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The Evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the world’s most iconic pieces of art. Hokusai created the woodblock print in 1831 at the age of 71 as part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. But in some sense, he’d been working on it all of his life.

In 1797, at the age of 37, Hokusai made what could be interpreted as his first wave print, Spring at Enoshima (Enoshima shunbô):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Hokusai made his next attempt in 1803 (age 43) with View of Honmoku off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Two years later in 1805 (age 45) came Express Delivery Boats Rowing through Waves (Oshiokuri hatô tsûsen no zu) and it’s starting to look familiar:

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

A few waves show up in Hokusai’s three-volume Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing (1812).

In 1831 at the age of 71, Hokusai returned to waves with The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

As others have noted, this version is fantastically impressionistic — it evokes a feeling just as much as it depicts a scene. The others are nice works of art, but this is the work of a master at the peak of his expressive powers.1

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Here’s Fuji at Sea (Kaijo no Fuji) from circa 1834, made at age 74 — it looks great in color:

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Right around the same period, Hokusai made Kajikazawa in Kai Province (Kōshū Kajikazawa) and Fishing Boats at Choshi in Shimosa (Soshu Choshi). Later on, Hokusai allegedly made a pair of paintings referred to as Feminine Wave and Masculine Wave, but I can’t find any information about them online outside of sites selling prints. [Edit: the Feminine & Masculine Waves are featured in Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, based on an exhibition in the British Museum. (thx, jody)]

What did Hokusai make of this progression over his career? In a colophon to his series One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei), he wrote:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.

Note: Screenshots of a viral tweet from 2018 about this series of prints are going around again. I’m sure it will shock you to learn that some of the math and dates haven’t been fact-checked as well as they could have been. I’ve documented the names of the artworks shown here and relied on primary sources for their dates where possible. I’ve used 1760 as the year of Hokusai’s birth and the dates of works are when they were made, not when they were first published. Please let me know if I’ve made any errors…I’d love for this post to be as correct as possible.

  1. See also an old post (in the old design!) about Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Discussion  8 comments

MacRae Linton

I was surprised to learn that The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (the print Bert Cooper gave Peggy in Mad Men) was also done by Hokusai! When he was 54 he released a series of erotic prints called Kinoe no Komatsu, 16 years before he made the great wave.

Jody Tate

We recently had a large special exhibit on Hokusai at the Seattle Art Museum. I volunteer there and was fortunate to get to spend quite a lot of time with his art, the art of his teachers, his students, etc. You may have already seen it, but one of the more fascinating videos I came across is a 20 minute deep dive into the differences between existing prints of The Great Wave:

Jacob Mul

Lego has a great podcast on Hokusai’s Great Wave, where they get lots of experts together. It’s for their Lego Art Set ‘The Great Wave’, but fascinating to listen to regardless!

Mark Fisher

Also featured on the cover of 2022’s best novel, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin.

Paul Josey

Love his later Fuji at Sea, the way the wind at the crest of the wave is captured, the people/waves narrative replaced with the integrated relationship and contrasting forces of wind/waves on repeat, again and again

Bill Amstutz

I fell into a Hokusai rabbit hole recently and found these amazing sketchbooks that have been digitized by the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can get lost in here for days. He draws masks, landscapes, blossoms, birds, bugs, bats, fishes, and figures of every type.

Sidenote: The Watson Library at the Met is one of my favorite places in New York. You can spend the day there working, or check out and view any art book you can imagine.

Michael Beuselinck

For all of those in the San Francisco Area, the Legion of Honor has a great exhibit right now and Great Wave is on display until August 18, 2024. Check it out.

Joachim Bondo

Matt Sephton over on Mastodon is keeping track of all Great Wave currently on view in real life at

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