A Closer Look: Hokusai's Great Wave

No single work of Japanese art is better known than Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760­-1849) Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or, as it is widely known, the Great Wave. Published by Nishimuraya Eijudo as part of the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c.1830-1832), today this design has become embedded in popular culture, appearing everywhere from phone cases and emojis, to murals and political cartoons. The work is widely considered one of the world’s great masterpieces, a “stunning evocation” of elegant majesty and unbridled power of nature.[1] Hokusai is not only among Japan’s greatest ukiyo-e artists, but also an inimitable master in the history of art worldwide. His career stretched across nearly eight decades, yet his creativity never faltered. Hokusai’s unerring sense of line, color, inventive composition, and emotional resonance is evident in the Great Wave.

Under the Wave Off Kanagawa
Hokusai, Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, c.1831. Ronin Gallery.

As the sea curls and crests overhead, the fishing boats float far below. The fisherman bow before the wave, prepared for the impending crash of water. Even snow-tipped Mt. Fuji appears small beside the power of the sea. The print is the result of seven consecutive printed layers. The shades of blue that create the volume and solidity of the water were printed with three separate blocks using three separate dyes. It is important to note that the outlines of early printings are blue, while later impressions are printed with a black keyblock. The boats are in a pale yellow and a grey that echoes the sky. A hint of color can be found in the clouds. The Great Wave is an exceptionally modern work. Hokusai integrates aspects of single-point perspective derived from Dutch etchings to create a sense of scale. The rich, bright blue results from “Berlin Blue,” a synthetic dye imported from England by way of China. Hokusai combines these foreign elements with his distinct style to create the visual drama and emotional impact of the scene.

As Hokusai drew from foreign influence, his work inspired American and European artists. Around 1859, woodblock prints arrived in Europe and the flat areas of color and precise outlines opened the hearts of Western impressionists and post-impressionists. Hokusai’s wave sparked creativity across the arts. The design moved Debussy to compose his famous orchestral arrangement La Mer. The 1905 sheet music even offers an homage to the towering crest of Hokusai’s wave.[2] Just as Hokusai’s print was popular amongst its contemporaries, the wave continues to inspire audiences worldwide. The print acts as the centerpiece for many exhibitions of Japanese and East Asian art and continues to set record prices at auction. This summer, this print is the highlight of the British Museum’s major exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.

1905 cover of La Mer
1905 cover of Debussy's La Mer (http://expositions.bnf.fr/lamer/grand/121.htm) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Later impressions of the Great Wave reveal the degradation of the woodblock due to overuse. This wear on the blocks suggests that the Great Wave was printed hundreds of times to meet a ravenous demand.[3] Yet, if this is the case, then how is the Great Wave so treasured and rare? First, the existence of a woodblock print today marks a feat. As a popular art form that could be purchased for the cost of lunch, these prints did not receive museum-quality care over the centuries; many were lost to water damage, fire, or simply the shifting tides of public taste. Second, not all impressions are equal, whether in printing quality or condition. As stated by the Seattle Museum, the Great Wave is “easily the most recognized work of Japanese art…its pop-culture status rivals that of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Edvard Munch’s Scream, but despite its ubiquity, high quality impressions are rare.”[4] Dull, broken lines and waning attention to detail evidence later impressions of this famous design. Late editions of the works were printed from recarved blocks. Condition problems can range from centerfolds (the line that results from folding the print in half for storage) to insect holes, but fading is the most common. Works on paper are particularly light sensitive. When exposed to the light for too long, brilliant colors can fade to ghostly shades. As Richard Lane notes in Hokusai, “the sky pigments are rather fugitive: the yellowish cloud formations tend to disappear, and even the color of the sky itself may fade somewhat—or turn beige—on exposure to light.”[5]  The impression of the Great Wave recently on display at the British Museum has not been on exhibit since 2011 due to such light concerns.

In his discussion of the Great Wave, the noted scholar Richard Lane writes:

“To the print collector or curator…it will be mind-boggling just to think of all those pristine first impression of the Red Fuji and Great Wave scattered about the parlors of wide Edo like so many $100,000 bills, so to speak, eventually to be defaced by children, scratched by cats, chewed by dogs and mice, finally to be discarded like so much trash…But this was the inescapable nature and fate of a popular art like ukiyo-e. Indeed considering these perils—and the all-too-frequent fires, floods, and earthquakes—it is a wonder that so many prints survived to delight us in modern times”[6]


[1] Narazaki, The Japanese Print (Kondansha International, 1966).
[2] Bibliothèque Nationale de France. http://expositions.bnf.fr/lamer/grand/121.html/
[3] "Kanagawa-oki nami-ura 神奈川沖浪裏 (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) / Fugaku sanjūrokkei 冨嶽三十六景 (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji)." British Museum. Accessed May 30, 2017.
[4] Roche, Fleeting Beauty: Japanese Woodblock Prints (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2010), 65.
[5] Lane, Hokusai (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), 288.
[6] Lane, 187.

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