The Evolution of The Great Wave off Kanagawa: See Four Versions That Hokusai Painted Over Nearly 40 Years

Has any Japan­ese wood­block print — or for that mat­ter, any piece of Japan­ese art — endured as well across place and time as The Great Wave off Kana­gawa? Even those of us who have nev­er known its name, let alone those of us unsure of who made it and when, can bring it to mind it with some clar­i­ty, as sure a sign as any (along with the numer­ous par­o­dies) that it taps into some­thing deep with­in all of us. But though the artist behind it, 18th- and 19th-cen­tu­ry ukiyo‑e painter Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai, was undoubt­ed­ly a mas­ter of his tra­di­tion, even he did­n’t con­jure up The Great Wave off Kana­gawa in the form we know it on the first try.

In fact, he’d been pro­duc­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of it for near­ly forty years. On Twit­ter Tarin tkasasa­gi recent­ly post­ed four ver­sions of the Great Wave that Hoku­sai paint­ed over that peri­od. Here you see them arranged from top to bot­tom: the first from 1792, when he was 33; the sec­ond from 1803, when he was 44; the third from 1805, when he was 46; and the famous fourth from 1831, when he was 72.

Each time, Hoku­sai de-empha­sizes the human pres­ence and empha­sizes the nat­ur­al ele­ments, bring­ing out dra­ma from the water itself rather than from the peo­ple who regard or nav­i­gate it. In each ver­sion, too, the col­ors grow bold­er and the lines stronger.

The skill lev­el of a work­ing artist — espe­cial­ly an artist work­ing as hard as Hoku­sai — almost inevitably increas­es over time, and that must have some­thing to do with these changes, though it also looks like the process of an artis­tic per­son­al­i­ty set­tling into its sub­ject mat­ter. “From the time I was six, I was in the habit of sketch­ing things I saw around me,” says Hoku­sai him­self in a wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed quo­ta­tion. “Around the age of 50, I began to work in earnest, pro­duc­ing numer­ous designs. It was not until my 70th year, how­ev­er, that I pro­duced any­thing of sig­nif­i­cance.”

In the artist’s telling, only at the age of 73, after the final Great Wave, did he begin to grasp “the under­ly­ing struc­ture of birds and ani­mals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow. Thus if I keep up my efforts, I will have even a bet­ter under­stand­ing when I was 80 and by 90 will have pen­e­trat­ed to the heart of things. At 100, I may reach a lev­el of divine under­stand­ing, and if I live decades beyond that, every­thing I paint — dot and line — will be alive.” The fact that he did­n’t make it to 100 will for­ev­er keep enthu­si­asts won­der­ing what mag­nif­i­cence an even old­er Hoku­sai might have achieved, but even so, the body of work he man­aged to pro­duce in his 88 years con­tains works that, like the ulti­mate form of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa, out­lived him and will out­live all of us.

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get Free Draw­ing Lessons from Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai, Who Famous­ly Paint­ed The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: Read His How-To Book, Quick Lessons in Sim­pli­fied Draw­ings

Enter a Dig­i­tal Archive of 213,000+ Beau­ti­ful Japan­ese Wood­block Prints

Down­load 2,500 Beau­ti­ful Wood­block Prints and Draw­ings by Japan­ese Mas­ters (1600–1915)

Down­load Clas­sic Japan­ese Wave and Rip­ple Designs: A Go-to Guide for Japan­ese Artists from 1903

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.