Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is among the most famous artworks in the world. It is ubiquitous, appearing on swimwear, mouse pads, Boucheron tiaras and Dior haute couture. It even has its own emoji. Yet, most of us know nothing of its history or the artist’s role in inspiring the work of Van Gogh, Monet and Debussy.
Hokusai created the iconic ukiyo-e woodblock print as part of the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series during the Edo Period in 1831. At age 70, he began experimenting with the age-old ukiyo-e style. “The Great Wave” is unique among the series as it shows Hokusai’s exploration of European art, which he would have accessed through black market images smuggled into Japan by Dutch traders.
At the time, the island nation was almost entirely self-isolated from the rest of the world. The Western influence on the print can be seen in the linear perspective and low horizon line of the image, giving it the dynamic, three-dimensional aspect for which it’s revered. The striking, vibrant blue water is also European in origin. Prussian Blue was a synthetically made color new to Japan, and its use was pioneered by Hokusai. This discovery provided the deepest hues and resisted fading—the reason the print’s color is still vibrant nearly 200 years later.
In 1854, political pressure from the United States forced Japan to open trade to the West. Instantly, the Japonisme craze swept the art world and ukiyo-e prints became de rigueur for art collectors. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is said to have intrigued Van Gogh enough that it inspired the churning sky in his illustrious “Starry Night.” Monet owned 23 of Hokusai’s works, and Japanese influence can be found throughout his oeuvre. “The Great Wave” was a key element in the creation of Debussy’s “La Mer,” and he used the epochal image for the cover of the score book. His “Great Wave” print can be seen prominently in photos of his studio in 1910.