Art & History

The Great Wave off Kanagawa | [HR] Paintings & Facts

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa-oki nami ura, “In the well of a wave off Kanagawa”/”Under the wave off Kanagawa”), also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. It was published sometime between 1830 and 1833 in the late Edo period as the first print in Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku sanjūrokkei).

It is Hokusai’s most famous work, and one of the best recognized works of Japanese art in the world. It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats off the coast of the prefecture of Kanagawa. While sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is, as the picture’s title suggests, more likely to be a large rogue wave. As in all the prints in the series, it depicts the area around Mount Fuji under particular conditions, and the mountain itself appears in the background.

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Facts About Painting

  • THOUGH IT’S NAMED FOR A WAVE, IT’S ALSO HIDING A MOUNTAIN. 

    Look just right of center. What you might have mistaken for another cresting wave is actually snow-capped Mount Fuji, the highest peak in Japan. 

  • IT’S A PRINT SERIES, NOT A PAINTING. 

    Though Hokusai was also a painter, the Edo period (1603-1868 in Japan) artist was best known for his woodblock prints. The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become the most famous of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Full of vibrant color and compelling use of space, each of these prints depicts the towering peak from a different angle and environment. 

  • MAKING THIS SERIES WAS A SAVVY BUSINESS MOVE.

    Mount Fuji is considered sacred by many and has inspired a literal cult following. So a series of portrait prints, easily mass-produced and sold at cheap prices, was a no-brainer. But when tourism to Japan later blossomed, the prints enjoyed a resurgence as part of a booming industry for souvenirs, especially if they depicted its magnificent mountain. 

  • HOKUSAI HAD BEEN PAINTING FOR 60 YEARS BEFORE CREATING THIS WAVE. 

    His exact age has been difficult to pin down at the time of The Great Wave off Kanagawa‘s making. However, it’s commonly believed he was in his seventies. Hokusai began painting at age 6, and at 14, he served as an apprentice to a wood-carver. By 18, Hokusai was taking lessons from ukiyo-e style printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō. Unbeknownst to the young aspiring artist, this path would lead to Japan’s most iconic work of art. 

  • THE GREAT WAVE OFF KANAGAWA CAN BE SEEN IN MUSEUMS ALL AROUND THE WORLD. 

    Because it is a woodblock print, there are lots of Great Waves to go around. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum of London, the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA of Los Angeles, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, and Claude Monet’s oft-portrayed home and garden all boast a print in their public displays. 

  • THE GREAT WAVE OFF KANAGAWA IS NOT PURELY JAPANESE IN ITS STYLE. 

    Hokusai studied European works in addition to Japanese ones and was particularly inspired by the linear perspective used in Dutch art. His own variant on this device is evident in the low horizon line, while the European influence is apparent in his use of Prussian blue, a color quite popular on the continent at the time. 

  • THE EARLIER THE PRINT, THE MORE HIGHLY VALUED IT IS.

    It’s estimated that 5000 to 8000 prints were made of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Unfortunately, over the course of all this production, the wood blocks used to stamp on colors would break down, and with them the quality of the image. This gradual degradation is why museums will brag about their prints being “early” issues.

  • THAT WAVE IS NO TSUNAMI. 

    The great might of the wave makes the mountain look minute, and the boats that bob beneath it seem doomed for destruction. Such a suggestion of violence has spurred many to assume The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a tsunami. But scholars Julyan H.E Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura exhaustively studied the print and what we know about waves to determine it’s in fact a rogue wave, or, more scientifically, “a plunging breaker.”

  • THAT WAVE IS NONETHELESS DEADLY. 

    Rogue waves are alternately known as “freak waves,” “monster waves,” or “killer waves” because they occur out in the open ocean and abruptly, sometimes toppling ocean liners. This particular rogue wave can actually be measured thanks to the three fishing boats (oshiokuri-bune). Cartwright and Nakamura used their known size to determine The Great Wave off Kanagawa is roughly 32 to 39 feet tall.

     

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