Katsushika Hokusai was a well-known printmaker and painter. He was born in Japan and lived from 1760 to 1849. He is famous for his prints of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The prints are all in color and made from a woodblock. Each view is different, but hundreds of sets of these prints were produced. These prints are an example of the ukiyo-e style of Japanese artwork. Ukiyo-e is also known as the “Floating World” style, and consists of scenes from everyday life and leisure.
The Great Wave of Kanagawa is from Hokusai’s series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. In the foreground of the print you can see rolling, dangerous waves (although people sometimes think this print depicts a tsunami, that is not the case). There are also three boats filled with men, who are probably fishermen. The boats blend into the waves, somewhat hidden from the viewer and out of proportion with the enormous waves. The tips of the waves are fingerlike, a visual convention that was popular in the Floating World style. Behind the waves, you can see the peak of Mount Fuji.
It is unclear exactly when the print was first made, but it was likely between 1826 and 1833. The print is in color and made from multiple wood blocks—one for each color. The same woodblocks would be used, but the colors would vary. Although this print is from a series entitled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, the mountain is not the focus of the print. This makes the series even more interesting, because each print is individualized.
During Hokusai’s lifetime these prints were sometimes used to wrap goods that were being traded. These prints, traveling to foreign countries as packing material, offered inspiration to the Impressionists in France and the United States. The Impressionists were struck by the unfamiliar use of perspective and scale in Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and also in the idea of repeating the same composition with different color schemes that might reflect different weather, times of day, etc. For example, Monet adapted this idea of repetition in his Haystacks series.
Sarah Rucker was a student in History of 20th Century Art.