Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ – an artwork for eternity

Immediately recognisable and universally admired, Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ has become a global phenomenon, synonymous in both the East and the West. 

An exceptionally skilled draftsman, Hokusai’s extensive artistic oeuvre was popular with contemporary Japanese society as well as many notable European Impressionists. Two hundred years on, it still captures the imaginations of millions of people around the world.

Born on the 31st of October 1760 in Edo, modern-day Tokyo, Katsushika Hokusai established himself as a prolific artist producing over 30,000 paintings, sketches and prints over his seventy-year career. 

He soon became one of the foremost exponents of the Ukiyo-e woodblock print method – which loosely translates to ‘pictures of the floating world’ – made by cutting into wood and layering with ink against a piece of paper.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Rehearsing the wave several times in his thirties and forties whilst absorbing lessons of European-style perspective, Hokusai produced his masterpiece  ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ in 1830. ‘The Great Wave’, as it’s more commonly known, was created as part of the series ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’ produced in his later years as an artist. 

Detail of The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The woodcut print depicts the diminutive Mount Fuji, engulfed by a storm-tossed sea. Look closely and you will see three small boats delivering fish to a market in Edo as they battle against the swell of water. 

Although the wave dwarfs the mountain, Hokusai draws attention to Mount Fuji by placing the spray-like tentacles in the middle of the print. Such a masterful composition has the effect of mirroring the snowy peaks in the distance, paying homage to the steadfastness of the majestic mountain.

Prussian Blue

During the late 1820s Prussian blue was one of the first synthetic pigments created by German printmaker Jacob Diesbach. Imported in large quantities from Holland, the colour provided a vibrant new pigment for landscape artists inspired by the sky and sea. Hokusai’s works were soon awash with exquisite blues.

Chōshi in Shimōsa Province (from Oceans of Wisdom)

 An example of Hokusai’s extensive use of the pigment is ‘Chōshi in Shimōsa Province (from Oceans of Wisdom)’. Towering blue waves which sweep from left to right are broken up by two fishing boats desperately trying to reach the treacherous rocky coast. 

In 1868, after the Meiji Restoration (the political revolution which brought the final demise of the military government), Japan ended a period of national isolation and opened internal markets to import to the West. Much like the import of Prussian blue, Japanese art gained popularity throughout Europe and America.

Influence on Impressionism

At the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, Hokusai’s work was displayed in the Japanese pavilion. Many Impressionist painters including Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh were in attendance.

Several became avid collectors of Japanese prints and their new-found enthusiasm is encapsulated in a letter van Gogh sent to his brother after seeing Hokusai’s work:  

‘Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing – but in his case with his lines, his drawing, […] these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it. Ah well, if we made the colour very correct or the drawing very correct, we wouldn’t create those emotions.’ - Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo Van Gogh, 1888.

The Starry Night

Art historian and van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey claims that after viewing ‘The Great Wave’, the Dutch artist was inspired to paint ‘The Starry Night’. Many claim that the thick swirling clouds illuminating the crescent moon are reminiscent of Hokusai’s turbulent seascapes. 

Enduring popularity

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a craze for collecting Japanese art known as Japonisme ensued. Several other Hokusai prints, such as ‘Clear as day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji)’ became popular amongst European audiences. 

Red Fuji

But no matter how it is presented, by different media and styles, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ is still the most recognisable. From galleries to street murals, coffee cups and t-shirts, the cresting wave continues to assert itself as one of the most captivating works of all time.

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