The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai: An Introduction to the Iconic Japanese Woodblock Print in 17 Minutes

When wood­cut artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai made his famous print The Great Wave off Kana­gawa in 1830 — part of the series Thir­ty-six Views of Mount Fuji — he was 70 years old and had lived his entire life in a Japan closed off from the rest of the world. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, “the rest of the world was becom­ing indus­tri­al­ized,” James Payne explains above in his Great Art Explained video, “and the Japan­ese were con­cerned about for­eign inva­sions.” The Great Wave shows “an image of Japan fear­ful that the sea — which has pro­tect­ed its peace­ful iso­la­tion for so long — would become its down­fall.”

It’s also true, how­ev­er, that The Great Wave would not have exist­ed with­out a for­eign inva­sion. Pruss­ian blue, the first sta­ble blue pig­ment, acci­den­tal­ly invent­ed around 1705 in Berlin, arrived in the ports of Nagasa­ki on Dutch and Chi­nese ships in the 1820s. Pruss­ian Blue would start a new artis­tic move­ment in Japan, aizuri‑e, wood­cuts print­ed in bright, vivid blues.

“Hoku­sai was one of the first Japan­ese print­mak­ers to bold­ly embrace the colour,” Hugh Davies writes at The Con­ver­sa­tion, “a deci­sion that would have major impli­ca­tions in the world of art.” When the country’s iso­la­tion­ist poli­cies end­ed in the 1850s, “a show­case at the inau­gur­al Japan­ese Pavil­ion ele­vat­ed the artis­tic sta­tus of wood­block prints and a craze for their col­lec­tion quick­ly fol­lowed.”

Chief among the works col­lect­ed in the Euro­pean and Amer­i­can fer­vor for Japan­ese prints were those from Hoku­sai, his con­tem­po­rary Hiroshige, and oth­er aizuri‑e artists. So famous was The Great Wave in the West by 1891 that French graph­ic artist Pierre Bon­nard would sat­i­rize its styl­ish spray in an adver­tise­ment for cham­pagne. A print of The Great Wave hung on Claude Debussy’s wall, and the first edi­tion of his La Mer bore an adap­ta­tion of a detail from the print. As Michael Cirigliano writes for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art:

Cul­tur­al cir­cles through­out Europe great­ly admired Hoku­sai’s work…. Major artists of the Impres­sion­ist move­ment such as Mon­et owned copies of Hoku­sai prints, and lead­ing art crit­ic Philippe Bur­ty, in his 1866 Chefs-d’oeu­vre des Arts indus­triels, even stat­ed that Hoku­sai’s work main­tained the ele­gance of Wat­teau, the fan­ta­sy of Goya, and the move­ment of Delacroix. Going one step fur­ther in his laud­ed com­par­isons, Bur­ty wrote that Hoku­sai’s dex­ter­i­ty in brush strokes was com­pa­ra­ble only to that of Rubens.

These com­par­isons are not mis­placed, John-Paul Stonard explains in The Guardian: “That the Great Wave became the best known print in the west was in large part due to Hokusai’s for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence of Euro­pean art.” Not only did he absorb Pruss­ian blue into his reper­toire, but “prints from ear­ly in his career show him attempt­ing, rather awk­ward­ly, to apply the les­son of math­e­mat­i­cal per­spec­tive, learnt from Euro­pean prints brought into Japan by Dutch Traders.” By the time of The Great Wave, he had per­fect­ed his own syn­the­sis of West­ern and Japan­ese art, over two decades before Euro­pean painters would attempt the same in the explo­sion of Japanophil­ia of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Watch the Mak­ing of Japan­ese Wood­block Prints, from Start to Fin­ish, by a Long­time Tokyo Print­mak­er

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

Down­load Vin­cent van Gogh’s Col­lec­tion of 500 Japan­ese Prints, Which Inspired Him to Cre­ate “the Art of the Future”

Watch the Mak­ing of Japan­ese Wood­block Prints, from Start to Fin­ish, by a Long­time Tokyo Print­mak­er

19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­blocks Illus­trate the Lives of West­ern Inven­tors, Artists, and Schol­ars (1873)

The Met Puts 650+ Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Online: Mar­vel at Hokusai’s One Hun­dred Views of Mount Fuji and More 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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