Behind the Art: Is Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa the Most Famous Japanese Artwork?

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura – Under the Wave off Kanagawa) or popularly known as The Great Wave is a woodblock print by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The print was made in 1831 during the Edo period of Japanese history and is one of the most famous Japanese artworks in history. Several museums around the world keep copies of this print. One of the prints is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA. The woodcut Under the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa sold for $1.6 million buyer’s premium, 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 more. But what is the story behind this print? Why will it appear on the new 1,000 yen bill in Japan from 2024?

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The artist and the concept

Hokusai was born in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1760 and began painting at the age of six. At the age of 16 he became an engraver’s apprentice. He began creating his illustrations and became an apprentice to artist Katsukara Shunshō, who was one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of his day. Ukiyo-e is the name given to Japanese color woodblock prints made during the Edo period. The word “ukiyo-e” means “floating world” and refers to the impermanence of the world. The earliest prints were made in black and white, but Hokusai began to add color – notably Prussian blue, a rare color then in use in Japan. Hokusai was heavily influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and French painting. The artist discovered Western prints that came to his country through Dutch trade. So he became interested in linear perspective and created a Japanese variant of it. He was fascinated by the slanted angles and contrast of near and far man-made and natural objects. This can be seen in The Great Wave. There is a large wave in the foreground dwarfing the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen amidst the powerful waves. It is said that this print is a symbolic image of the change that was taking place in Japanese society at the time. As foreign influence gains importance through trade, it is regarded as a symbol of Japan’s soul due to its tranquility and fitness Mount Fuji in print.

Obsession with Mount Fuji

The Great Wave is Hokusai’s most famous work and the first in his Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji Series. It is said that Hokusai was obsessed with Mount Fuji. After all, it is the highest mountain in Japan and is considered sacred. There was another main reason why he made so many prints centered on this mountain. At that time there was a boom in domestic travel and hence the image of Mount Fuji had a growing market. The prints were bought by pilgrims who wanted to climb the mountain or by tourists who just wanted to visit the capital and admire the view.

in the The Great Wave, there is a large wave in the foreground dwarfing the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen amidst the powerful waves. (Photo:

Ukiyo-e Prints and Their Popularity

Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh were big fans of Japanese prints. In the letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh expresses his admiration for Hokusai’s work. He praised the quality of his drawing and the great use of line in the famous ones Big wave Painting. This one work of art left a chilling emotional impact on his life and art. Hokusai’s prints depicted modern city life in linear form, using the technique of flattening space and emphasizing atmospheric conditions.

From 1640 Japan was largely closed off from the world and allowed only limited interaction with China and Holland. This changed in the 1850s when American Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced the trade. After that, a flood of Japanese visual culture came to the West. At the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, Hokusai’s work was on display in the Japanese Pavilion. This was the first introduction of Japanese culture to a mass audience in the West, and a collecting frenzy called “Japonism” 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 transience of modern city life—all visible in Hokusai’s prints—affirmed her artistic interests and inspired many future works of art.

Japan timestamp

The Great Wave is considered a timestamp of the era when Japan transitioned from its ancient ways to a modern Japan. The artwork shows the influence of Western culture on Japan and how Mount Fuji played an important role in the lives of Japanese citizens. This work of art will soon be featured on the new 1,000 yen bills in Japan, underscoring its importance 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 in Behind the art: What meaning has The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli? Why was it so controversial in its day?

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