Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom appeared to him in a dream as a child riding on a lion. ‘Time to wake up!’, Manjusri announced, ‘Time to return to the Floating World again!’ This was a strythat Hokusai told, or invented, about himself and illustrated in the form of a short comic novel published in the spring of 1801. The sleeping man in the novel is a self-portrait. He identifies himself as Sorobeku, or ‘Yours Truly,’ a signature he had just begun to use on new, commercially published color prints. On the next opening the ‘awakened’ artist dressed in traveling robes has in fact just crossed the ‘Bridge to the Floating World’ while an arrow in the sky illustrates the saying: ‘Time, swift as an arrow’.
In the first five years of the 1800s, Hokusai painted more than ever and added commercial prints to his still burgeoning surimono output. In Life expectancy in Edo was between 45-50 years at this time and in 1804, his forty-fifth year, Hokusai began calling himself an ‘old man’. (Who knew that he would live to ninety?!) He celebrated this ‘coming of age’ by recruiting a team of helpers and painting outdoors a gigantic half-length picture of Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch on paper that covered an area the size of 120 tatami mats, approximately 60 by 35 feet. To debunk the criticism that he could create a spectacle but couldn’t ‘really’ paint, he then drew two lively sparrows on a single grain of rice. This event turned Hokusai from a niche artist into a public celebrity. Takizawa Bakin, the leading writer of the day, befriended him and invited him to illustrate his long, popular, serially released fictions. Hokusai’s fame spread as far as the ruling shôgun who commanded the artist and Tani Bunchô, another leading celebrity painter, to paint in front of him and his courtiers. Bunchô recalled that as Hokusai began to paint his own hands broke out in a sweat. Later, Bunchô privately purchased Hokusai’s paintings and praised them to his friends.
In the midst of this celebrity, Hokusai developed a flashy, eye-catching new painting style marked by exquisite pattern and detail, intense color, and breathtakingly confident unhesitatingly fluent brushwork. For the public, in addition to his popular book illustrations he designed seven sets of prints of the Tôkaidô Road, four sets of acts from the popular play Chûshingura, and three or four sets of landscapes in the ‘western style’ with chiaroscuro shading and perspective. By 1810, at the beginning of his fifty-first year, counting in Japanese style, he reached the height of his fame, as popular, celebrated, and productive as ever.
Then, later in the year, an unexpected event occurred. Walking along an embankment in a rainstorm on his way to the Myôken Hall at Hosshôji Temple in the Yanagishima district of Edo, a bolt of lightning struck. Whether it struck or nearly hit him is unclear. The lightning may have struck nearby and bounced toward him. At any rate, the force of the event knocked him off the embankment into a rice field and the tradition at Hosshôji Temple is that he lost consciousness (失神).
Hokusai memorialized this even with a seal that reads ‘Raishin 雷震’,’Thunderbolt’ that appears after his signature for the first time in a yomihon novel published in the first month of 1811. He used the seal on a painting for the first time in 1811, the well-known and securely dated picture of Tametomo in the British Museum. On this painting he follows his signature ‘Katsushika Hokusai’ with the phrase ‘drawn with gratitude to the Polar Constellation’, ’taito hitsu 戴斗’筆’ (Hokusai did not formally adopt ‘Taito’ as a proper art name until the winter of 1813 when he gave the name ‘Hokusai’ to a pupil. He used it as his signature only between 1814 and 1819.)
In the short run, this dramatic thunder and lightning event was a calamity. Whether or not Hokusai’s central nervous system was permanently damaged, he was no longer able to paint with the effortless fluency and technical brilliance that he had long counted upon and that his prospective clients were used to and expected. The Tametomo painting shows how he struggled to overcome his disability and retrain himself as a painter. Prints and drawings of the early 1810s show that he made a virtue of necessity and took advantage of his limitation to draw in a fresh, spontaneous, even deliberately awkward new style.
His living arrangements changed. In 1811 or 1812 his second wife seems to have left. His biographer writes that from ‘the age of fifty-three’, that year, Hokusai lived alone without a wife. In 1812 a wealthy friend invited him to spend six months in the city of Nagoya; afterwards he traveled on to Osaka and Kyoto. His Nagoya friends encouraged him to collaborate. ‘Make any kind of drawings,’ they said, ‘and we’ll turn into books for you.’ This was the origin of the Hokusai manga; the friends are all named in the colophon of the book.
The first volume of Hokusai manga appeared in 1814 and nine more appeared before the decade was out. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Hokusai achieved another unimagined, even unimaginable level of fame: through the Manga he became known throughout the country, and eventually it was through the Manga volumes and other books that French artists and collectors discovered Hokusai in the 1860s.
But personal seclusion accompanied national fame. From the late 1810s onwards Hokusai began to withdraw from public life and the events that had brought him so much attention. He continued to paint and his talented third daughter Oei ‘assisted’ him in this activity. At some point, like her older sister, she left her husband, moved back with her father and the two of them seem to have worked harmoniously for the remainder of his life. Out of the glare of publicity and the demands of fame and social obligation Hokusai seems to have turned inwards, exploring his inner life, strengthening his spiritual practice, and creating his later work.