Surely the most famous piece of Japanese art is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushira Hokusai. It has become iconic enough that, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, it can be recognized by even those who know nothing about art and can be fodder for countless parodies.
The Great Wave is part of a book, published in Japan in 1830 called 36 Views of Mount Fuji, one of the most famous books of the Ukiyo-e woodblock print style of popular art in Japan from the 17th century until World War I. They were cheap: A single Ukiyo-e image could be bought for roughly the price of a bowl of noodles.
Hokusai (1760-1849) was about 70 years old when he published 36 Views and had been working as an artist since the age of 14. In his 88-year lifetime, he drew, painted and carved something like 30,000 works. Three years after publishing 36 Views, he began signing his work as “Old Man Mad With Painting.”
As early as 1805, he had begun making pictures with the theme of fishermen in a boat fighting great waves.
And even after the Great Wave, he kept working the theme, including in his black-and-white sketchbook 100 Views of Mount Fuji.
He seems to have begun making the images for 36 Views somewhere about 1826. And it was in the years after that a new European pigment, Prussian blue, made its way to Japan. And so, some of the 36 Views are in the old style and some with the new blue pigment, which Hokusai seemed to enjoy experimenting with. The Great Wave would not have been possible without Prussian blue. An advertisement for the book emphasized the new color.
But it is important to pay attention to the other images in the series. It is called 36 Views, but Hokusai couldn’t stop and later added an additional 10 images, bringing the total up to 46. They were published and republished multiple times during Hokusai’s life, and each new printing differs slightly from the first, sometimes with different colors, sometimes with new details carved into the woodblock.
There is no set order for the images, but the ones below are in one of the published sequences. I wanted to post them all for two reasons. First because they give context to the Great Wave, but also because the whole set is great and should be known to anyone who loves art. I have loved them since I first encountered them more than 50 years ago.
1. Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo
2. The Mitsui Store in Suruga District
3. Suruga Hill, Sundai, in Edo
4. The Hongan-ji Temple in Asakusa
5. The Timber Yard at Honjo
6. Under Mannen Bridge in Fukagawa
7. The Sazai Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats
8. The Round-Cushion Pine in Aoyama
9. The Waterwheel at Onden
10. Lower Meguro
11. Snowy Morning in Koishikawa
12. Sunset View of Ryogoku Bridge from Oumaya
13. The Village of Sekiya on the Sumida River
14. Senju in the Musashino Province
15. Distant View of Fuji from the Gay Quarters in Senju
16. Tsukuda Island in Musashino Province
17. The Kazusa Sea Route
18. The Bay at Nobuto
19. Ushibori in Hitachi Province
20. Fuji from Goten-yama in Shinagawa on the Tokaido
21. Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa
22. The Tama River in Musashino Province
23. Hodogaya on the Tokaido
24. The Beach of Seven-League in Sagami Province
25. Enoshima in Sagami Province
26. Nakahara in Sagami Province
27. To the Left of Umezawa in Sagami Province
28. The Lake at Hakone in Sagami Province
29. Mishima Pass in Kai Province
30. Fuji from a Tea Field in Katakura, Surugama Province
31. Ono Shindon in the Suraga Province
32. Fuji in a Storm
33. The Red Fuji (Fine Wind, Clear Morning)
34. People Climbing the Mountain
35. Ejiri in Suruga Province
36. The Coast of Tago Bay near Ejiri on the Tokaido
37. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido
38. In the Mountains of Totomi Province
39. Yoshida on the Tokaido
40. Fujimigahara in Owari Province
41. Inume Pass in Kai Province
42. Fuji Reflected on Lake Kawaguchi at Misaka in Kai Province
43. Dawn at Isawa in Kai Province
44. Lake Suwa in Shinano Province
45. Kajikazawa in Kai Province
46. The Back of Fuji from Minobu River
Click on any image to enlarge