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The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa


The Great Wave off Kanagawa, also known as “The Great Wave,” from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Hokusai’s most famous work is one of the best-recognized works of Japanese art in the world. It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats off the coast of the prefecture of Kanagawa. While sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is more likely to be a large rogue wave, as the picture’s title suggests.

It was made between 1830 and 1833, in the late Edo period. It was first published by the Tokugawa shogunate in the late Edo period when the series was very popular. Hokusai’s most famous work is one of the best-recognized works of Japanese art in the world.

Ukiyo-e mastery with a Dutch influence

Hokusai was a master of ukiyo-e, the style of art that dominated Japan in the 17th through 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e artists made woodblock prints and paintings depicting landscapes, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, folk tales, and erotica.

Three Beauties of the Present Day, a woodblock print by ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro, c. 1793

With geometric shapes, Hokusai’s artworks draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. The Great Wave uses the triangle of Mount Fuji in the background and a massive circle of waves in the foreground. The waves fill the scene surrounding the smaller triangle of Fuji. In the distance, tiny people in boats struggle to stay alive while waves crash over their little craft.

Traditional colors in Japanese art were not strong enough for Hokusai’s taste. So, he chose to have his waves dominate the foreground with their intense blue. Hokusai used Prussian blue, a more concentrated and potent version than the traditional vegetal alternative. It creates more vivid prints, but the color fades much faster than conventional Japanese pigments.

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The inclusion of this pigment in the sea was also a departure from traditional Japanese painting, which typically uses only natural colors. For example, the use of light and shadow Hokusai creates depth and space. The influence of European art is also evident in the work’s strong vertical lines. The strong, dark lines are typical of the woodblock prints of the time.

In the background of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa is Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. It was the most sacred of all Japanese mountains and the most popular spot for Japanese people to visit in their lifetime. Over the centuries, the mountain has inspired many artists to create works like The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

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