Artists’ Ideas, Materials, & Process: Under the Great Wave

About the Work: Under the Great Wave, off Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Great Wave, off Kanagawa, ca. 1829-1833

This print is part of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a series made when artist Katsushika Hokusai was in his seventies. The series was so successful that Hokusai produced 10 additional scenes after the first 36 prints. Appreciated in their own time in Japan and in other countries for their innovative composition and vibrant color, these works are the result of Hokusai’s experiments with representing nature and his innovative use of the synthetic pigment Prussian blue.

The elements of water and earth are the dominant subjects of this print. Mount Fuji, still and stable in the background, counters the dynamic power of the great wave, and the humans in the barges in the foreground, possibly carrying fish, seem fragile and vulnerable. The title lets us know that this is a real place: Kanagawa is a prefecture (or province) of Japan along the coast near Mount Fuji.

There is an established tradition in Japanese prints of depicting views of famous sites. Mount Fuji is a particularly important symbol of Japanese national identity, and its depiction here relates to Japanese traditions of valuing mountains as places associated with spirituality and immortality. Hokusai interprets the theme of Mount Fuji in a novel way by diminishing the mountain, traditionally presented as the most prominent element, and focusing on the sea instead. In fact, Hokusai throughout his career was preoccupied by the subject of water, and cresting waves appear many times in his work.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Great Wave, off Kanagawa (detail), ca. 1829-1833

The technology to create multicolor single-sheet prints such as this one had been available in Japan for fewer than 100 years when Hokusai made this work. From that time on, Japanese artists continuously expanded their palette, using more and more colors over time. During Hokusai’s lifetime, landscape prints reached a high level of complexity in terms of composition and color. His use of the synthetic pigment Prussian blue in several of the prints from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji contributed to the appeal of this dramatic series.

Utagawa Kunisada, Shokunin (Artisans), 1857. Prints were made by pressing ink and color onto paper using carved blocks of wood. This Japanese print from 1857 shows different parts of the printing process: sharpening carving tools, drawing a design for the print, carving the woodblock, preparing the paper, and printing. Though time-consuming, this process allowed artists to make many copies of an image to sell to a wide audience of people.

While the relationship between permanence and change is a constant negotiation in every culture, many Japanese artists of this time continued to build on age-old artistic traditions while maintaining connections and interests in the cultures of other places. During the Edo period, when Hokusai made this print, the island nation of Japan was actively trading with the Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans, with Prussian blue being one product of these exchanges. Probably synthesized in Germany in 1706 and first used in Japan the mid-1820s, Prussian blue offered artists a wider range of tones for more nuanced renditions of water and sky, and it was more resistant to fading than blue pigments made from plants. These advantages contributed to the wide use of this new color in woodblock prints. A growing taste for a blue and white aesthetic was also evident in ceramic designs and indigo-dyed cotton fabrics.

The prints in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series were initially issued a few at a time, but the series was so popular that it was reprinted, with variations, several times. Appreciated by sophisticated consumers of prints, the series inspired other Japanese printmakers and artists working in different media in Europe.

Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji from the Tea Plantation of Katakura, Suruga Province, ca. 1833
Katsushika Hokusai, Viewing Sunset over Ryōgoku Bridge from the Onmaya Embankment, ca. 1829-1833