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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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While Great Wave of Kanagawa is the most famous work of Katsushika Hokusai and instantly recognisable, it is in his Dragon pictures that we see some of the most exquisite examples of the Ukiyo-e style of wood block printing and painting which flourished in Edo (modern day Tokyo) from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Literally translated as "pictures of the floating world", in Hokusai's hands the Ukiyo-e process developed from depictions of the hedonistic lifestyle in the booming city - the floating world of courtesans, sumo wrestlers and Kabuki actors - to images of everyday life, as well as mythological and symbolic works such as this Dragon picture. Katsushika Hokusai (born October 31st 1760 – died May 10th 1849) started to learn his trade through being apprenticed to a bookshop and library at the age of twelve. Two years later an apprenticeship with a wood carver followed, which lasted until he was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, at the age of eighteen.

Here he would have seen a variety of imagery, including mythological dragons, that influenced his later Nikuhitsu-ga work. Nikuhitsu-ga is a form of painting within the Ukiyo-e style, far larger than that that could be easily produced by a wood block print and this Dragon is a fine example. The original of this Dragon painting was produced when Hokusai visited Obuse, late in his life at the age of eighty five. He created two paintings "Dragon" and "Phoenix" for the ceiling of the festival float from the district of Higashi-machi. The two paintings took him six months to complete. Each summer the float would have been paraded through the streets with the dragon flying on its ceiling.

Dragons in Japanese mythology come in two types, one that is found in water or rain and the other in the sky and clouds. This dragon is surrounded by waves, and it is in flight, against a red background. Its Japanese title is RYU, with Ryujin being the dragon sea god. Thus it symbolises the power of the sea and the dragon pictured ascending in the sky is a symbol of success in life. Like the dragon Hokusai achieved success in his lifetime leaving behind over 30,000 works.