The Enduring Influence of Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’

A rare early print of the iconic image sold for a record-breaking $2.8 million at auction

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa is the first print in Katsushika Hokusai's series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji Christie's

A rare print of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai sold at auction last week for nearly $2.8 million—a record high for the Japanese artist, according to Christie’s. 

As many as 8,000 copies of The Great Wave may have existed at one time. Today, only about 200 remain, “making the version auctioned at Christie’s all the more remarkable,” writes Hyperallergic’s Taylor Michael. This version, per the auction house, is one of the best surviving copies.

The 14.6-inch-wide piece, which depicts three fishing boats in stormy seas, is likely an early version of the print, featuring crisp lines and a faint cloud in the scene’s sky. It is one of the most famous examples of Japan’s ukiyo-e style, whose practitioners created many copies of their works via woodblock printing. 

Sarah Thompson, curator of an exhibition on Hokusai at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, tells Hyperallergic that the print has endured because of its narrative qualities. 

“​​Will those three little boats get home safely, or are they doomed? You can be either optimistic or pessimistic about that,” she says. “Personally, I think they will make it.”

Hokusai (1760-1849) was a prolific ukiyo-e artist and printmaker who created thousands of works over his lifetime, including illustrations for books, prints and paintings. He is best known for Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a woodblock print series depicting Mount Fuji in a variety of conditions. The Great Wave is the series’ first print.

“Woodblock prints were inexpensive (you could buy a print of The Great Wave for the same price as about two helpings of noodles in the mid-19th century) and prints of a given design were produced as long as there were customers willing to buy them,” writes the British Museum.

Hokusai is famous for his unique style and experimentation with perspective, color and composition. His influence, however, extended beyond Japan, and his work played a key role in the development of European art in the 19th century, influencing artists like Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Today, he is one of the most well-known artists in Japanese history.

The Great Wave is “one of the most recognized images in the art world,” as Smithsonian magazine’s Roger Catlin wrote in 2019. “The famous work can be found on an interior page of the Japanese passport with others from the artist's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Outside of Japan, the tumultuous ocean scene is ubiquitous in pop culture—from Apple’s wave emoji to Lego’s version of the image.

“Many people view the painting as the very essence of Japanese culture,” Atsuko Okuda, chief curator of the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Japan, told CNN’s Dan Tham and Junko Ogura in 2019. “The simple and powerful composition of the mountain and the shape of the wave strikes right at the heart of the observer.”

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