Behind the Art: Is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai the most famous Japanese artwork?

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura – Under the Wave Off Kanagawa) or commonly called The big wave is a woodblock print by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Made in 1831 during the Edo period of Japanese history, the print is one of the most well-known Japanese works of art in history. Several museums around the world hold copies of this print. One of the prints is currently held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. The woodblock print Beneath the Great Wave Pit off Kanagawa sold for $1.6 million with acquisition costs, 10 times its low estimate of $150,000 in 2021. It has influenced several notable artists and musicians, such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Debussy, Claude Monet, Hiroshige and many others. But what is the story behind this impression? Why will it appear on the new 1,000 yen banknote in Japan from 2024?

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The artist and the concept

Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo (now Tokyo) and began painting at the age of six. At 16, he became an apprentice engraver. He started creating his illustrations and became an apprentice of artist Katsukara Shunshō, who was one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of his time. Ukiyo-e is the name of Japanese prints made during the Edo period. The word “Ukiyo-e” means “floating world” and refers to the impermanence of the world. The first prints were made in black and white, but Hokusai started adding colors to them, especially Prussian blue, a rare color used in Japan at the time. Hokusai was heavily influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and French paintings. The artist discovered the Western prints that arrived in his country through the Dutch trade. This is how he became interested in linear perspective and created a Japanese variant of it. He was intrigued by the oblique angles and the contrast of man-made and natural objects near and far. This is seen in The big wave. There is a large wave in the foreground that dwarfs the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen amid the powerful waves. This print is said to be a symbolic image of the change taking place in Japanese society at the time. With foreign influence becoming predominant through trade, it is considered the symbol of the soul of Japan due to the stillness and physical form of Mount Fuji in print.

Mount Fuji obsession

The big wave is Hokusai’s best-known work and the first of his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series. It is said that Hokusai was obsessed with Mount Fuji. It is, after all, the tallest mountain in Japan and is considered sacred. There was another main reason he made so many draws focusing on that mountain. At the time, there was a boom in domestic travel, and as a result, the image of Mount Fuji had a growing market. The prints were bought by pilgrims who wanted to climb the mountain or tourists who simply wanted to visit the capital and admire the view.

In The big wave, there is a large wave in the foreground that dwarfs the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen amid the powerful waves. (Photo:

Ukiyo-e prints and their popularity

Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh were big fans of Japanese prints. In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh states how much he admires the works of Hokusai. He praised the quality of his drawing and the great use of lines in the famous Big wave The painting. This work of art left a terrifying emotional impact on his life and his art. Hokusai’s prints presented modern city life in a linear manner using the technique where space is flat and atmospheric conditions are highlighted.

From 1640, Japan was largely closed to the world and only limited interaction with China and Holland was allowed. That changed in the 1850s when the trade was forced open by US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry. After that, there was a flood of Japanese visual culture in the West. During the 1867 International Exhibition in Paris, Hokusai’s work was exhibited in the Japanese pavilion. This was the first introduction of Japanese culture to a mass audience in the West, and an art collecting craze called “Japanism” ensued. Additionally, Impressionist artists in Paris, such as Claude Monet, were big fans of Japanese prints. The flattening of space, an interest in atmospheric conditions, and the impermanence of modern city life—all visible in Hokusai’s prints—both reaffirmed their artistic interests and inspired many future works of art.

Japan timestamp

The big wave is considered a time stamp of when Japan was changing from its old ways to a modern Japan. The artwork captures the impact of Western culture on Japan and how Mount Fuji has played an important role in the lives of Japanese citizens. This artwork will soon be seen on new 1,000 yen banknotes in Japan, underlining how important it is to Japanese culture and the Western art world. It also shows how eternal works of art can be when it comes to representing a culture.

Next step in Behind the Art: What is the meaning of The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli? Why was he so controversial in his day?

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