The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

Painting NameThe Great Wave of Kanagawa
Painter NameKatsushika Hokusai
Completion Date1832
Place of CreationJapan
Size25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)
Current LocationMetropolitan Museum of Art (Manhattan New York United States)

This Ukiyo-e piece is the most famous Japanese painting in its type. It represents a monstrous wave ascending over the two Japanese Boats. In the background is visible the infamous Mount Fuji (known for being active volcano mountain) covered with ice.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa Analysis

Ukiyo-e paintings are always very minimalistic, few colored, flat and yet impressive with its distinctive style. All of those characteristics are available in this picture. Due to the cumbersome process of making a Ukiyo-e, artists try to make a simple and with low colored painting. Contrary to that notion, Great Wave is comparatively rich with details and colors.

The two boats with full of fishermen are called Oshiokuri-Bune. They are the fast boats which transports the live fishes faster than the other types.

The wave about to break resembles to the great mountain. The smaller wave in the shadow of the greater one has already broken down on the nearer boat endangering the lives of the people onboard.

The sky is lit bright even though the wave indicates to a ferocious storm. Sky near the horizon, both sides of the mountain seems dark, maybe an indication towards the direction of the storm.

The Japanese letters on the upper left hand is the signature of the painter and a small description of the painting. The description in the box translates into English as: “Thirty six views of Mount Fuji / offshore from Kanagawa / Beneath the wave.” Letters on the left side of the box are the Japanese inscription of painter’s name. Full translation is: “From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu”.

The Philosophy

At first glance, it is piece of marine art of showing a grand wave about to break on the small boats and the puny men abroad. Though, the deep iconography could reveal much more layers of message included.

There are two apparent connections: between the wave and people and between the wave and the mountain.

Showing the sailors in great danger, it clearly shows the power of nature when it gets furious. Whatever people do, at the end, the power of nature would be uncrushable. The sailors, in attempt of saving themselves, have held on to the boat. Though, their posture seems to be bending towards the god of sea, praying for mercy.

Connection of the wave and the mountain is more about representing the strength of the nature. A big part of the canvas is covered by the great wave and is apparently much bigger than the mountain in the background. Mount Fuji is infamous for its Volcano eruptions (last one happened in 18th century) and killing people around it. In a way, it has become the symbol of nature’s erratic temperament and man’s helplessness against it.

Some critics have argued to found the known Japanese symbol of Yin and Yang in the painting – the curve of the great wave being one part of it. But, that’s not much celebrated philosophy.

Thus, this painting is the graphical way of telling that, nature wins at the end.

Another fine and famous example of a Ukiyo-e paintings is Kyobashi Bridge ­Takegashi Wharf by Utagawa Hiroshige.


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