Evolution of Hokusai’s wave paintings

(Last Updated On: 08/02/2020)

The world-famous painting of Japanese waves, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, one of the prints of “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji“,  is a work by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The print, which influenced impressionist artists, was very popular among the citizens of Edo at that time. He painted the raging waves vividly with unusual Prussian blue pigments abundantly.

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But not many people know how the painting came into being. Let’s trace how Hokusai created the Great Wave Off Kanagawa.




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Unfortunately, Hokusai’s explanations of the work do not remain, so it is not clear where the scenery was viewed from or how it was created. However, it can be seen that his many works of waves throughout his life, Spring at Enoshima in his early career, were strongly influenced by the work of Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818), who introduced Western painting techniques, A View of Seven-League Beach (Shichiri-hama). Hokusai studied painting under various schools and mastered Chinese and Western techniques.

A View of Seven-League Beach painting by Shiba Kōkan, 1796
Spring at Enoshima print by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1797

Origin of Great Wave

Six years after the creation of Spring at Enoshima, Hokusai published View of Honmoku off Kanagawa, a prototype of the Great Wave off Kanagawa. Although the direction of the surf may be opposite, the theme is the sea off Kanagawa, the composition of the ship being tossed about, and the raging waves are the same as the famous pictures of the waves that came later. Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves, created in 1805, was similar in composition to the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and the ships also became cargo boats. But this painting seems to have been strongly influenced by Western copper engravings.

View of Honmoku Off Kanagawa, 1803
Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves, 1805






Wave Sculptor Ihachi

Takeshi Ihachiro Nobuyuki (1751-1824) is a famous sculptor who was called “the best wave sculptor in Japan” in the Edo period. He was good at sculpting dynamic waves and dragons. He produced a work called “Waves and Jewels” in 1745.

Waves and Jewels at Gyoganji Temple, by Takeshi Ihachiro Yoshinobu, 1745

Takeshi Ihachiro Nobuyuki (1751-1824) is a famous sculptor who was called “the best wave sculptor in Japan” in the Edo period. He was good at sculpting dynamic waves and dragons. He produced a work called “Waves and Jewel” in 1745. The wave shape like a claw and the composition with a triangular jewel in the center are very similar to the Great Wave off Kanagawa. A year before creating the Great Wave painting, Hokusai visited the Gyoganji temple where the sculpture was displayed.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, 1831-1833

In 1830, when Hokusai was 72 years old, The Great Wave off Kanagawa appeared as a work of “The Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji”, which was started by publishing house Eijudo. It has a dramatic composition, with the ferociously high and whirling waves and the three boats tossed by the waves in front of you, and you can catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji far away from the waves. The flow of water, the undulating waves, the movement of boats along the waves, and the gentle ridges of Mt. Fuji are all components of a multifold logarithmic spiral.

After the Great Wave

In 1833, Hokusai began producing the Ocean of Wisdom, a series of 10 pictures that depicted the landscapes created by water and human beings with the theme of fishing in various places. One of the creations, Chōshi in Shimousa Province, is dominated by even more powerful waves than Great Wave.

And the following year, Mt. Fuji on the Sea from “A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji” is a mirrored version of the famous great wave of Kanagawa from the 36 views of the Fuji. There are no boats and the wave crests came into birds.

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Soshu Choshi
Mt. Fuji on the Sea, 1834

Waves must have been a special theme for Hokusai, who painted many different objects.










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