- Museum number
Object: Kanagawa-oki nami-ura 神奈川沖浪裏 (Under the Wave off Kanagawa)
Series: Fugaku sanjūrokkei 冨嶽三十六景 (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji)
Colour woodblock print, oban yoko-e. 'The Great Wave'; fishermen crouching in three skiffs, with towering wave about to crash down on them, Mt Fuji seen low in hollow of wave. Inscribed and signed. 1 of 3 impressions in the collection.
- Production date
- 1831 (probably late 1831 (Keyes and Morse 2015))
Height: 25.80 centimetres
Width: 37.90 centimetres
- Curator's comments
For comprehensive discussion of this print design, see Timothy Clark, Hokusai's Great Wave (BMP, 2011)
The most famous Japanese print and one of the most famous graphic images in the world. The witty composition, whereby the highest mountain in Japan is apparently dwarfed by the 'Great Wave', marks a highpoint in Hokusai's creative processing of lessons of deep spatial perspective that ultimately derive from European art. Perhaps for this reason the print came very quickly to be celebrated among French collectors and artists, beginning in the late 1870s. Debussy's 'La Mer' is said to have been inspired by it. Many of the greatest impressions of the print that then found their way to Paris are now scattered in major museum collections, particularly in USA and back in Japan. Since the later twentieth century the image has taken on international iconic status, widely adopted and adapted in advertising and popular culture.
This is an early and fine impression, on thick paper. There is a particularly beautiful woodgrain pattern in the dark sky either side of Mt. Fuji that seems to be unique among surviving impressions. Many hundreds of impressions of the print have survived - attesting to its original popularity. However, study to date suggests that this is probably one of the top twenty or so surviving impressions now known in the world.
Further comments, information and bibliography
Clark, 100 Views of Mt Fuji, 1991, no. 52; Forrer, Hokusai, 1991, no. 11; Tokyo National Museum, Hokusai ten, 2005, nos. 293 & 294; Freer/Sackler Gallery, Hokusai, 2006, no. 97, pl. 117
This image of a great wave about to crash down with a view of Mount Fuji in the distance is one of the most famous and widely reproduced Japanese prints. Printmaking has a long history in Japan and although Hokusai's image dates from the nineteenth century, it reflects centuries of development of the process.
Hokusai was one of the leading painters and print artists of the nineteenth century, specialising in ukiyo-e images - meaning 'pictures of the floating world'. These images were extremely popular from the late seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, and depict a beautiful and transient world, with subjects ranging from scenes of courtesans to portraits of actors. Hokusai introduced landscapes to the genre and the 'Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji' series, from which this print is taken, was the first series made up exclusively of landscapes. He studied many styles of art in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo) in the late eighteenth century to develop his own particular idiom, at a time when aspects of European art, such as spatial recession, were being more widely used in Japanese print-making. A wider variety of colours were also increasingly available.
A common practice in Japanese artistic circles was for artists to take different names which often corresponded to different phases of style or subject-matter in their careers. Hokusai took over thirty artist names during his long career. One of his names was 'Gakyojin' which translates as 'person mad with painting' which accurately reflects his prolific output.
The 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji' series from which this print is taken, was made in his 'Iitsu' period, and were published from about 1829 to 1833, in his late sixties and early seventies. Mount Fuji is the highest and most famous mountain in Japan and its elegant shape and monumental form has inspired religious and cultural veneration for centuries. In the series, the mountain is depicted from various viewpoints, in different weather conditions and compositions - sometimes dominating the image, other times, such as this, as a small but significant feature.
In this dramatic scene, Hokusai captures the moment just before a huge wave is about the crash down onto struggling boats beneath. These were rowed at great speed to transport fresh fish to market in Edo. The potential destruction and action of the scene in the foreground contrasts with the serene stillness of the snow-clad mountain in the distance. The claw-like froth on the wave appears menacing but the composition has been wittily arranged so that its foam seems almost to fall as snow onto the summit of the distant mountain. The immediacy of the scene creates a sense of looming catastrophe as the viewer imagines the subsequent moment as the wave crashes down. Movement is accentuated by the swirling curves of the smaller waves and the boats. The elemental power of the sea is expressed vividly in this dynamic image.
Designs such as this were carved into a set of cherry wood printing blocks and each design typically required five or six blocks (carved on both sides) to create the final print. Although Hokusai designed the image, the blocks were made in the workshop of a master carver, commissioned by the publisher. The blocks were then transferred to another specialist workshop for printing. The intricate detail of the waves and the foam would have taken considerable skill to carve. Compared with many of Hokusai's other prints, this image required relatively few blocks: three for each of the different shades of blue in the water; yellow for the sides of the boats; black in the lower sky section; pale grey on the sides of the boats and on the remainder of the sky; and pink on the clouds - only faintly visible in most impressions of the print. From the wear on the blocks of the latest impressions, it is clear that several thousand prints were made - the publisher, Nishimuraya Eijudo, simply produced as many as he could sell. Indeed, the series proved so popular that an additional ten view were added, at which time the colour of the outlines for all the designs was changed from blue to black. This is a particularly fine, early impression, with the lines still sharp and clear and a unusual woodgrain pattern visible in the black sky either side of Mt. Fuji.
The strong blue colour in the image is the chemical pigment Berlin (or Prussian) blue which at this time became readily and cheaply available to Japanese publishers from China. Unlike earlier natural blue pigments (indigo and dayflower) it did not fade, permitting the colour to be used with much greater intensity.
(Start magazine, Dec 2009)
The ‘Great Wave’ dwarfs Mt Fuji. Spray falls from the tentacles of the wave like snow on to the peak. The whole picture is orchestrated to pay homage to the steadfastness of the sacred mountain. Three swift boats (oshiokuri), delivering fish to market in Edo, head directly into a great storm wave out at sea off Kanagawa. The oarsmen crouch forwards, ready to
battle heroically with the elemental power of the ocean. Hokusai had rehearsed the wave several times in his thirties and forties, when he was absorbing the lessons of European-style perspective (cats 18, 19). To this was added, in his old age, a veneration of Mt Fuji as a talisman of longevity. The design may already have been drawn in the early 1820s (see cat. 00). Then, later in the decade, Prussian blue became available in large quantities from China, providing a wonderfully vibrant new pigment for sky and sea to add to the traditional indigo. The series, of which this is the most famous print, was one significant result. Over the years, as many as 8,000 impressions of each design were printed. For little more than the price of a doublehelping of noodles, anyone in Edo could purchase their own impression of ‘The Great Wave’.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
Probably displayed at Musée Hôtel le Vergeur, Reims in 1988, in an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the collector Réné Druart, who previously owned the print.
2008 Oct-2009 Feb , BM Japanese Galleries, 'Japan from prehistory to present'
2010 Sep-Nov, BM Japanese Galleries, 'Japan from prehistory to present'
2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2011 Nov - 2012 Jan, BM Room 3, 'The Great Wave'
2017 25 May - 13 Aug, London, BM, G35, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave
2017 6 Oct - 19 Nov, Osaka, Abeno Harukas Art Museum
2022 16 Apr-12 Jun, Tokyo, Suntory Museum of Art, Hokusai from the British Museum
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Collected by Réné Druart (1888-1961); by family descent (according to Sotheby's) and sold by Sotheby's, Paris, 14 June 2007, lot 22.
- Registration number