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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai

Great Wave Hokusai BM 1906.1220.0.533 n01

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai which he published in 1831 as the first print in his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The image depicts an enormous rogue wave threatening boats off the coast of the town of Kanagawa, just off the present-day city of Yokohama. The print shows seasick fishermen in three boats with a wave about to crash down on them. As in many of the prints in the series, it depicts Mount Fuji, and the mountain itself appears in the background.

Considered Hokusai’s most famous work, it is also one of the most recognisable works of Japanese art in the world. Impressions of the print can be seen in many museums around the world. The inscription is a signature in the upper left-hand corner. During his career, Hokusai used more than 30 different names in his signature, always beginning a new cycle of works by changing his name in the signature, and letting his students use the earlier title. Vincent van Gogh was a great admirer of Hokusai, and he praised the drawing and the use of line in the Great Wave.

Hokusai began painting at the age of six, and at sixteen he was apprenticed as an engraver and spent three years learning the trade. At the same time, he began to produce his own illustrations. At eighteen he was accepted as an apprentice to Katsukawa Shunshō, one of the foremost ukiyo-e artists of the time. Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries when its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of beautiful women, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, scenes from history and landscapes. In 1814, Hokusai published the first of fifteen volumes of sketches entitled Manga.

Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing in Japan although similar to the woodcut technique in Western printmaking differs in that it uses water-based inks, as opposed to oil-based inks. The Japanese water-based inks provide a wider range of vivid colours, glazes, and transparency.

Woodblock printing had been used in China for centuries before the advent of movable type and was widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Reflections 

  • Is this one of the most recognisable works of Japanese art in the world?
  • Why did Vincent van Gogh, a great admirer of Hokusai, say that this print had a terrifying emotional impact?
  • Why did Japanese woodblock prints become a source of inspiration for Impressionists?

Explore

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

  • Title:                The Great Wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave)
  • Artist:              Katsushika Hokusai
  • Created:         1831
  • Materials:      Colour woodblock print on paper
  • Genre:             Ukiyo-e painting, manga and woodblock printing
  • Dimensions:   H: 24.6 cm (9.6 in); W: 36.8 cm (14.4 in)
  • Museum:        The British Museum

Katsushika Hokusai

  • Artist:             Katsushika Hokusai (Born: Tokitarō)
  • Born:              1760 – Edo (present-day Tokyo), Japan
  • Died:               1849 (aged 88) – Edo, Japan
  • Nationality:    Japanese
  • Notable Works:
    • The Great Wave off Kanagawa

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“A frog in a well does not know the great sea.”
– Japanese Proverb

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Photo Credit: 1) Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

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