The Great Wave off Kanagawa

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa
神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura
Tsunami by hokusai 19th century.jpg
Print at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP1847)
ArtistKatsushika Hokusai
Typecolor woodblock
Dimensions25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Japanese: 神奈川沖浪裏, Hepburn: Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura, lit. "Under the Wave off Kanagawa"), also known as The Great Wave or The Wave, is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. It was published sometime between 1829 and 1833[1] in the late Edo period as the first print in Hokusai's series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The image depicts an enormous wave threatening three boats off the coast in the Sagami Bay (Kanagawa Prefecture) while Mount Fuji rises in the background. Sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is more likely to be a large rogue wave.[2]

It is Hokusai's most famous work and is often considered the most recognizable work of Japanese art in the world.


The Great Wave is part of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with the main theme focusing on the mount. The Fine Wind, Clear Morning print, also known as Red Fuji, is part of the series and is esteemed higher in Japan than the wave print, which is better-known abroad[citation needed]

Hokusai (1760 – 1849) began painting when he was six. At age twelve, his father sent him to work at a bookstore. 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.

In 1804 he became famous as an artist when, during a festival in Edo (later named Tokyo), he completed a 240m² painting[3] of a Buddhist monk named Daruma. In 1814, he published the first of fifteen volumes of sketches entitled Manga.

His Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, from which The Great Wave comes, was produced from c. 1830 when Hokusai was around seventy years old. The series is considered his masterpiece. It made use of the recently introduced Prussian blue pigment; at first, the images were largely printed in blue tones (aizuri-e), including the key-blocks for the outlines. After its success was assured, multicolored versions of the prints were released.[4]


From the sixteenth century fantastic depictions of waves crashing on rocky shores were painted on folding screens known as "rough seas screens" (ariso byōbu).[5][a] Hokusai drew many waves throughout his career; the genesis of the Great Wave can be traced back over thirty years. The combination of wave and mountain was inspired by an oil painting by Shiba Kōkan, an artist strongly influenced by the Western art, particularly Dutch paintings, he had seen at Nagasaki, the only port open to foreigners in this period.[6] Kōkan's A View of Seven-League Beach was executed in middle of 1796 and exhibited publicly at the Atago shrine in Shiba. Hokusai's print Springtime at Enoshima, which he contributed to The Willow Branch poetry anthology published in 1797, is clearly derived from Kōkan's work, although the wave in Hokusai's version rises noticeably higher.[7]

A View of Seven-League Beach, painting by Shiba Kōkan, 1796
Spring at Enoshima, print by Hokusai, c. 1797

Closer compositionally to the Great Wave are two previous prints by Hokusai: View of Honmuku off Hanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu) (c. 1803) and Cargo Boat Passing through Waves (Oshiokuri Hato Tsusen no Zu), (c. 1805)[8] Both works have subjects identical to the Great Wave with boats in the midst of a storm, beneath a great wave that threatens to devour them. In the earlier print, the viewer appears to witness the scene from a safe distance, while in the latter, Hokusai moves closer to the Great Wave by subtly raising the viewpoint and putting the viewer almost in the boat with the rowers. It is not entirely successful, however, with the wave rising like a cliff and having the appearance of a solid mass.[9]

View of Honmuku off Hanagawa, print by Hokusai, c. 1803
Cargo Boat Passing through Waves, print by Hokusai, c. 1805



This print is a yoko-e, that is, a landscape format produced to the ōban size, about 25 cm (10 in) high by 37 cm (15 in) wide.[10]

The composition comprises three main elements: the sea whipped up by a storm, three boats and a mountain. It includes the signature in the upper left-hand corner.

The mountain[edit]

The mountain with a snow-capped peak is Mount Fuji, which in Japan is considered sacred and a symbol of national identity,[11] as well as a symbol of beauty.[12] Mount Fuji is an iconic figure in many Japanese representations of famous places (meisho-e), as is the case in Hokusai's series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which opens with the present scene.

The dark color around Mount Fuji seems to indicate that the scene occurs early in the morning, with the sun rising from behind the observer, illuminating the mountain's snowy peak. While cumulonimbus storm clouds seem to be hanging in the sky between the viewer and Mount Fuji, no rain is to be seen either in the foreground scene or on Mount Fuji, which itself appears completely cloudless.[2]


In the scene there are three oshiokuri-bune, fast boats that are used to transport live fish[13] 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 northeast, Mount Fuji to the west-northwest, the bay of Sagami to the north-northwest and the bay of Tokyo to the east. The boats, located west of the Miura peninsula, are oriented to the south-southeast, are returning to the capital, around the Miura peninsula.

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. However only 22 humans are visible. Using the boats as reference, one can approximate the size of the wave: the oshiokuri-bune were generally between 12 and 15 meters (39–49 ft) long, and noting that Hokusai stretched the vertical scale by 30%, the wave must be between 10 and 12 meters (33–39 ft) tall.[2]

Sea and waves[edit]

Detail of the crest of the wave, looking like claws
Detail of the small wave, with similarity to the silhouette of Fuji

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.[14]

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 foreground, 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.[14]


Hokusai's signature

The Great Wave off Kanagawa has two inscriptions in the top left corner. The first, within a rectangular cartouche is the series title: "冨嶽三十六景/神奈川冲/浪裏" Fugaku Sanjūrokkei / Kanagawa oki / nami ura, which translates as "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji / Offshore from Kanagawa / Beneath the wave". The second inscription, to the left, is the artist's signature: 北斎改爲一筆 Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, ("From the brush of Hokusai, changing his name to Iitsu").[15]

Over his career, Hokusai used more than 30 different names, always beginning a new cycle of works by changing it, and letting his students use the previous name.

In his work Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji he used four distinct signatures, changing it 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.[16]


Block used to produce woodblock prints

In Japanese woodblock printing the artist's final preparatory sketch (shita-e) is taken to a horishi, or block carver, who glues the thin washi paper to a block of wood, usually cherry,[17] and then carefully carves it away to form a relief of the lines of the image.[18] In the process, the drawing is lost. Finally, with all the necessary blocks (usually one for each color),[17] a surishi, or printer, places the printing paper on each block consecutively and rubs the back with a hand-tool known as a baren.[19] There could be a great number of impressions produced, sometimes thousands, before the blocks wore out.[17]

Because of the nature of the production process, the final work was usually the result of a collaboration in which the painter generally did not participate in the production of the prints.[20]

The design uses only a small number of different colored blocks. The water is rendered with three shades of blue;[b] the boats are yellow;[c] a dark grey for the sky behind Fuji and on the boat immediately below; a pale grey in the sky above Fuji and on the foreground boat; pink clouds at the top of the image. "The block for these pink clouds seems to have been slightly abraded along parts of the edge to give a subtle gradated effect (ita-bokashi)".[21]

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 blocks from which the prints were produced.[d] Rather than belonging to the artist, the blocks were considered the property of the hanmoto (publisher) or honya (publisher/bookseller) who could do with them as he wished. In some cases the blocks were sold or transferred to other publishers, in which case they became known as kyūhan.[22]

One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji[edit]

Coloured version of the Great Wave from Hundred View of Mount Fuji, 2nd volume

The One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku-hyakkei) is a series of prints by Hokusai, then 74 years old, whose publishing dates extend between 1834 and 1841. This series follows the famous series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, published between 1830–31 and 1833. The Kaijô no fuji print appears in the second volume of the Hundred Views and depicts a mirrored version of the great wave, but the boats are missing and the wave crests blend with a flock of birds.


A later impression from the original run of the Great Wave with characteristic darker sky.
British Museum (1937,0710,0.147)

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.[23] Because many original impressions have been lost, in wars, earthquakes, fires and other natural disasters, few early impressions survive in which the lines of the woodblocks were still sharp at the time of printing.[23] The remaining prints and subsequent reproductions vary considerably in quality and condition.[24]

Later originals typically have a darker grey sky, and can be identified by a break in the line of the wave behind the boat on the right.[21]

The highest price paid for a Great Wave print in a public sale is $1,110,000 in September 2020.[25] Hokusai's auction record is nearly $1.5 million as of 2012.[24] The print owned by the British Museum cost £130,000 in 2008 and is only on display for six months every five years to prevent fading.[26]

Outside Japan original impressions of the print are in many Western collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago,[27][28] the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art & History Museum in Brussels, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne,[29] the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, the Claude Monet's home in Giverny, France and the Masovian Museum in Płock, Poland.[30]


The print is one of the most reproduced and most instantly recognized artworks in the world.[24]

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan ended a long period of national isolation and became open to imports from the West. In turn, much Japanese art came to Europe and America and quickly gained popularity. The influence of Japanese art on Western culture became known as Japonism. Japanese woodblock prints became a source of inspiration for artists in many genres, particularly the Impressionists. Hokusai was seen as the emblematic Japanese artist and images from his prints and books influenced many different works.

Vincent van Gogh, a great admirer of Hokusai, praised the quality of drawing and use of line in the Great Wave, and said it had a terrifying emotional impact.[31] French sculptor Camille Claudel's La Vague (1897) replaces the boats in Hokusai's Great Wave with sea-nymphs. The image inspired Claude Debussy's orchestral work, La mer, and appeared on the cover of the score's first edition published by A. Durand & Fils in 1905.[32]

Guth's analysis of the image's use in contemporary product design contends that "despite the outsized visual authority it commands, The Great Wave does not communicate a uniform set of meanings." She states that the image is "arguably Japan's first global brand", noting how it has been "widely adapted to style and advertise merchandise, including home furnishings, clothing and accessories, beauty products, food and wine, stationery, and books."[33] The logo used by the Quiksilver clothing company was inspired by the woodcut.[34] The image is featured on a limited mintage 2017 legal tender coin for the Republic of Fiji, as created by Scottsdale Mint[35] and is to appear on Japan's 1,000 yen banknote from 2024.[36] Apple macOS and iOS display a small version of the Great Wave as the image for the Water Wave emoji.[37]

Many modern artists have reinterpreted and adapted the image. Indigenous Australian artist Lin Onus used the Great Wave as the basis for his 1992 painting Michael and I are just slipping down the pub for a minute.[38] A work named Uprisings by Japanese/American Artist Kozyndan is based on the print, with the foam of the wave being replaced by bunnies.[39]

On screen[edit]

The print is the subjects of two art documentary series :


  1. ^ A "rough sea screen" features in one of Hokusai's earliest works, Segawa Kikunojo III as Masamune's Daughter, Oren, printed over fifty years before the Great Wave
  2. ^ In early prints of the Great Wave the key-block, usually only used for outlines, is simultaneously used to print the dark-blue areas of the waves.
  3. ^ The pale red seen on the sides of two of the boats in the frequently reproduced Metropolitan Museum print (JP 1847) has apparently been added by hand.[21]
  4. ^ The concept of rights concerned with woodblock ownership was known as zōhan.


  1. ^ a b "Kanagawa-oki nami-ura 神奈川沖 )". British Museum. Archived from the original on 2014-12-11. Retrieved 2010-07-19.
  2. ^ a b c Cartwright, HE; Nakamura, H (2009). "What kind of a wave is Hokusai's Great wave off Kanagawa?". Notes and Records. 63 (2): 119–135. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2007.0039.
  3. ^ "Katsushika Hokusai". Archived from the original on 2010-11-05. Retrieved 2010-07-07.
  4. ^ Calza 2003, p. 470
  5. ^ Guth 2009, p. 47
  6. ^ Forrer 2003, pp. 23–24
  7. ^ Forrer 2003, p. 26
  8. ^ Nagata & Bester 1999, p. 40
  9. ^ Calza 2003, p. 29Calza, p. 29
  10. ^ "Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave at Kanagawa". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 2010-06-14. Retrieved 2010-07-07.
  11. ^ "Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) by Hokusai (1760–1849)". Archived from the original on 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
  12. ^ Nipponia. "El Monte Fuji como Objeto Artístico" (in Spanish). Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  13. ^ Kobayashi & Harbison 1997, p. 47.
  14. ^ a b Radio UNAM. "La Gran Ola de Kanagawa" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  15. ^ Guimet Museum. "Hokusai "Mad about his art" from Edmond de Goncourt to Norbert Lagane". Archived from the original on 14 October 2010. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  16. ^ Bibliothèque nationale de France. "Hokusai, Les Trente-six vues du mont Fuji" (in French). Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  17. ^ a b c "Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2010-07-05.
  18. ^ "Ukiyo-e, arte de grabado japonés" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2010-04-19. Retrieved 2010-07-11.
  19. ^ "Ukiyo-e: Imágenes del mundo flotante" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2010-12-10. Retrieved 2010-07-11.
  20. ^ "Masterpieces from the Ota Memorial museum of Art Paintings and Japanese prints". Musée Guimet. 2005. Archived from the original on 2011-07-20. Retrieved 2010-07-05.
  21. ^ a b c Clark (2001)
  22. ^ "Viewing Japanese Prints: What Is an Original Woodblock Print?". Viewing Japanese Prints. Archived from the original on 2008-03-27. Retrieved 2010-07-06.
  23. ^ a b Society, Infocobuild. BBC (ed.). "Private Life of a Masterpiece: Episode 14 – Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave".
  24. ^ a b c Gamerman, Ellen (March 18, 2015). "How Hokusai's 'The Great Wave' Went Viral". The Wall Street Journal.
  25. ^ New York, Christie's (21 September 2020). "KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849) Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa)". Christie's Auction House. Retrieved 22 December 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  26. ^ Sooke, Alastair. "Katsushika Hokusai: the starving artist who became the prince of tides". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  27. ^ Hokusai, Katsushika. "The Great Wave by Hokusai". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2021-05-17.
  28. ^ Staff, Communications (2019-04-03). "Seeing Triple: The Great Wave by Hokusai". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  29. ^ "Asian Art Resource". National Gallery of Victoria. Retrieved 2021-02-24.
  30. ^ S.A, Telewizja Polska. "W płockim muzeum można oglądać skarby kultury dalekiego wschodu". (in Polish). Retrieved 2022-01-14.
  31. ^ "Letter 676: To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 8 September 1888". Van Gogh Museum.
  32. ^ Cirigliano II, Michael (July 22, 2014). "Hokusai and Debussy's Evocations of the Sea". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  33. ^ Guth 2011
  34. ^ (In French) L'Express (13 July 2000). "Surf La planche à billet". Retrieved 2009-09-06.
  35. ^ "2017 Fiji Great Wave Proof Silver Coin (Colorized)". Archived from the original on 2016-10-22.
  36. ^ Melinda Weir (September 2019). "A Money Makeover". International Monetary Fund. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  37. ^ "Water Wave Emoji". Emojipedia. Retrieved 2014-10-29.
  38. ^ Ashcroft, Bill (2013-07-26). "Hybridity and Transformation: The Art of Lin Onus". Postcolonial Text. 8 (1).
  39. ^ "Uprisings – Kozyndan".
  40. ^ "'The Great Wave' by Hokusai". 2004-04-17. Archived from the original on 2010-07-22. Retrieved 2010-07-04.


External links[edit]

Media related to The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai at Wikimedia Commons

This article is about an item held in the British Museum. The object reference is 3097579.