The Amazing Evolution of The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Has any Japanese woodblock print — or for that matter, any piece of Japanese art — endured as well across place and time as The Great Wave off Kanagawa? Even those of us who have never known its name, let alone those of us unsure of who made it and when, can bring it to mind it with some clarity, as sure a sign as any (along with the numerous parodies) that it taps into something deep within all of us. But though the artist behind it, 18th- and 19th-century ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai, was undoubtedly a master of his tradition, even he didn't conjure up The Great Wave off Kanagawa in the form we know it on the first try.

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    Hokusai crafted his second precursor of The Great Wave in 1803. View of Honmoku off Kanagawa features a muted color palette and two focal points: the wave (which had greatly increased in scale) and a passing ship. Though stylized, the wave is also simplified; its form is suggested by minimalist contours and little embellishment.

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    Two years later, Hokusai completed Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves. Here, he retained some of the characteristics found in the previous piece, including the prominent presence of a boat and the simplified crest of the wave. However, for this design, he reorganized the composition, moving the wave from the left side of the scene to the right. This decision ultimately stuck, defining the composition of his last and most famous Great Wave.

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    It is no surprise that this later work has proven to be Hokusai’s most successful—especially in the context of the artist’s own assessment of his art. “From the time I was six, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me,” he said. “Around the age of 50, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until my 70th year, however, that I produced anything of significance.”

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