Of all Japanese woodblock prints, none is more identified with Japanese art than the iconic Great Wave, created by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

During the Edo period or Tokugawa era of 1603 to 1868, Japanese society was marked by:

  • widespread peace and prosperity;
  • growth of popular culture and the art of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world);

    Katsushika Hokusai. Great Wave, ca. 1831. Polychrome woodblock print on paper, 9 7/8 by 14 5/8".  The British Museum, London.

    Katsushika Hokusai. Great Wave, ca. 1831. Polychrome woodblock print on paper, 9 7/8 by 14 5/8″.  The British Museum, London.

  • the increasingly repressive and rigid rule of the Tokugawa family; and
  • a highly stratified social order, with four classes: samurai (the highest ranking), followed by farmers, artisans, and merchants.

In the late 1630s, Japan closed most all of its ports, declared Catholicism illegal,
expelled missionaries and traders, and forbade citizens from travel abroad.  All foreigners were ousted except for those in small Dutch and Chinese trading communities in the port city of Nagasaki.  With disobedience punishable by death, isolation (and compliance) were nearly absolute.

Although merchants were relegated to the lowest class, growth in the mercantile economy granted them disposable income which they used for diversions such as kabuki theater and courtesans.  Japanese woodblock prints were an inexpensive medium with which artisans created images of these pastimes, changing art from an upper class privilege to the realm of the populance. 

The Great Wave is part of Hokusai’s series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.  In the ukiyo-e prints of the 18th century, nature was the backdrop for human activity; in The Great Wave (and other Japanese woodblock prints of the early 19th century), landscape becomes the topic.

In The Great Wave, the overpowering force of nature threatens to engulf miniscule figures in three boats, while the threatening sky behind Mt. Fiji portends more inclement weather.  Mt. Fiji is a distant, unreachable shore, illustrating the vulnerability of human existence in the face of nature.

Katsushika Hokusai.  Self-portrait, 1839.

Katsushika Hokusai.  Self-portrait, 1839.

At the far left, the cartouche reads “Hokusai aratame litsu hitsu”, or “by the brush of litsu, formerly Hokusai”.  It is known that Hokausai signed his works with up to thirty different names during his lengthy career.

Although The Great Wave may appear to portray a quintessially Japanese scene printed on mulberry paper, foreign influences are apparent with closer inspection:

  • the low horizon is typical of Western painting; 
  • the pronounced blue dye – Prussian blue – is a European synthetic dye much less prone to fading than traditional Japanese blues. The intensity of this new exotic dye was used to promote the Views of Mount Fuji series; and
  • Hokusai has employed European perspective to locate Mount Fuji far in the distance.

So The Great Wave is a hybrid, incorporating elements of the Japanese pictorial tradition while also subtly nodding to European influences.

Despite the isolationism imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns, Europe learned of Japanese woodblock prints in a bizarre way – some of Hokusai’s prints were used as packing material for china sent in 1856 to the French artist, Felix Bracquemond! This ignited awareness and enthusiasm for Japanese woodblock prints, especially from the Impressionists… and made these Japanese prints far more valuable than packing paper.

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