The Great Wave off Kanagawa
|Dimensions||25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)|
The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa-oki nami-ura , lit. "Under a Wave off Kanagawa"), also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, is a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai. An example of ukiyo-e art, it was published sometime between 1830 and 1833 (during the Edo Period) as the first in Hokusai's series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei (富嶽三十六景)), and is his most famous work. This particular woodblock is one of the most recognized works of Japanese art in the world. It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats near the Japanese prefecture of Kanagawa. While sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is, as the picture's title notes, more likely to be a large okinami – literally "wave of the open sea." 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.
Copies of the print are in many Western collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France. There is also a copy in the Asian Gallery of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.
Ukiyo-e art 
Ukiyo-e (浮世絵, lit. pictures of the floating world; pictures of everyday life in old Japan) is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre, and pleasure quarters.
The technique of printing from blocks of wood was introduced to Japan in the 8th century from China and was used principally for the illustration of Buddhist texts. From the 17th century the technique began to be used for the illustration of poems and romances. It was this period that really saw the rise of the style known as ukiyo-e, which reflected the lives and interests of the lowest classes of society: merchants, artists and rōnin, who were developing their own art and literature in urban areas such as Edo (today's Tokyo), Osaka and Sakai, in a movement later called ukiyo, the floating world. It was the novelist Asai Ryōi who in 1661 defined the movement in his book Ukiyo-monogatari ("Narrative of the Floating Life"): "living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherries in flower and the leaves of the maple, singing songs, drinking sake and enjoying simply floating, indifferent to the prospect of impending poverty, optimistic and carefree, like a pumpkin dragged along by the current of the river."
Thanks to movements such as the ukiyo literature and the prints, the populace began to have more contact with artistic movements. Around the middle of the 17th century the artists began to reflect what was happening in the pleasure districts, kabuki, festivals and on journeys. The latter gave birth to guidebooks that described the highlights of the cities and countryside.
Around 1670 the first of the great masters of ukiyo-e, Hishikawa Moronobu, appeared. Moronobu began to produce prints on a single sheet showing flowers, birds, female forms and erotic scenes of a type known as shunga. This type of print was produced in black ink on white paper, and the artist could later add different colours by hand. By the end of the 18th century the techniques had been developed to allow printing of multi-coloured prints known as nishiki-e.
Ukiyo-e pictures (called nikuhitsu ukiyo-e in Japanese), were single works that the painter produced with brushes directly onto paper or silk. These paintings facilitate a greater appreciation of the lines, form, and colour than in the simple preparatory sketches the artists produced for the engravings. Afterwards the artist (eshi), would take the work to a horishi, or engraver, who would attach the painting to a panel of wood (usually cherry), and then carefully carve it away to form a relief of the lines of the image. Finally, with all the necessary plates (usually one for each colour), a surishi or printer would produce the print by placing the printing paper on each plate consecutively The impression was produced by rubbing an implement called a baren over the backs of the sheets. This system could produce tonal variations in the prints. There could be a great number of impressions produced, sometimes thousands, before the plates wore out.
Because of the nature of the production process, the final work was the result of a collaboration in which the painter generally did not participate in the production of the prints.
Even though no law of intellectual property existed in Japan before the Meiji era, there was still a sense of ownership and rights with respect to the plates (known as zōhan) from which the prints were produced. Rather than belonging to the artist, the plates were considered the property of the hanmoto (publisher) or honya (publisher/bookseller) who could do with them as he wished. In some cases the plates were sold or transferred to other publishers, in which case they became known as kyūhan.
Hokusai was born in 1760, in Katsushika,a district in the east of Edo (now Tokyo). His birth name was Tokitarō, and he was the son of a mirror maker to the shōgun. As he was never recognised for the purposes of inheritance, it is probable that his mother was a concubine.
He started painting at six and at twelve his father sent him to work at a booksellers. 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 the artist Katsukawa Shunshō, one of the foremost ukiyo-e artists of the time. After a year, his master gave him the name Shunrō, the name he used to sign his first works in 1779.
Shunshō died in 1793, so by himself Hokusai began to study distinct Japanese and Chinese styles and some Dutch and French painting. During this period he mainly concentrated on producing surimono, or New Year's cards, and advertisements, scenes of daily life and landscapes. In 1800 he published Famous Views of the Eastern Capital and Eight views of Edo, and also began to accept students. It was during this period that he began to use the name Hokusai; he used more than 30 different pseudonyms during his life.
In 1804 he became famous as an artist when, during a festival in Tokyo, he completed a 240m² painting of a Buddhist monk named Daruma. Soon afterwards he appeared before the shōgun Tokugawa Ienari when he won a talent competition against an artist working the traditional Chinese style. Three years later he began work illustrating three books of the novelist Takizawa Bakin, with whom he argued. In 1812, the precarious economic situation forced him to publish a manual, Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing and to travel to Nagoya and Kyoto to try to sign up students. In 1814, he published the first of fifteen volumes of sketches entitled Manga. These included things that interested him such as people, animals and the Buddha. In the late 1820s, he published Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which proved so popular that he later added a further ten prints.
Later works included Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces, A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. In 1839, just as his work started to be eclipsed by that of Andō Hiroshige, his studio burned down and most of his work was destroyed. He died at the age of 89, in 1849.
Some years before his death he is reported to have stated:
At the age of five years I had the habit of sketching things. At the age of fifty I had produced a large number of pictures, but for all that, none of them had any merit until the age of seventy. At seventy-three finally I learned something about the true nature of things, birds, animals, insects, fish, the grasses and the trees. So at the age of eighty years I will have made some progress, at ninety I will have penetrated the deepest significance of things, at a hundred I will make real wonders and at a hundred and ten, every point, every line, will have a life of its own.
This impression is of the yoko-e type, in landscape, and was produced to the ōban size, 25 centimetres high by 37 wide .
The landscape consists of three elements: the sea whipped up by a storm, three boats and a mountain. The composition includes the signature in the upper left-hand corner.
The mountain 
The mountain with a snowcapped peak is Mount Fuji. Fuji is the central figure in the meisho-e work (representation of famous places) Thirty six views of Mount Fuji, which portray the mountain from various angles. In Japan, Mt. Fuji is considered sacred and a symbol of national identity, in addition to being considered a symbol of beauty.
The dark color around Fuji seems to indicate that the image takes place early in the morning, with the sun rising from the point of the observer, and illuminating the snowy peak. Between the mountain and the viewer there are cumulonimbus clouds, and although they indicate a storm, there is rain on neither Fuji nor the main scene.
In the scene there are three oshiokuri-bune, fast boats that are used to transport live fish from the Izu and Bōsō peninsulas to the markets of the bay of Edo. As the name of the piece indicates the boats are in Kanagawa prefecture, with Tokyo to the north, Mt Fuji to the northeast, the bay of Sagami to the south and the bay of Tokyo to the east. The boats oriented to the southeast, are returning to the capital.
There are eight rowers per boat, clinging to their oars. There are two more passengers in the front of each boat, bringing the total number of human figures in the image to thirty. Using the boats as reference, one can approximate the size of the wave: the oshiokuri-bune were generally between 12 to 15 meters long, and noting that Hokusai reduced the vertical scale by 30%, the wave must be between 10 to 12 meters tall.
The sea and the waves 
The sea dominates the composition as an extending wave about to break. In the moment captured in this image, the wave forms a circle around the center of the design, framing Mount Fuji in the background.
Edmond de Goncourt described the wave in this way:
The drawing of the wave is a deification of the sea made by a painter who lived with the religious terror of the overwhelming ocean completely surrounding his country; He is impressed by the sudden fury of the ocean's leap toward the sky, by the deep blue of the inner side of the curve, by the splash of its claw-like crest as it sprays forth droplets.
Andreas Ramos, a writer, notes:
[...]a seascape with Fuji. The waves form a frame through which we see the mountain. The gigantic wave is a yin yang of empty space beneath the mountain. The inevitable breaking that we await creates a tension in the picture. In the background, a small wave forming a miniature Fuji is reflected by the distant mountain, itself shrunk in perspective. The little wave is larger than the mountain. The small fishermen cling to thin fishing boats, slide on a sea-mount looking to dodge the wave. The violent Yang of nature is overcome by the yin of the confidence of these experienced fishermen. Strangely, despite a storm, the sun shines high.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa has two inscriptions. The first, the title of the series, is written on the upper-left side inside a rectangular box, where it's written: "冨嶽三十六景/神奈川冲/浪裏" Fugaku Sanjūrokkei / Kanagawa oki / nami ura, which translates to "Thirty six views of Mount Fuji / offshore from Kanagawa / Beneath the wave". The second inscription, on the left of the box, is the artist's signature: 北斎改爲一筆 Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, ("From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu").
Hokusai, given his humble beginning, didn't have a last name, and his first pen-name, Katsushika, referred to the region he came from. Over his career, he used more than 30 different names, never beginning a new cycle of works without changing it, letting his students use the previous name.
In his work Thirty Six views from Mount Fuji he used four distinct signatures, changing signature according to the phase of the work: Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, zen Hokusai Iitsu hitsu, Hokusai Iitsu hitsu and zen saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu.
Design of the work 
While composing the image, Hokusai came across a period of great difficulty. Being in his 60s, in 1826 he was suffering serious financial problems, in 1827 it seems he had a major health problem (possibly a stroke), the next year his wife passed away, and in 1829 he had to rescue his grandson from bankruptcy, all of which drove him into poverty. Despite this, in 1830 he sent the grandson to the countryside with his father —adopted son of Hokusai—, the financial repercussions would continue for several years: the period when he was creating Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It is perhaps because of those problems that the objective of the series seems to be contrasting the sacred Fuji with secular life.
Hokusai decided upon the final design only after years of work and having created other sketches. There are two similar works, dated some 30 years before the publication of The Great Wave, that are its precursors. They are Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu and Oshiokuri Hato Tsusen no Zu, both works with subjects identical to the Great Wave: a sailboat and a rowboat respectively. In both precursor works, the subjects are in the midst of a storm, beneath a great wave that threatens to devour them. An analysis of the differences between the two works and the Great Wave demonstrates the artistic and technical development of Hokusai:
- In the two first designs the waves appear to be dense and uniform, they almost seem to be minerals. Their rigidity and verticality evoke the shape of a snow-capped mountain, while in the Great Wave the wave stands out because it is more active, dynamic, and aggressive, which make it threatening.
- The earlier images are very marked by the perspective traditionally used in Japanese painting, where the viewer sees the scene from a bird's-eye view. The Great Wave, on the other hand, is depicted in a more western perspective, giving the feeling that the wave will break on top of the viewer.
- In the earlier prints the horizon is in the middle, whereas in the Great Wave the horizon is so low that it forces the viewer's eye to the very center of the action.
- In the first two, there is a sail boat on the crest of the wave, as if it had managed to escape. Hokusai eliminated this element for the Great Wave, because it interfered with the dynamic of the curve or to make the image more dramatic.
- The two first prints have an uneven composition, lacking consistency, whereas the Great Wave only has two important masses: the wave itself, and the vanishing point beneath the wave.
- The wave shows the level of control that Hokusai had reached. The image, although simple in its design is, however, the result of a long process, a methodical reflection. The basis of this method were laid out by Hokusai in his 1812 work Quick lessons of simplified drawing, in which he explains that every object can be drawn using the relationship of the circle and square.
Some years thereafter, Hokusai returned to the image of the Great Wave when he completed the work Kaijo no Fuji, for the second volume of One Hundred Views of Fuji. In this print there is the same relation between the wave and the volcano, and the same burst of foam. In this image there are no humans nor boats, and the fragments of the wave coincide with the flight of birds. While in The Great Wave the motion of the wave is the opposite of Japanese reading -from right to left- in Kaijo no Fuji the wave as well as the birds move as a Japanese reader would expect.
Copies of the woodblock 
There are various copies of this work throughout the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the collection of Claude Monet in Giverny, France, the Sackler Gallery, the Guimet Museum and the National Library of France are some of the places where this work is on exposition. A collection of woodblock Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji prints, contained in the wellness spa of the Costa Concordia was lost during the collision of the ship on January 13, 2012.
Some private collections also have a copy, as is the case of the Gale collection in the USA.
It was private collectors during the 20th century that launched the woodblock print collections in these museums. For example, the copy that is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York comes from the antique collection of Henry Osborne Havemeyer, and was donated by Mrs. Havemeyer in 1929. In the same way, the copy in the National Library of France was acquired in 1888 from the collection of Samuel Bing. As for the copy in the Guimet Museum, it comes from the legacy of Raymond Koechlin, and has been in the museum since 1932.
Even today it is possible to buy an original copy of the work. One copy from the Huguette Beres collection was auctioned on March 7, 2003, the bidding reached 23,000 euros. The 46 prints from the series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji were auctioned at Sothebys in 2002 for a total of 1,350,000 euros.
Differences between the versions 
Given that the series was very popular when it was produced, printing continued until the woodblocks started to show significant wear. It is likely that the original woodblocks printed around 5,000 copies.
It is possible to determine the degree of damage that the woodblocks had already sustained at the moment of impression of any given copy by an analysis of two characteristic points. The first one is located just behind the right-side of the boat; in the impressions from worn woodblocks, the line is not continuous. The second point is on the left side of the signature box, where the lines that form it should be continuous.
The state of conservation of the impressions can be easily observed in the coloring of the sky in the upper part. Copies in a good state of conservation, as is the case of the Metropolitan Museum's, maintain the color as it should be, showing a marked contrast with the clouds. Given that many reproductions have been lost through history, in wars, earthquakes, fires and other natural disasters, few well-preserved copies still exist in which the edges of the woodblocks were still sharp at the time of printing.
Non original copies and derivative works 
Modifications of the work
Like other well known Japanese prints, the Great Wave has been frequently copied using the same techniques, as well as reproduced by photo-mechanical means. These copies are often confused with the authentic original print.
The print is one of the most reproduced artworks in the world, and was one of the subjects of the BBC documentary series, The Private Life of a Masterpiece, which detailed the fascination surrounding the work in the East and West, its influence, and the artist's insights into a number of different areas, as revealed through the piece.
The logo used by the Quiksilver clothing company was inspired by the Great Wave.
It appears as the Dynamic Painting in Animal Crossing: City Folk.
- The version depicted here is the copy in the Library of Congress, from a later edition
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: The Great Wave off Kanagawa|
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art's (New York) entry on "The Great Wave at Kanagawa"
- BBC audio file A History of the World in 100 Objects
- What kind of a wave is Hokusai's Great wave off Kanagawa? Julyan H.E Cartwright, and Hisami Nakamura. The Royal Society. February 25, 2009. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2007.0039