What Is The Story Behind Hokusai's Famous Japanese Wave Print?

December 21, 2023

What Is The Story Behind Hokusai's Famous Japanese Wave Print?

A Brief History Of 'The Great Wave': Japan's Most Famous Artwork

One of Japan's most famous art prints is undoubtedly "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" or "Kanagawa oki nami ura"  by Katsushika Hokusai. This iconic Japanese Wave Print has become synonymous with Japanese culture and is an instantly recognizable Asian art piece around the world. Created in the mid-19th century, this woodblock print showcases Hokusai's exceptional talent and distinctive style.

Hokusai was a renowned Japanese artist who specialized in ukiyo-e prints, a popular art form during the Edo period. Ukiyo-e, meaning "pictures of the floating world," depicted scenes from daily life, theater, and landscapes. Hokusai's innovative approach to composition and use of vibrant colours set him apart from other Japanese artists of his time.

Hokusai Print The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaidô Road

"The Great Wave," also known as "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," is part of Hokusai's series called "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji." This series consists of woodblock Japanese wave prints capturing various perspectives of Japan's iconic Mountain, a symbol of national identity and spiritual significance. While the mountain is featured in the background, it is the powerful waves in the foreground that steal the show.

The print's subject matter, depicting a towering wave threatening to engulf fishing boats, speaks to both the beauty and destructive force of nature. Hokusai masterfully uses the distinct

Hokusai great wave print in a black frame

Prussian blue pigment, a new introduction from Western culture, to create the swirling waves that seem to leap off the paper. His use of strong, bold lines and the illusion of depth through linear perspective drew inspiration from both Japanese painting and European art.

Despite its initial popularity in Japan, "The Great Wave" gained widespread recognition and admiration in the Western world during the late 19th century. Artists like Vincent van Gogh were captivated by Hokusai's works and praised his unique style. The Japanese Wave Painting's influence on Western art cannot be overstated, as it introduced a new way of depicting landscapes with its flat colours and subtle gradations.

Japanese wave at Kojima

Today, "The Great Wave" remains an enduring symbol of Japanese art and culture, sparking many similar Japanese Wave Prints by later Japanese artists such as Hiroshige's wave prints and many others. It is housed in many prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Hokusai's masterpiece continues to inspire contemporary artists, serving as a testament to its timeless appeal and the genius of its creator.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the story behind this remarkable Kanagawa art, exploring its creation, Hokusai's personal fascination with waves, and the ongoing legacy of "The Great Wave."

 

Who was Katsushika Hokusai?

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese Ukiyo-e painter and printmaker who has been widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in Japanese history. Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai began his artistic journey as a woodblock printer, producing illustrations for popular novels and educational materials. However, he eventually turned his focus to landscapes and daily life subjects, becoming renowned for his unique and innovative approach to composition.

Hokusai's interest in art was sparked at a young age, as he grew up in an area of Edo known for its artistic community. He trained under several different artists and mastered various styles and techniques. However, it wasn't until he reached his forties that he adopted the name Hokusai and began to gain recognition for his own work.

Hokusai print 1830. Kirifuri Falls, at Kurokami-yama in Shimotsuke

Throughout his career, Hokusai faced personal challenges and setbacks. He experienced financial difficulties, had multiple marriages, and saw many of his studios burn down. Despite these obstacles, Hokusai remained dedicated to his craft and continued to produce a vast body of work that showcased his talent and creativity.

Hokusai's artistic style was distinct and highly innovative for its time. He combined traditional Japanese techniques with Western influences, creating a fusion that set him apart from his contemporaries. His compositions were characterized by their dynamic and bold lines, as well as their attention to detail. Hokusai was particularly skilled in depicting landscapes, capturing the beauty of nature in a way that was both realistic and captivating.

 

Hokusai and the Japanese Wave Print

The importance of waves and Mount Fuji in Hokusai's artwork cannot be overstated. Waves, with their powerful and dynamic presence, became a central theme in Hokusai's works, particularly in his later years.

Hokusai Japanese print of a boat on a pond

The incorporation of waves in Hokusai's earlier paintings can be traced back to his fascination with the sea. As an artist who valued capturing the essence of daily life, Hokusai often depicted scenes of fishermen, boats, and coastal landscapes. In these works, the depiction of waves served to enhance the sense of realism and movement.

However, it was in his famous series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, that waves truly became a recurring motif and took on a more profound meaning. This series, initially published in the mid-1830s, consisted of woodblock prints depicting various scenes of Mount Fuji from different perspectives and in various weather conditions. In many of these prints, waves dominate the foreground, heightening the dramatic atmosphere and providing a sense of scale and depth.

Japanese Wave Kajikazawa in Kai_Province (Kōshū Kajikazawa) by Hokusai

Mount Fuji itself held great cultural significance in Japanese history, being revered as a sacred mountain and a symbol of national pride. Over the centuries, it became a popular subject in Japanese art, often depicted in poems, paintings, and prints. Hokusai's inclusion of Mount Fuji in his Thirty-Six Views series solidified its status as an iconic image and further enriched its representation in Japanese culture.

 

The making of Ukiyo-e Prints

Japanese engraving technique

Japanese engraving technique, also known as woodblock printing, is the traditional method used in creating ukiyo-e prints. This technique involves the intricate carving of wooden blocks to create the design, which is then inked and printed onto paper. The process requires great skill and precision, and each colour in the print is created using a separate wooden block.

Japanese wave print engraving the woodblock

The first step in the Japanese engraving technique is the creation of the main design. Renowned artists like Katsushika Hokusai would sketch their desired composition onto a sheet of paper, incorporating elements of nature, daily life, and traditional Japanese culture. Once the design was finished, it would be transferred onto a block of wood, typically made from cherry or pear wood. This woodblock would then serve as the foundation for the print.

The next step is the carving of the woodblocks. Using specialised tools like chisels and knives, the artist would carefully and intricately carve away the wood surrounding the desired image. The areas to remain white or colourless in the final print were carved away, leaving the raised portions of the image to be inked and transferred onto paper. This process, known as "relief printing," allows for the creation of complex and detailed prints with a three-dimensional appearance.

The great wave off Kanagawa being printed in the traditional manner

One of the defining features of ukiyo-e prints is the use of separate wooden blocks for each colour. Once the woodblocks are prepared and the colours are mixed, the artist begins the printing process. They would ink each wooden block individually, using brushes, and carefully position a sheet of dampened paper on top. The artist then uses a hand-held tool called a barren to apply pressure to the back of the paper, transferring the inked image onto its surface. This process is repeated for each colour, with separate woodblocks created for each tone or hue.

In the final step of the Japanese engraving technique, black lines are added to the print. These lines serve to outline the different elements of the composition and add depth and definition. They are usually printed last, overlaying the previously printed colours. The black lines help bring the entire design together and give ukiyo-e prints their distinctive appearance.

Kawase Hasui Japanese art print of a red shrine

Through the meticulous process of Japanese engraving technique, ukiyo-e prints are able to capture the essence of Japanese culture and daily life. The emphasis on line and vivid colour, combined with the reduction of form to a minimum, creates highly stylised images. The unique and intricate process of woodblock printing continues to be appreciated and admired to this day, as ukiyo-e prints remain an iconic and influential aspect of Japanese art history.

 

 

 

 

Prussian Blue pigment

One of the key elements that contributed to the iconic status of Katsushika Hokusai's famous Japanese wave print is the vivid and striking use of Prussian Blue. This synthetic colour, also known as Berlin Blue or Paris Blue, revolutionized the world of ukiyo-e prints and played a significant role in propelling Hokusai's work to new heights.

Prussian Blue Powder

During the mid-19th century, when Hokusai created his masterpiece, the traditional Japanese woodblock prints were primarily limited to natural pigments and dyes. However, Prussian Blue, an imported pigment from Europe, introduced a whole new range of possibilities for Japanese artists. This rich, intense shade of blue offered a level of vibrancy that was previously unattainable with the traditional pigments.

Prussian blue painting

One of the standout features of Prussian Blue is its exceptional tonal range. It can be applied in both light and dark shades, allowing for the creation of depth and dimension within the print. In Hokusai's wave print, this tonal range is evident in the different saturations of Prussian Blue used to depict the various elements of the waves. The darker shades closer to the foreground give a sense of depth, while the lighter shades towards the horizon create a feeling of distance and vastness. 

Moreover, the specific shades and tonal variations of Prussian Blue evokes the subtle, ethereal moments before dawn or after dusk, commonly referred to in Japan as "the hour of the ox." This time of day is associated with tranquillity and introspection, and Hokusai's use of Prussian Blue captures the essence of this fleeting and serene atmosphere.

 

Details under the wave off Kanagawa

When analysing the details of Hokusai's famous print, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," it becomes evident that there are specific variations and nuances found in different printings of the artwork. These variations are the result of the complex and meticulous process of creating woodblock prints.

Japanese woodblock printing keyblock

One key element to consider is the use of the keyblock, which is the main block in the print that contains the outlines and key details. This block tends to undergo wear and tear over time, leading to changes in the subsequent editions of the print. The wear and tear on the keyblock can result in a loss of detail or even alterations to the overall composition. Some late printings of "The Great Wave" show signs of this wear and tear, with the lines of the waves appearing less defined and the outlines of Mount Fuji becoming less distinct.

In later editions, publishers introduced new woodblocks to add specific colours to the print. These new woodblocks allowed for the inclusion of subtle variations in hue and shading, adding depth and richness to the artwork. For example, in some late printings, the outlines of Mount Fuji and the waves are rendered with a darker ink, creating a stronger contrast with the lighter colour of the sky. These changes in the outlines of Mount Fuji and the waves highlight the publisher's effort to enhance the visual impact of the print.

 

Popularity of Ukiyo-e prints in Europe

In the mid-19th century, the forced opening of trade between Japan and the Western world, led by American naval commodore Matthew C. Perry, had a profound impact on European culture. One of the aspects of Japanese culture that captured the imagination of Western audiences was the art of ukiyo-e prints. These prints, which depicted various scenes from everyday life, including landscapes, portraits, and historical events, became incredibly popular in Europe starting in the 1860s.

Le Japonaise by Claude Monet 1876

The introduction of Japanese culture to Western audiences reached its peak with the 1867 International Exposition in Paris. The exhibition, which showcased various aspects of Japanese life and art, including ukiyo-e prints, generated immense excitement and fascination among European artists and collectors. This event marked the beginning of a craze for collecting Japanese art known as Japonisme.

Ukiyo-e prints, including the works of Hokusai, played a significant role in inspiring and influencing European artists, particularly the Impressionists. The flat colours, bold lines, and strong compositions of these prints greatly appealed to Western artists who were looking for new ways to break free from the constraints of academic traditions.Van Gogh Japonisme examples

Many European artists saw in ukiyo-e prints a refreshing departure from the Western artistic conventions of the time. The vibrant colours, simplicity of design, and emphasis on everyday life and nature resonated with the growing interest in capturing fleeting moments and sensations in art, which was a central tenet of the Impressionist movement. Artists like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were among those who avidly collected and studied these prints, integrating Japanese aesthetics and techniques into their own works.

Alfred Stevens La Parisienne Japonaise

The influence of ukiyo-e prints can be seen in the flatness of colour and composition, as well as the focus on capturing the transient and ephemeral, characteristics that became hallmarks of Impressionist art. The delicate brushwork and subtle gradations of colour found in Japanese prints also appealed to European artists who sought to expand their palette and move beyond the limitations of traditional European colour theory.

In addition to its impact on the Impressionists, the popularity of ukiyo-e prints in Europe also paved the way for a broader appreciation of Japanese culture and art. Collectors and artists sought out these prints as objects of fascination and study, leading to an increased demand for original prints and the development of a thriving market for Japanese woodblock prints in Europe.

The popularity of ukiyo-e prints in Europe was not just a passing trend but had a lasting impact on European art and culture. Through the exploration and assimilation of Japanese aesthetics, European artists were able to expand their artistic horizons and challenge the established norms of Western culture, ultimately leading to the birth of new artistic movements and styles.

 

The Influence of European Art on Hokusai's Work

Hokusai, one of Japan's most renowned artists, had a distinctly unique style that was heavily influenced by European art, particularly Dutch landscape prints.

Diehl Dutch landscape art

In the mid-19th century, Japan began to open up to the world after centuries of self-imposed isolation, interactions with the West increased, and Hokusai had the opportunity to encounter European artworks. These encounters would go on to shape his artistic techniques, perspectives, and ultimately, his contribution to the ukiyo-e print tradition.

Dutch landscape prints, with their use of linear perspective and realistic depictions of nature, offered Hokusai a new way of seeing and representing the world. Unlike traditional Japanese landscape painting, which often depicted scenes from an elevated and fixed viewpoint, Dutch prints presented the viewer with a sense of depth and space. This departure from the fixed viewer position in Japanese art allowed for a more immersive experience and provided Hokusai with a fresh perspective on the representation of space.

Hokusai's incorporation of European perspective into ukiyo-e prints was seen as a novelty at the time. By blending Japanese and European artistic styles, he created a distinct and influential approach that would later become recognized as his own unique style.

This blending of influences is evident in Hokusai's famous print, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," where he combines the traditional subject matter of ukiyo-e prints, such as fishing boats and Mount Fuji, with the dramatic and powerful waves inspired by European sources. Hokusai's admiration of the use of colour in Dutch artworks, specifically Prussian blue was also particularly in evidence too.

 Where to buy Japanese Art Prints 

Each piece in Lelloliving's exquisite collection of Japanese prints captures the timeless beauty and intricate craftsmanship that Japanese art is renowned for.

Whether you're an avid collector or simply appreciate the elegance of Japanese aesthetics, Lelloliving offers a diverse range of prints to suit every taste. Explore our selection today and find the perfect print to add a touch of serenity and cultural richness to your space.

Japanese seascape print of flying fish by Banfuku ono


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