The Great Wave
The Peak’s Whisper in the Ocean’s Thunder
As the New Year’s celebrations of 1831 approached, the Eijudo printing firm launched an advertisement for Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, a series of captivating woodblock prints showcasing Japan’s revered peak. Among these, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, widely known as The Great Wave, quickly rose to international fame, epitomizing not only the genius of the artist, Hokusai, but also becoming an emblem of Japanese art as a whole.
Under the wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura). Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1830.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose career flourished over seven decades, began his artistic journey at six years old. From that age until his last days, Hokusai’s brush was in constant motion, leaving behind a legacy of thousands of paintings, prints, and nearly 270 book illustrations.
Hokusai is frequently linked with the ukiyo-e genre, known as “pictures of the floating world,” which captures the fleeting pleasures of everyday life during the Edo period through depictions of landscapes, theater, and city entertainment districts. Yet, his artistry transcended these themes. He observed society with a keen and empathetic eye, masterfully merged East Asian and European painting methods, and shared his passion through numerous drawing and painting manuals.
Katsushika Hokusai. Self-portrait, 1839.
His most acclaimed work, the woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, features the mountain in diverse conditions. Hokusai’s genius shines in his innovative use of perspective, particularly in The Great Wave, where he presents the towering mountain as a subtle triangle beneath the wave’s mighty crest, symbolizing nature’s overwhelming power.
In this dynamic scene, we see fishermen in slender boats navigating the tumultuous sea, a testament to their relentless spirit against the backdrop of nature’s might. These boats, known as oshiokuribune, were vital for delivering fresh and dried fish to the markets of Kanagawa Prefecture each morning. The composition’s dramatic interplay between human endeavor and the awe of the natural world is said to have inspired masterpieces such as Debussy’s La Mer and Rilke’s Der Berg.
Cover of the orchestral score of Claude Debussy’s La mer, 1905.
A revolutionary aspect of Hokusai’s prints is the vivid use of Prussian blue, a durable synthetic pigment imported from China and the Netherlands, which gave his artwork an enduring vibrancy previously unattainable with traditional dyes. This innovative use of blue, coupled with the striking imagery, earned The Great Wave immense popularity in its day.
Fine wind, clear morning (Gaifū kaisei). Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series. Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1830.
What’s fascinating is the multitude of The Great Wave impressions that exist, with no single version being the definitive one. Prestigious institutions like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art house several variations. Of the possible 8,000 original copies, a mere 200 survive, making each one a treasured artifact.
Today, The Great Wave stands as a testament to the artist’s influence and the profound impact that one piece of art can have on the world. It invites us to reflect on the beauty and power of nature, the resilience of humanity, and the vibrant culture of Japan that continues to resonate through the centuries.
Words of wisdom
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ―Lao Tzu
“You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” ―Oscar Wilde
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” ―John Lennon