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

The Great Gulf at Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura – Under the Gulf at Kanagawa) or popularly known as The big wave is a woodcut by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Created in 1831 during the Edo period of Japanese history, the print is one of the most famous Japanese works of art in history. Several museums around the world keep copies of this print. One of the prints is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States. The woodblock print Beneath the source of the great wave at Kanagawa sold for $1.6 million with buyer’s premium, 10 times the 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 picture? Why will it appear in Japan’s new 1,000 yen bill from 2024?

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The artist and the concept

Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo (today’s Tokyo) and started painting at the age of six. When he turned 16, he became an apprentice engraver. He began to create his illustrations and became a student of artist Katsukara Shunshō, one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of his time. Ukiyo-e is the name for Japanese woodcuts made during the Edo period. The word ‘Ukiyo-e’ means ‘floating world’ and refers to the transience of the world. The earliest prints were made in black and white, but Hokusai started adding colors to them – especially Prussian blue, a rare color used in Japan at the time. Hokusai was heavily influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and French paintings. The artist discovered Western prints that came to his country through Dutch trade. This is how he became interested in linear perspective and created a Japanese variant of it. He was intrigued by the oblique angles and contrast of the near and far man-made and natural objects. This can be seen in The big wave. There is a large wave in the foreground that shadows the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen between the powerful waves. It is said that this print is a symbolic image of the change that took place in Japanese society at the time. Now that the foreign influence becomes prominent through trade, it is seen as the symbol of the soul of Japan because of the silence and fitness of Mount Fuji in the print.

Obsession with Mount Fuji

The big wave is Hokusai’s best-known work and the first in his Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji series. It is said that Hokusai had an obsession with Mount Fuji. After all, it is Japan’s highest mountain and is considered sacred. There was another important reason why he made so many prints focusing on this mountain. At the time, there was a boom in domestic travel, and so the image of Mount Fuji had a growing market. The prints were bought by pilgrims who wanted to climb the mountain or tourists who just wanted to visit the capital and admire the view.

In The big wave, there is a large wave in the foreground that shadows the small mountain in the distance. Small boats can be seen between 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 says how much he admires Hokusai’s works. He praised the quality of his drawing and the great use of lines in the famous big wave Paint. This one piece of art left a terrifying emotional impact on his life and art. Hokusai’s prints showed modern city life in a linear fashion using the technique of flattening the space and emphasizing atmospheric conditions.

From 1640, Japan was largely cut off from the world and only limited interaction with China and the Netherlands was allowed. This changed in the 1850s when the trade was opened by the US naval commodore, Matthew C. Perry. After this, Japanese visual culture flooded into the West. Hokusai’s work was displayed in the Japanese pavilion at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris. This was the first introduction of Japanese culture to the general public in the West, and it sparked a craze for art collecting called ‘Japonism’. In addition, impressionist artists in Paris, such as Claude Monet, were big fans of Japanese prints. The flattening of space, interest in atmospheric conditions and the transience of modern city life – all visible in Hokusai’s prints – both confirmed their artistic interests and inspired many future works of art.

Japanese timestamp

The big wave is considered a timestamp of the era when Japan transitioned from its ancient ways to a modern Japan. The artwork shows the impact of Western culture on Japan and how Mount Fuji played an important role in the lives of Japanese citizens. This artwork will soon be featured on Japan’s new 1000 yen notes, highlighting its importance to Japanese culture and the world of Western art. It also shows how eternal works of art can be when it comes to representing a culture.

Next in Behind the art: What’s the meaning of The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli? Why was it so controversial in its time?

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