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Nearly two hundred years ago, an elderly Japanese artist known as Hokusai created perhaps the most iconic and famous piece of Japanese art, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This print influenced artists in Japan and Western nations in the 19th and 20th centuries and helped lay the foundation for modern art. It eventually would inspire music, Impressionist paintings, fashion and home decor – including our “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” tapestry.
Hokusai’s creation was part of studies of Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, located on the island of Honshū. The media for the artwork was woodblock print and a recently introduced ink pigment. Hokusai’s composition incorporated Western artistic principles but eventually became a landmark in Japanese art that ensured his work could be seen by millions of people around the world.
“The Great Wave” shows fishing boats passing nearby off the coast of the Bōsō Peninsula, a region notorious for its rough seas. Kanagawa, now the present-day city of Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, is the closest town. The “Great Wave” in the print seems to menace Mount Fuji, though the mountain is seen far away in the distance.
Kanagawa Prefecture is located southwest of Tokyo and is the second most populated prefecture in Japan. Today, Kanagawa is a popular getaway destination for Tokyo’s residents, offering attractions such as the Onsen resorts, historical sites and beautiful beaches.
The practice of an artist changing his name as they achieved proficiency in their craft was not uncommon in Japan. The fact that Kawamura Tokitaro (later known as Katsushika Hokusai) took on so many names in his life – about 30 – has helped scholars date his artworks.
Hokusai was born around the year 1760. He was raised by Isa Nakajima, a mirror maker. Nothing is known about his birth parents, and he may have been adopted by Nakajima at birth. He spent his early years living in an artists’ community in Edo.
Katsushika Hokusai. Image credit: TheArtStory
His artistic endeavors started at the age of six, when he learned painting and woodblock carving. At age 12, he went to work at a bookshop and library. As a teenager, he became an apprentice woodblock cutter. At age 18, he went to work at the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, who specialized in ukiyo-e prints (a style of Japanese woodblock print and painting from the Edo period depicting city life, travel in romantic landscapes, erotic scenes of courtesans and famous Kabuki theater actors). The ukiyo-e genre became known for its depictions of the worldly, decadent pleasures of the middle class.
Hokusai’s name first changed at age 19, when his master gave him the name Shunro. He published his first series of prints in 1779. After his master’s death, he was evicted from the studio. His artistic influences moved away designing prints depicting traditional ukiyo-e and started focusing on public life scenes of ordinary people and landscapes.
He was next associated with the Tawaraya School and took the name Tawaraya Sori. He produced brush paintings and illustrations for an illustrated book of humorous poems. In 1798, he set out on his own as an artist. About 1800 or 1801 he changed his name – Hokusai, meaning “North Studio” – in his late 40s to what he is now known by. He also began to take on students, teaching nearly 50 students throughout his life.
Flowers and Butterflies, Tawaraya School. Image credit: Google Arts & Culture
In 1811, Hokusai changed his name again to Taito and began to create Hokusai Manga and various art manuals. His manga, or random drawings, showcased studies in perspective. His first book of manga, published in 1814, would later inspire the modern form of manga comics.
His career as an independent commercial artist relied on a large volume of sales of his prints and books. His woodblock print books became popular in the 1820s, when he worked under the name of Iitsu. There were 15 volumes that covered a variety of topics, but the “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” cemented his place in art history. His studies in Manga and perspective can be seen in these prints.
In the next period, beginning in 1834, Hokusai took the name Gakyo Rojin. He returned to showcasing Mount Fuji, creating the landscape series called “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji,” but by the late 1830s his star had begun to fade as younger artists captured the public’s imagination.
Hokusai was married twice and fathered five children. After the death of one of his daughters in 1821 and his second wife in 1828, another daughter Ei, or Oi, came to live with her father to assist him in the studio. She, too, would become an artist. Despite his fame and artistic success, he was not an astute financier and continually faced money troubles. In 1839, a fire destroyed Hokusai's studio and much of his work. A grandson began to gamble, which further strained the family's finances.
He also was reportedly eccentric: Historians think he moved ninety-three times throughout his life because of his aversion to housekeeping. And in his 80s, Hokusai would draw a Chinese lion or lion dancer every morning and throw it out the window, believing it would ward off bad luck. Oi had the good sense to pick them up out of the street and save them for posterity.
“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” was created late in its artist’s life. Katsushika Housai was about 70 years old when he designed what would become one of history’s most iconic Japanese art images.
Hokusai continued producing art throughout his golden years, before his death in 1849 at the age of about 89. He created about 30,000 print designs.
“The Great Wave” creates a dramatic scene, as a large and dangerous wave threatens to swamp and overturn three oshiokuri-bune – fast boats used for fishing – passing nearby off the coast of the town of Kanagawa (now Yokohama). The wave also seems to menace Mount Fuji, despite the mountain being far from the sea.
The symbolism of the wave about to strike the boats calls to mind the irresistible force of nature and the weakness of mankind. With the horrific 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, the world was reminded of how tsunamis, hurricanes and other disasters can wipe out human plans in the blink of an eye.
For the 19th-Century art world, Hokusai’s work became emblematic of how Japanese influence swept away the French academy’s hold on traditional French culture. This disruption was called a “nouvelle vague,” a new wave, and was evident in the work of Monet and Van Gogh.
The piece, also called “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” or “Kanagawa oki nami ura,” is one woodblock print from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. The series, in fact, has 46 prints, ten of which were published after their creator’s death.
Image credit: Artelino.com
“The Great Wave” is the most famous of them, and dates to around 1830. For such a monumental piece of work, the actual size of the print is surprisingly small: 10 1/8 inches by 14 15/16 inches (25.7 centimeters by 37.9 centimeters).
This print, produced during the repressive Edo period, also represents a significant influence from Western art, uncommon for the time period. Hokusai was influenced by Japanese painter named Shiba Kōkan, who experimented with European principles of composition.
In his masterpiece, Hokusai used Western perspective in his composition, rather than the traditional Japanese bird’s-eye view. He also employed the use of Prussian blue pigmented ink, a relatively new color that had swept Europe with its popularity, but one that was difficult to obtain because of Japan’s trade laws.
According to the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” was not the first time Hokusai experimented with the drama of this composition. Two other works bear similarities, but decidedly lack the Western influence: “Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu” (circa 1803) and “Oshiokuri Hato Tsusen no Zu” (circa 1805). Both feature, in addition to the large wave, a sailboat and a rowboat. In both prints, the vessels are in the middle of a storm as a wave looms over them.
The early works have a stilted feel to them, unlike the dynamic form of “The Great Wave,” which demonstrates the artist’s growth aesthetically.
Hokusai’s spirituality found inspiration in Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji, which led to his series of prints “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji.”
Rising to a height of 12,38 feet (3,776 meters), the tallest peak on the island nation towers over not only the physical landscape, but also the cultural landscape of Japan. This active volcano, which last erupted in 1707, stands 62 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo and has become a symbol of Japan and found its way into many artistic representations.
In Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto tradition, Mount Fuji is considered sacred, one of three mountains to have this spiritual designation. Practitioners, who make pilgrimages to it, believe Mount Fuji holds the secret of immortality. Shinto practitioners have been coming to see this giant since at least the seventh century CE.
To understand The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, you must first understand the culture and history of the time in which it was created.
The history of art in Japan is a series of interactions with foreign influences, followed by periods of isolation. Buddhism, which originated in India and arrived in Japan in 552 CE became a major spiritual and cultural influence in Japan. Further influences came from Chinese Zen in the 1330s through the 1570s, bringing with it the popularity of monochrome ink painting.
The Edo period, when “The Great Wave” was created, was marked by isolation from the outside world and an emergence of new artistic inspirations. In 1598, when the Momoyama leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi died, his five-year-old son, Hideyori, inherited rule. One of Hideyoshi’s counselors, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took up the title of shogun – a hereditary commander with military power. He moved the seat of government from Kyoto to Edo, which is now Tokyo.
Ieyasu defeated the remaining Toyotomi forces in 1615 to consolidate his rule. And so the Edo period, also known as the Tokugawa era, began. The period would last for more than 250 years and impose stringent social rules. The shoguns believed in and enforced a social hierarchy in which the warrior was dominant, followed by the peasant, artisan, and merchant in descending order. During this military dictatorship, merchants prospered as peace reigned and urban centers grew.
Prior to the Edo period, the arts were mainly enjoyed by the nobility and political elite. New entertainments emerged during the Edo period, including Kabuki theater, brothels, and other places of entertainment. These leisure pursuits would become subject matter for Japanese artists.
Ukiyo-e described this hedonistic lifestyle. Ukiyo means “floating world” or “sad troublesome world,” and –e refers to a picture. The translation of ukiyo-e boils down to “pictures of the floating world,” usually paintings or in woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e art began to appear in the late 17th century and were popular with the merchant class, who had the money to buy prints and paintings.
Starting in 1639, contact with other nations was forbidden. Sakoku forbade interactions with the outside world under penalty of death. However, the Dutch managed to maintain a trading post in Nagasaki Harbor, thus allowing some Western influences to find their way into Japanese society. European prints influenced some Japanese artists on visual perspective, composition, and themes. These ideas would eventually find their way into Hokusai’s printed art late in his career.
Through hundreds of years of Japanese history, wood-block printing was an inexpensive method to replicate images and texts. Because of its relative low cost, printed materials were held in lower esteem than other art forms; however, it is because of its low cost that printing could reach a broad audience.
Printmaking was introduced from China in the 200s CE, but did not become popular in Japan until hundreds of years later. Because of the time-consuming nature of writing out scrolls by hand, printmaking became a faster, more efficient way to reproduce scrolls as books. Later it became a method to mass produce prints. Starting in the 8th century CE, Buddhists used printmaking to reproduce scriptural texts. As literacy increased under the Edo period in the 17th through 19th centuries, so too did the popularity of printmaking.
The simplest prints were conceived from monochrome drawings. An artist drew an image on washi, a thin but strong paper. The designer or a carver would glue the design to a block of wood and carve it in relief. A printer then applied ink to the block and made an impression on paper. The artist-designer could make color suggestions for the printer. The simplest way to color the prints was by hand rendering. This method of monochrome printing with hand coloring began to appear in the late 1600s.
Printing a multi-colored, or polychromatic, drawing was more complex and required precision. More wood blocks needed to be carved, and the blocks had to be “in register” so the colors would line up correctly when the paper and ink were applied. This method was laborious and expensive to produce. However, the rich colors gave prints the look of paintings. Such color palettes emerged in the late 1700s, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The benefit of printing from blocks was its reproducibility. Hundreds, even thousands of prints could be manufactured from just one set of woodblocks. However, with use, the edges of the carved design would wear down, creating less-crisp prints. Collectors of Japanese prints prefer the earliest prints from a publication run, as they are more legible and “true” to the artist’s design and vision.
Print making differs from paintings, whose artists often aim for realism and proportion. The woodblock prints have a flatter, perhaps slightly out-of-proportion look to them. Instead, strong shapes and lines are part of its aesthetic. In Japanese printmaking, the bold outlines frame the colorful, watercolor-like hues to give it an illustrative feel.
Printmaking flourished from 1603-1868. The prints capture ukiyo-e, a genre that presents to the public “pictures of the floating world” – such as beautiful women, sumo wrestlers, history and story scenes, landscapes, flowers, animals, and erotica to the public.
Hokusai was among the artists who tried their hand at creating blueprints. His “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” was publicized circa 1830. Ten of the prints, including “The Great Wave at Kanagawa,” used Prussian blue-dyed ink.
Hokusai’s bold use of color – especially the Prussian blue pigment – was a continuation of printmakers' departure from earlier monochromatic prints. His series “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” used a generous amount of blue to depict the iconic mountain and surrounding seascapes.
Prussian blue, which also goes by the names Berlin blue and Parisian blue, was the first modern synthetic paint to be created. Prior to its creation, paint, ink, and dye pigments were derived from minerals, plant extracts, and animal byproducts. It was the first stable and fade-resistant pigment to be created after the formula for Egyptian blue was lost during the European Middle Ages. Artists who wanted to use blue in their painting had to use the costly ultramarine blue created from crushed semi precious stone lapis lazuli.
Prussian blue was produced by oxidation of ferrous ferrocyanide salts and is believed to have been synthesized sometime between 1704 and 1706 by Swiss paint maker Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin. Historians think Diesbach accidentally created the pigment when he used potash tainted with blood to create some red cochineal dye. His concoction reacted to create iron ferrocyanide, which has a very distinct blue color.
The new pigment was mentioned in a 1708 letter written by Johann Leonhard Frisch to president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In 1708, Frisch began to promote and sell the pigment across Europe. The discovery of the formulation set off a demand for Prussian blue across Europe. The color was used in painting, wallpaper, flags, and stamps. It even became the official uniform color of the Prussian Army. The painting “Entombment of Christ” (1709) by Pieter van der Werff is the oldest known painting to have used the pigment.
In Japan, blue is known as ao or aoi. Prints done in blue shades are called aizuri-e, meaning “indigo pictures.” Unlike the indigo blue used in the 18th century that was derived from plants, the Prussian blue was vibrant and resisted fading. Because of its usefulness in creating water and sky elements, it influenced the Japanese landscape print genre.
Initially, Prussian blue pigment was difficult to acquire due to Japan’s ban on trade with Europe. Improved trade relations with the Dutch, who imported the pigment, helped ease supplies. Artistic experimentation with the hue began in the 1790s. It arrived in Edo in 1829 and was used in small-quantity prints.
With the opening of Japan to the West in the 1860s, the public in Europe and North America became enamored of Japanese art and culture. Japanese style influenced home decor in Victorian parlors and in the artists' salons and cafes of Europe. This influence on Western culture was known as Japonism. The Impressionist artists of Europe were especially inspired by Japanese art, particularly woodblock prints. These artists often incorporated Japanese themes and techniques into their works starting in the 1860s.
Hokusai’s influence on Japanese and Western art is undeniable. His color palette, which showcased bold colors, had not been used much in printmaking before . Printmakers before him generally used a limited number of colors, and because the ink was created with natural dyes, the colors were muted. He also was among the artists who departed from the tradition of depicting scenes of Japan’s social upper castes, instead showcasing everyday street scenes and nature. This attitude inspired the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to look outside of the usual elitist, aristocratic subject matter for inspiration. For instance, Frenchmen Edgar Degas turned to painting the Parisian ballerina dancers and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted the bohemian 19th-century Paris nightlife, such as the Moulin Rouge cabaret dancers.
Some of the other 19th century artists who were inspired by Hokusai’s “Great Wave” include:
Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” continued to inspire throughout the 20th century. Some examples include:
The Mount Fuji series of prints proved popular with the public. Historians estimate approximately 5,000 copies were made. The original woodblocks used in the printing became worn with use, and the later prints did not have as sharp of lines and forms as the earliest ones.
Copies of the prints made their way Westward after Japan opened itself to other countries in the 1860s. Japanese print images found enthusiastic Western fans, who collected them for display in their homes. The prints, especially “The Great Wave,” influenced 19th century artists, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and laid the groundwork for 20th century Modernism art.
Few of the earliest prints survived the past two centuries. The ones that have are of varying quality and condition. Where are the Great Wave prints located? Some are held in private collections. Several museums own and display copies, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the British Museum in London.
In March 2019, a collector paid $471,000 for one of the prints. The highest price paid for one print was nearly $1.5 million.
For art lovers, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” is the epitome of Japanese landscape art that captures a spiritual presence with nature. It is a timeless piece that has transcended and inspired other artistic styles and culture. Hokusai could not have foreseen just how popular and widely admired his famous print would become, nor how much it influenced cultures and artistry so different from his own. Just as he was able to offer his design and artistry affordably to a mass audience, The Tapestry Gallery also is able to offer his masterpiece to the public for a reasonable price.