• Creatively Asian

The History of The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Better known as “The Great Wave”, this woodblock print is one of the most easily recognizable pieces of art in the world. From overpriced Wayfair prints to Urban Outfitters graphic t-shirts, and my Pinterest feed, I was no stranger to this beautiful work. Whether the aforementioned scenario applies to you, or it’s your first time hearing of it, I hope it sparked your curiosity as it did mine. The following is a brief history of The Great Wave off Kanagawa.


Hokusai, the artist, was born at the end of 1760 in Japan’s Hōreki period to an artisan family living in the Katsushika district of Edo. He began painting at age 6, introduced by his father who painted designs on the mirrors he made. His artistic training continued throughout his youth, including a wood-carving apprenticeship and ukiyo-e style print lessons from Katsukawa Shunshō, another notable Japanese artist. While this preliminary training produced the artistic skills needed to develop expertise, Hokusai had the “x-factor” required for becoming legendary. It is apparent in not only his prolific career but how he presented himself through it. Born as Tokitarō, Hokusai changed his name over 30 times, each marking different eras of his work. He resided in over 90 places and produced 30,000 artworks in his lifetime. Age was no factor either, it wasn’t until the ripe age of 70, that he published his most famous work. Hokusai is a stunning example of living to create.


The Great Wave off Kanagawa is in the ukiyo-e style, which translates to “picture of the floating world”. It begins with a sketch (shita-e) that’s outline is used to carve the image into wood. Ink is then applied to the relief, and paper on top of that to transfer the design. Each block can be used several hundreds of times, with different color schemes as well. This unique style afforded many copies, several of which can be viewed today.


This was Hokusai’s first piece in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, his series displaying Japan's tallest peak from varying perspectives. It’s color scheme featuring Prussian blue was revolutionary for its time, featuring both traditional Japanese influence and Dutch linearism apparent in the low-horizon. While the subject of the print may seem evident, there are details discovered upon closer inspection. In the center-right is snow-capped Mount Fuji, and within the rogue wave are fast boats used to transfer fish to the Edo bay markets. Inscribed on the top-left is the name of the piece, the series name, as well as the name change announcement of Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu or “from the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu”.


This piece is not only a beautiful depiction of Japan’s scenic topography, but a symbol of strength, serenity, and national identity. It’s the portrayal of the force of nature can and has inspired many to create, from famous composers like Debussy, muralists in Russia, environmentalists in Florida, Parisian Malaysian artists, to you and me. The next time you’re exploring the Japanese Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, shopping at the mall, or scrolling on the Internet, you can identify this rich history, and acknowledge The Great Wave off Kanagawa as a tremendous example of Asian creativeness.


Created by Meghan Wicktor and edited by Aditi Patel