Details surrounding his earliest years are uncertain; it is thought that his family name was Kawamura at birth, and that he was adopted when he was four or five by Nakajima Ise (possibly his natural father), a mirror polisher working for the Tokugawa Shogunate. He was first given the personal name of Tokitaro, but at the age of ten this was changed to Tetsuzo. Even at that age he was learning woodblock carving. He was soon apprenticed to a book-lending shop, and continued his study of painting and drawing from the picture books he found in the shop.
At the age of nineteen, he was enrolled in the school of Katsukawa Shunsho, one of the leading woodblock artisans of the time, who specialized in portraits of popular actors. At this time, he was given the nom de brosse of Shunro. While using this name he was mainly engaged in doing book covers and actor portraits.
After the death of Shunsho, the Katsukawa school (perhaps studio is the more apt word) head, in 1792, Hokusai left the establishment because of a disagreement with the master's successor, Shunko. This was a major turning point in his life.
Though reduced to poverty, he continued his studies, concentrating on the techniques of the schools of Kano Yusen, Tsutsumi Torin, and Sumiyoshi Naiki. He was also greatly interested in the examples of Western art that filtered into Japan through the Dutch trading establishment in Nagasaki. He frequently changed his artistic name, in fact, more than thirty times in his career, and we find the names Shunro, Sori, and finally Hokusai.
After a long search for this true métier, he settled on landscape painting around 1798, apparently much inspired by engravings brought in by the Dutch. It was at this time that he gave the name Sori to his most promising pupil and took for himself the name of Hokusai. From this point in middle age, he avidly observed and sketched everything in the world about him, publishing the results, starting in 1814, in a series known as the Hokusai Manga (sketchbooks). During his lifetime, the series ran to twelve volumes.
From about 1823 to 1831, he was engaged in creating and publishing the epoch-making series of woodblock prints known as The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. These became masterpieces in the history of Japanese landscape pictures, and were considered to be most typical of this style of pictorial representation.
This series was accomplished when Hokusai was between the age of 64 and 72 and shows proof of his remarkable energy during his advanced years. He was then doing his best work, and during this period one can see the changes in his style from the earlier pictures through the latter ones in the series. He was at the height of his creative powers during this period, and in addition to The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, he also put out such masterpieces as the series Chie no Umi (One Thousand Seas, 1826), Shokoku Taki Meguri (Journey to the Waterfalls, 1883), and Ryukyu Hakkei (Eight Views of the Ryukyus, 1829). We can't help but be surprised at his energy as shown in these works.
Even after reaching the age of eighty, he was busy producing many fine prints. He often expressed his desire to live beyond the age of ninety, and just before he died on April 18, 1849 at the age of 89, he sighed and said his last words: "If heaven gives me ten more years,", paused, then continued, "or an extension of even five years, I shall surely become a true artist."
Sometimes calling himself "the mad painter", he was an eccentric man with a limited vision. He changed his dwelling place 93 times during his live, and turned out around 30.000 works of art before his death.