The Great Wave off Kanagawa

If the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in Europe, the Great Wave off Kanagawa nicknamed "the Wave" is the most famous Japanese painting not only in Japan, but worldwide. Made by Hokusai, the painting shows a great simplicity at first sight. But behind this legendary simplicity, the painting hides many enigmas.

Hokusai, an artist with a unique talent

Before we put the Great Wave off Kanagawa under the microscope to discover what it hides as a mystery artistically, it is essential to say a few words about its maker, Hokusai.

Katsushika Hokusai

Portrait of the great painter Katsushika Hokusai

Of Japanese nationality and born in the land of the rising sun in 1760 in the city of Edo now Tokyo, Hokusai is a painter, draftsman, engraver and writer. In the history books of Japan, Hokusai is arguably one of the most gifted artists of his period whose reputation continues to be touted through several generations.

From an early age, Hokusai developed his talents by creating original prints that conveyed a message about the everyday life of the Japanese. Hokusai created several great works, the most famous being the Great Wave off Kanagawa. A painting inspired by the Japanese movement and has been a center of interest for great painters such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Klimt or even Monet.

japanese prints hokusai
Japanese life print by Katsushika Hokusai

Besides this painting being a gateway for Westerners wishing to discover Japanese art, Hokusai is also the inventor of the word ''Manga'' which means ''free drawing".

old manga

The first mangas made by Katsushika Hokusai

We offer several of his works in our collection of Japanese Paintings.

The four details that made this masterpiece famous

the great wave off kanagawa painting

The masterpiece of the great Kanagawa wave

Whether you hear it or read it on a document or on the internet, the name Hokusai automatically brings to mind the Great Wave off Kanagawa, which is still referred to simply as ''the Wave.'' It is a painting that highlights ukiyo-e art.

ukiyo-e art

Japanese print of the ukiyo-e art movement

A Japanese art form that originated during the Edo era and aims to depict nature, the elements around it and everything that is part of the everyday life of the Japanese. Inspired by the famous series entitled "The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," this painting has four important elements, which made the painting famous.

The Waves

Occupying more than half of the print, the two waves in this work stand 50 feet tall. Impressive and unpredictable, these two waves painted with Prussian blue and paper white are the first detail that captures the attention of any viewer.

the great wave of kanagawa meaning

Details of the Great Wave of Kanagawa

For anyone, these waves are vertigo-inducing sea monsters that can capture any prey that unwisely ventures onto the ocean. Very imposing, the two waves that are about to capture their prey on the print relegate the mythical Mount Fuji in all its splendor that is also depicted on this work to second place.

The work as a whole is certainly done in two dimensions, but the waves are depicted with such great accuracy that it is very easy for the viewer to detect that they were about to engulf the three boats filled with fishermen that ventured out into the ocean. These three boats are also another detail in this painting that you should pay attention to.

Prussian blue, a color that dominates everything

On the print, Prussian blue is the most dominant color. Occupying about 20% of the entire work, this color was not chosen at random by Hokusai. Imported from Holland, this color allows for the perfect representation of the rhythm of the Kanagawa wave.

Prussian blue ink

Prussian blue used for this masterpiece 

Thanks to this color, you can admire all the beauty of Kanagawa. It is also thanks to this blue color that the artist gave a simple and original tone to the painting that became more famous than its director. The Wave was used to illustrate the cover of the score of Debussy's "La Mer."

Mount Fuji

Before becoming very famous through this print by Hokusai, Mount Fuji is a sacred place for the Japanese. It is a place of retreat for Buddhists. A symbolic place of pilgrimage where calm and rest prevail.

mount fuji seen below a wave at kanagawa

Mount Fuji in the background of the wave 

On the print, it is easy to notice that Mount Fuji is represented in the background. And it is in fact its position on the print that attracts more attention since it gives the impression that it will be engulfed by the two blue waves of the ocean despite its impressive height of 3776 meters.

The boats and the fishermen

In a marine adventure on the Kanagawa, fishermen in three boats became the inevitable prey of the raging waves as they were swept away by the ocean current. With no escape, these fishermen have no choice but to be heckled by the violent waves of Kanagawa.

boats off the great wave off kanagawa

Fishermen's boats attacked by the great Kanagawa wave

Despite this violence of the waves, there is no sign that these marine conveyances called the ohio kuri-burne will capsize and drown on the ocean floor. Rather, upon closer observation of this work, one reads on the faces of the fishermen, a calmness that reflects a perfect balance despite the intensity of the scene and the danger it poses to their lives.

buy the great wave off kanagawa print

The Wave, a work both contemporary and futuristic

The Wave is first and foremost a contemporary work that depicts an everyday life of the Japanese. But on another level, this painting is a symbol of the uncertainty and unpredictability that all generations must face. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a perfect universal representation of the everyday life of the time.

Bridge in the fog

Illustration of uncertainty 

In another context, these unpredictable waves can be seen as epidemics taking the Japanese by surprise and devastating everything in their path silencing man despite all his intelligence.

However, in the face of all these unpredictable situations and especially natural phenomena, Man has always kept his calm which is the symbol of universal equilibrium despite his powerlessness. This is what can be seen in this painting because in the background of this work, there is Mount Fuji which is the embodiment of the rest of the spirit in any situation. A calmness that conveys a sense of mastery and a hope for stability.

Mount Fuji sunset

Mount Fuji with a beautiful sunset 

Where can you admire the Great Wave off Kanagawa?

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is arguably one of the most famous works of art of our time. Already admired by the greatest names in painting such as Van Gogh, Debussy and Monet, this wonderful artistic achievement has been hijacked or used as a brand logo several times.

Quicksilver logo

Black and white logo of the Quicksilver brand

The Great Wave off Kanagawa exists in several copies. So whether you are in Europe, Asia or America, you can find a museum that houses one. A copy of this painting is in the Tokyo National Museum in Japan. In the United States you can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to admire it. In Europe, it is in the Guimet Museum in Paris in France that you can go and observe it. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is an artistic work that has impacted and will continue to impact future generations as it is both a contemporary and futuristic representation that takes into account the daily lives of all generations.