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Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北齋)

Hokusai: Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the wave off Kanagawa: 神奈川沖浪裏), c. 1831
Series: Fugaku Sanjûrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji: 冨嶽三十六景)

Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北齋) was an artist of such prodigious skill and imagination that it seems inadequate to discuss his achievements in anything less than a book-length exposition. Considered by many to be the greatest artist of the ukiyo-e school, he is said to have made over 30,000 designs (prints, drawings, and paintings) on subjects or in formats as diverse as landscapes; beautiful women; kabuki actor portraits; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono; sketch books; illustrated albums, books, poetry compilations and novels; and didactic painting manuals.

Sakai Hoitsu waveHokusai is famous for what might very well be the most recognizable and admired woodblock print in the world — the iconic Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the wave off Kanagawa: 神奈川沖浪裏) from his series Fugaku Sanjûrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji: 冨嶽三十六景) circa 1831, which he signed "Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu" (Drawn by Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai: 北斎改爲一筆). The imposing composition was said to have inspired Debussy's symphonic sketch La Mer (The Sea) and Rilke's poem Der Berg (The Mountain). Hokuei's composition presents a low horizon and exploits repetition and geometric forms as a means of focus and balance. The triangular Mt. Fuji, small and distant, is echoed in the wave below the larger cresting mass of water, itself an incomplete triangle. The upper curve of the wave, poised to crash down upon three oshiokuri-bune ("fast boats": 押送船) transporting live fish in the early morning, invites the viewer's gaze along a diagonal toward the sacred mountain. Even the white space within the cloud form at the upper right seems to mimic the cresting wave. The dominant color here is blue, or more accurately, shades of different blues. Scientific analysis has demonstrated that both synthetic imported Prussian blue (also called "Berlin Blue," bero-ai in Japanese: ベロリン藍 or ベロ藍) and traditional indigo or ai (藍 Polygonum tinctorium Ait.) were used in Hokusai's Kanagawa design to create variable hues. Also, the fugitive pinkish yellow cloud is very well preserved, whereas most often, it is faded.

Sakai Hoitsu waveHokusai had already published his own prototype of the wave in 1800-1805 for a horizontal chûban (185 x 245 mm) titled in kana script Oshiokuri hatô tsûsen no zu ("Express delivery boats rowing through waves": おしおくりはとうつうせんのず) and signed "Hokusai egaku" (ほくさゐゑかく) in a horizontal style mimicking European writing. Indeed, the vessels in the Kanagawa design are also express delivery boats rushing the early morning catch of fish to market. In the image above left, we see a huge wave similar to the Kanagawa version, as well as express boats navigating in the troughs.

Hokusai was well-versed in the history of Japanese and Chinese art and would have known some of the antecedents to his remarkable wave. He might have been familiar with the Rinpa-school (琳派) paintings of Ogata Kôrin (尾形光琳 1658–1716) and Sakai Hôitsu (酒井抱 1761-1829), or at least he would have known Sakai's widely disseminated Ôson gafu (Ôson's (Hôitsu's) Picture Album: 鶯邨画譜) from 1817. One of the images from that ehon (illustrated book: 絵本) is shown above right, where the similarities beween Hokusai's wave and Sakai's are readily apparent. The point here is not to claim that Hokusai copied the wave from an earlier source, but simply to say that his wave did not appear sui generis.

One other point of clarification can be made here. Some commentators have described the Great Wave as a "tidal wave," but that has been declared inaccurate. Rather, it is a "rogue wave" generated by high winds and strong currents. In this particular instance, scientists would describe it as the result of linear effects of directional focusing, arising when "wave trains" with different directions and phases interfere with each other at a particular point (see Dudley ref.).

Finally, in regard to the blue colorants used for Kanagawa oki nami ura, recent spectral analysis (light reflection signatures) indicates that the lightest blue is Prussian Blue (bero-ai, ベロ藍, "Berlin Blue") of a somewhat light density, medium blue is composed of higher density Prussian blue, and the darkest blue is a mixture of Prussian Blue and indigo (which is slightly "duller," that is, has less reflectance). The effect was to darken the bright Prussian blue without reducing the intensity of its hue. The painter Ogata Korin 尾形光琳; 1658-1716), on his great pair of six-panel screens of irises (c. 1701-05), used a similar approach to achieve his darkest blues by overpainting indigo on azurite.

Hokusai: Ehon jôruri zeku, (Illustrated book of Chinese verses and jôruri: 絵本浄瑠璃絶句), 1815
Pub: Kadomaruya Jinsuke, Edo and Matsuya Zembei, Nagoya
166 x 225 mm (closed); text by Hokutei [Maki] Bokusen (牧墨僊 1775-1824)
Detail of original carved block (left half of one side) and corresponding page from original edition

Hokusai designed more than 270 ehon, a remarkably prolific total. In 1815 he provided sketches for Ehon jôruri zeku (Illustrated book of Chinese verses and jôruri: 絵本浄瑠璃絶句). Many of the original carved blocks have survived, as indicated by the detail of one of the two-sided blocks shown above. Hiller (see ref.) concluded that, "In Jôruri zekku, the figures of the women show considerable changes from those of the poetry books illustrated by Hokusai in what we have called the 'Sori period' [late 1794 - early 1799].... In 1815, in what ... could be called the 'Taito period' [1810-1820]... the figures have become more robust, the line more sweeping though perhaps less graceful, and there is a sense of agitation, furthered by a zigzag, crinkly line in the draperies, most evident in the neckline of the kimono....” There were early as well as a later Meiji-period nishiki-e (full-color or "brocade prints": 錦絵) editions (also see Hiller, Toda, and Brown refs.]

Hokusai: Kôzuke Sano funabashi no kozu, c. 1834
(View of the Boat-bridge at Sano in Kôzuke Province かうつけ佐野ふなはしの古つ)
Series: Shokoku meikyô kiran (Remarkable views of bridges in all the provinces: 諸國名橋奇覧)

One of Hokusai's more imaginative landscapes is the view shown above from circa 1834 of the pontoon bridge at Sano, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijûdô). Titled Kôzuke Sano funabashi no kozu (View of the boat-bridge at Sano in Kôzuke Province かうつけ佐野ふなはしの古つ), it is arguably the finest design of the series Shokoku meikyô kiran (Remarkable views of bridges in all the provinces: 諸國名橋奇覧), from which eleven designs are known. The bridge, curving sharply over the Tone River, no longer existed by Hokusai's time, but it had been cited in classical poetry and would have been familiar to the artist's more literate admirers.

Hokusai: Poem by Minamoto no Muneyuki Ason (源宗于朝臣), c. 1835-38
Series: Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki
(One hundred poems [by 100 poets] explained by the nurse: 百人一首うはかゑとき)

The series Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki (One hundred poems [by 100 poets] explained by the nurse: 百人一首うはかゑとき), designed over the years 1835-38, was Hokusai's last great series, left unfinished at his death. The set is known by 27 finished lifetime published prints, one key-block print, 53 drawings never used for prints, four photomechanical reproductions of original drawings, two drawings known to be in a private Japanese collection, and four modern woodcuts made posthumously in 1921 whose original sketches were either lost and survived in an unidentified collection. Thus, at least 91 subjects have been identified, with the remaining nine unknown in any form. In the example shown above, the subject for the 28th poem depicts a small group of men, probably hunters, warming themselves by a large fire. The poem was composed by Minamoto no Muneyuki Ason (源宗于朝臣 died 939 CE), who was the grandson of Emperor Kôkô (830-887 CE) and one of the Thiry-six Imoratl Poets (xxxx). The poem was written in answer to the question of whether Fall or Winter was the lonelier season. The verse reads: Yamazato wa / fuyu zo sabishisa / masari keru / hito-me mo kusa mo / karenu to omoeba (Winter loneliness / in a mountain hamlet grows / only deeper, when / guests are gone, and leaves and grass / are withered; so runs my thought: 山里は / 冬ぞさびしさ / まさりける / 人めも草も / かれぬとおもへば).

Hokusai waterfallOne last print is discussed here, arbitrarily selected from among an overwhelmingly large number of impressive landscape compositions. The scene is titled Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki (Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road: 木曽路ノ奥 阿彌陀ヶ瀧) from the series Shokoku taki meguri (Journey to the waterfalls in all the provinces: 諸國瀧廻リ), circa 1832. The name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the "round eye" (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. A servant at the far middle left heats a water kettle while two men converse and admire the view from their spectacular vantage point.

Compositions such as this reveal Hokusai's vivid draftsmanship, interpretive realism, and wide-ranging imagination. This image of the Amida waterfall is both a figurative representation of a meisho or famous place and a transparent rendering of the basic forms underlying Hokusai's visual vocabulary. The nearly perfect circle of the hollow is a central decorative motif, a metaphorical "round eye" simplified as though intended for Hokusai's students to use as a model from one of his didactic treatises. The zig-zagging waves of water approaching the precipice are decoratively drawn in a stylized shorthand that could be suitable for transfer to other media, such as painting on ceramics. The falling water first descends in branch-like arteries, and then drops precipitously in long, straight verticals. Grassy cliffs frame the scene, bulging inward toward the central pictorial space, with shapes almost wavelike, their underlying compositional structure not so different, perhaps, from the wave in Hokusai's "Great Wave Off Kanagawa." The human presence is depicted poignantly, the men dwarfed by the surging falls and imposing cliffs, yet their presence is nevertheless a harmonious part of this remarkable view. © 1999-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Brown, Louise: Block Printing and Book Illustration in Japan: London: Routledge & Sons, 1924, no. 183.4.
  • Dudley, John, Sarano, V., Dias, F.: "The Great Wave Explained by Directional Focusing," in: Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 2013, 67 doi: 10.1098/rsnr.2012.0066); also summarized at [last accessed Jan. 9, 2021.]
  • Forrer, Matthi: Hokusai: Prints and Drawings. Munich, 1991.
  • Hillier, Jack: The Art of Hokusai in Book Illustration. New York: Sotheby's, 1980, pp. 133-137, nos. 111-113.
  • Leona, Marco: "Part 1, Blue: Looking at Art through the Lens of Scientific Analysis." Japanese Art Society of America: New York, June 9, 2021, online video presentation by the Scientist in Charge, Department of Scientific Research, Metropolitan Museum of Art. See (last accessed June 12, 2021).
  • Morse, Peter: Hokusai: One Hundred Poets. New York: Braziller, 1989.
  • Lane, Richard: Hokusai: Life and Work. New York, 1989.
  • Toda, Kenji: Descriptive Catalog of the Ryerson Collection of Japanese and Chinese Illustrated Books. Art Institute of Chicago, 1931, no. 256.
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