Under the well of the great wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)
Nishimuraya Yohachi, publisher
Under the well of the great wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1829-1833
Polychrome wood block print
Image: 26 x 37.3 cm (10 1/4 x 14 11/16 inches)
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke 20.1195
About the work
This print is part of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a series made when artist Katsushika Hokusai was in his 70s. The series was so successful that Hokusai produced 10 additional scenes after the first 36 prints. Appreciated in their own time in Japan and in other countries for their innovative composition and vibrant color, these works are the result of Hokusai’s experiments with representing nature. The elements of water and earth are the dominant subjects of this print. Mount Fuji, still and stable in the background, counters the dynamic power of the great wave, and the humans in the barges in the foreground, possibly carrying fish, seem fragile and vulnerable. The title lets us know that this is a real place: Kanagawa is a prefecture (or province) of Japan along the coast near Mount Fuji.
There is an established tradition in Japanese prints of depicting views of famous natural sites and well-known, man-made locations. Mount Fuji is a particularly important symbol of Japanese national identity, and its depiction here relates to Japanese traditions of valuing mountains as places associated with spirituality and immortality. Hokusai interprets the traditional theme of Mount Fuji in a novel way by diminishing the mountain, traditionally presented as the most prominent element, and focusing on the sea instead. In fact, Hokusai throughout his career was preoccupied by the subject of water, and cresting waves appear many times in his work.
The focus on the sea as it dwarfs Mount Fuji made this work particularly appealing in Japan, whose rulers controlled sea trade through limited contact with only certain countries, among them China, Korea, and the Netherlands. Access to Japan and its resources, represented here by Mount Fuji, was a sensitive concern, as the island country was surrounded by larger neighbors. In 1853, not long after Hokusai made this print, Japan would be forced into trade relations with Western nations, including the United States.
The technology needed to create single-sheet prints such as this one had been available in Japan for fewer than 100 years when Hokusai made this print. Only since 1765 were Japanese printmakers able to create prints efficiently using a range of colors; up to that time, artists worked in one color or painted colors by hand. During Hokusai’s lifetime, impressive prints of views could be more easily produced and more widely distributed. The prints in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series were initially issued a few at a time; the series was so popular that it was reprinted, with variations, several times. The use in several of the prints of the synthetic pigment Prussian blue, imported from China most likely by Chinese and Dutch traders, contributed to the appeal of this dramatic series. Appreciated by sophisticated consumers of prints as singular works and as a set, Hokusai’s series inspired other Japanese printmakers and influenced artists working in different media in Europe.
Under the well of the great wave off Kanagawa has been reproduced so often that it is recognizable to many people around the world. To encourage students to think about what makes this image so powerful, ask them to consider how the artist works with scale, color, and line.
Ask students to describe the placement of the boats and to discuss how the human figures are shown. What is the relationship between humans and nature? What does the print tell us about how the Japanese related to the sea during this time in history?
In Japan, pictures, like the characters in Japanese books, are read from right to left. Does looking at this image from right to left change the way we interpret the scene? If so, how?
The word for landscape is shanshui in Japanese. The word is formed from the ideograms (or written symbols) designating “mountain” and “water.” With older students, use a topographic map of Japan to understand Japan’s geography. Ask them to discuss how this word is particularly appropriate to the Japanese landscape and how these two natural elements relate to one another in Hokusai’s print.
Hokusai’s series depicts Mount Fuji from different perspectives and in different weather conditions. Ask students to compare this print with other prints in the series—either Storm Below Mount Fuji (1830–1832) or Kajikazawa in Kai Province (1830–1832). Ask them to write about the composition, color, mood, and view of the mountain in one of these other works. What impression of the mountain is conveyed in the print they chose?
Although this print by Hokusai was conceived as part of a series, it is also a powerful singular work that can be appreciated on its own. To explore working on a project that is a part of a larger whole, have your students create a collaborative portfolio where each student contributes one print on the same theme. You may choose to assign the theme, but have the students work together to decide how and if the works will be aesthetically related. For example, do they want to standardize the format or size of the individual works or set some color restrictions to create connections between their individual prints? How will they decide on the order of the sequence of works?
One of the consequences of the opening of Japan to the West after 1853 was that European artists could now collect and study innovative prints by Hokusai and other Japanese printmakers. Artists in media other than the visual arts were also influenced by Hokusai’s work—the French composer Claude Debussy owned a copy of Under the well of the great wave off Kanagawa; like Hokusai, he was fascinated by the sea. Have students listen to Debussy’s musical composition La Mer (The Sea) while looking at Hokusai’s print. What are the similarities between the two pieces? The differences?
For a musical analysis of Debussy’s La Mer, listen here.
Michael Cirigliano II. “Hokusai and Debussy’s Evocations of the Sea.”
Matthi Forrer. Hokusai: Prints and Drawings. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991.
Christine M. E. Guth. “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture.” The Art Bulletin, December XCIII/4 (2011): 468-485. Available online.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm (October 2003)
Jocelyn Bouquillard. Hokusai’s Mount Fuji: The Complete Views in Color. Translated by Mark Getlein. New York: Abrams, 2007.