As Hosukai delicately draws his image and carves the keyblock with sharp precision, every subtle element of his composition would go on to tell stories of its own. In 1831, he created Japan’s most iconic woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Whether you look at the flawless contrast made from a striking Prussian blue or even the Western-influenced graphical perspective that sparks compelling action, every detail that defines The Great Wave captivates the viewer’s mind, evoking feelings of awe, thrill, bliss, and even terror.
Being one of the most famous and reproduced Japanese artworks in history, it influenced creative titans like Vincent Van Goh, Claude Monet, Utagawa Hiroshige, and countless Impressionist painters across Europe.
In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Goh stated:
“When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, Christ’s boat, at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysées, he turned away from it and cried out in his article, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green.’ Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing — but in his case with his lines, his drawing, since in your letter you say to yourself: these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”
Who is Hokusai, the Man Behind The Great Wave off Kanagawa?
At 6, Hokusai had already garnered a magnetic passion for art. Since then, he tirelessly refined his talents in painting and even began mastering ukiyo-e, a renowned style of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings.
Hokusai’s many artworks were pivotal in transforming ukiyo-e, shifting from a courtesan and actor-centered portraiture style into a broader style of art that emphasized landscapes, flora, and fauna.
Among his impressive works, the pinnacle of his artistry shines through his iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series. His landscape prints in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, especially The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Fine Wind, Clear Morning, showcased his revolutionary talent in creating stunning art.
The works that Hokusai crafted in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji were monumental landmarks in his journey toward his greatest aspiration, of which he stated years before his death, “At ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.”
What Makes The Great Wave Such a Masterpiece?
Hokusai crafted The Great Wave off Kanagawa as his debut (and best known) piece in his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, which showcases vibrant depictions of Mount Fuji in many settings.
The landscape of The Great Wave consists of three major components. The sea that dominates the composition, the boats that add drama to the setting, and Mount Fuji, though off in the distance, blend in the artwork through Hokusai’s graphical perspective.
Though the print revolves around Mount Fuji, the crested waves assert power over the composition. The vivid crest of the big wave is shaped like a dragon’s claw, sparking energy and movement in the eyes of the viewer.
Coupled with a perfect curve created by the big wave, the bold outlining around the composition’s elements, and the space between the waves, the sky, and the open sea, the aggression the big wave displays becomes harmonized by the other elements into a serene aesthetic.
Hokusai’s use of graphical perspective enables a subtle detail. The wrath of the claw-like wave coming down on the three boats (oshiokuri-bune) leaves noticeable space between the sea and Mount Fuji, distinguishing secular life from Mount Fuji, which is viewed as sacred by many Japanese people. The small wave even acts as a silhouette of Mount Fuji, further establishing its importance in Hokusai’s composition.
Hokusai’s innovative use of Prussian blue, unprecedented in Japanese art, added power and intensity to the waves, supplementing the print with vibrancy.
The boats in the image catalyze the dramatic tension in the scene, magnifying the viewer’s fascination with the image beyond its visual appeal.
Not only do the boats in the foreground bring a sense of drama, but they also help the viewer understand how grand the natural forces at work are, which perhaps may reveal the Shinto symbolism in the composition, as followers of Shintoism (a Japanese religion) believe that spiritual powers exist in the natural world.
The crowning touch of The Great Wave of Kanagawa is its main subject, Mount Fuji itself. Even though Mount Fuji is far from the waves and the events happening around it, the mountain still solidifies its presence through Hokusai’s apt deployment of graphical perspective.
With Hokusai’s use of perspective, Mount Fuji becomes an essential part of the composition’s aesthetic as a whole. The bright white of the snowy mountain peak provides a slight but noticeable contrast with the rest of the artwork.
Overall, Hokusai’s skills in beautifully creating emphasis in every element of his works are why The Great Wave off Kanagawa is by far Japan’s most remarkable woodblock print and part of why Hosukai is one of the greatest artists in Japanese history.