Sea paintings we love: Hokusai's deep blue sea part 2...

Red_Fuji_southern_wind_clear_morning by Hokusai
'South Wind, Clear Sky -Red Fuji' from 36 views of Mt Fuji (1831) colour woodblock 26.1 x 38.2cm

I’m currently reading
a short book about Katsushika Hokusai’s (Japanese 1760-1849) famous colour woodblock print The Great Wave (1831).

Which, like the title says, is a picture of a huge spiky, foamed wave about to crash on three wooden rowing boats and their crew.

The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa by hokusai
'The Great Wave of Kanagawa' from 36 views of Mt Fuji (1831) colour woodblock 25.4 x 38.1cm

where's Mt Fuji...

But don’t let the foreground fool you, as the real subject is the snow capped, sacred Mount Fuji, in the far background.

‘The Great Wave or Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ belongs to a series of prints called the ‘Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji’.
Hokusai’s idea was to show the mountain from the widest possible number of viewpoints. In all seasons and at different times of day.

The series is filled with the everyday details of buildings and workers going about their business, and people chilling out looking at the view.
'Suruga Street in Edo, the Mitsui Store, simplified view' from 36 views of Mt Fuji (1831) 24.6 x 36.6cm


Hokusai’s art is part of a Japanese art tradition known as Ukiyo-e or floating world- it celebrates the pleasures of popular culture. Beautiful women, kabuki actors, warriors, sumo wrestlers, townscapes, landscapes, comics, folk tales and erotica of 18 and 19th century Edo (modern Tokyo).

They were hugely popular and influential (check out Van Gogh’s copy, below) in his own time.


The Mt Fuji series was so popular Hokusai created another larger series called ‘One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji’. He was over 70 years old when he started them. There's a lesson in that!

A couple of features of Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave of Kanagawa’ print

  • Prussian blue: There are 3 shades of prussian (Berlin) blue, used for the water, outlines and text. Prussian blue or ferric ferrocyanide is a dark blue pigment, first synthesized in Berlin, (about 1704-06). In contrast to earlier types of blues, (plant dyes) which faded, prussian blue, being a chemical pigment, faded less easily and could be printed with more saturation. It became an extremely common colour in japanese prints from 1829.
  • The spiritual aspect of Mt Fuji: From ancient times in Japan, Mt Fuji was venerated by various buddhist schools. Soon after the founding of Edo (Tokyo) in the early 17th century, Mt Fuji became the focus of popular religious ‘cults’ (the authors word, not mine) in the city. By 1825, it had expanded to 70,000 devotees, in a population of over a million. The main aims of the ‘cult’ were to heal the sick and bring peace and prosperity to the country. Sounds good to me. The original publisher of Hokusai’s series was a ‘cult’ leader, and perhaps Hokusai was a member it's suggested. I bet he was.
from Hokusai’s Great Wave by Timothy Clark, British Museum Objects in Focus


I was recently in the Asian art museum in Stockholm, (which, along with most of the other museums in Stockholm is now free- yay!) and bought a catalogue of their japanese manga exhibition from a few years ago. (I had no idea Hokusai did manga, and has been a huge influence on contemporary manga. But once you see his drawings, it seems obvious.)

hokusai cats manga
Hokusai manga drawing of a cat
Hokusai manga drawing
Contemporary manga

By the way ‘manga’ in japanese means curious or whimsical drawings, though it’s generally interpreted as graphic novels nowadays.

hokusai how to draw book 2
page from Hokusai's drawing instruction book

Supposedly, it was mainly through Hokusai’s manga (first published 1814 Japan) that initially influenced Manet and the impressionists, which then sparked an interest in japanese woodblock prints in the west.


In the film world, currently, we have such animation classics as Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ and a whole host of others.

According to different blogs, (I’ve had a quick look at) ‘The Lion King’s’ visual style is influenced by the founder of contemporary manga, Osamu Tezuka.

He, in turn, was influenced as a child by very early Disney cartoons. There's no mention of Hokusai in any of the discussion about influences.

But really, that clear as a bell light, inventive form, the incisive line, and the joy and peace that permeates the work of Hokusai is surely behind them both.

Some links…

Hokusai on wikipedia
James Cahill (1926-2014) chinese landscape art historian- his online lecture about chinese and japanese painting: Gazing into the Past.

Other sea paintings we love:


Sue said…
Thanks John, I really appreciate that:)


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