The fine, intricate details, wide perspective and composition juxtaposing ordinary humans with nature were concepts unfamiliar to Japanese artists, but very well-known to Western artists. Essentially, Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa’ is fundamentally a Western painting, but from the outlook of a native Japanese artist.
By the 1880s, Japanese prints – like the art produced by Hokusai – were incredibly popular in Western culture. Hokusai’s work sparked the interest of many European artists, including Van Gogh, who went on to develop Japonaiserie – a style of art influenced by such Japanese art
shape of a snow-capped mountain, while in the Great Wave the wave stands out because it is more active, dynamic, and aggressive, which make it threatening.
The earlier images are very marked by the perspective traditionally used in Japanese print, where the viewer sees the scene from a bird's-eye view.
The Great Wave, on the other hand, is depicted in a more western perspective, giving the feeling that the wave will break on top of the viewer.
・ In the earlier prints the horizon is in the middle, whereas in the Great Wave the horizon is so low that it forces the viewer's eye to the very center of the action.
・ In the first two, there is a sail boat on the crest of the wave, as if it had managed to escape. Hokusai eliminated this element for the Great Wave, because it interfered with the dynamic of the curve or to make the image more dramatic.
・ The two first prints have an uneven composition, lacking consistency, whereas the Great Wave only has two important masses: the wave itself, and the vanishing point beneath the wave.
・ The wave shows the level of control that Hokusai had reached. The image, although simple in its design is, however, the result of a long process, a methodical reflection. The basis of this method were laid out by Hokusai in his 1812 work Quick lessons of simplified drawing, in which he explains that every object can be drawn using the relationship of the circle and square.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa has two inscriptions. The first, the title of the series, is written on the upper-left side inside a rectangular box, where it's written: "冨嶽三十六景/神奈川冲/浪裏" Fugaku Sanjūrokkei / Kanagawa oki / nami ura, which translates to "Thirty six views of Mount Fuji / offshore from Kanagawa / Beneath the wave". The second inscription, on the left of the box, is the artist's signature: 北斎改爲一筆 Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, ("From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu").
Hokusai, given his humble beginning, didn't have a last name, and his first pen-name, Katsushika, referred to the region he came from. Over his career, he used more than 30 different names, never beginning a new cycle of works without changing it, letting his students use the previous name.
In his work Thirty Six views from Mount Fuji he used four distinct signatures, changing signature according to the phase of the work: Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, zen Hokusai Iitsu hitsu, Hokusai Iitsu hitsu and zen saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu.
Edmond de Goncourt described the wave in this way:
The drawing of the wave is a deification of the sea made by a painter who lived with the religious terror of the overwhelming ocean completely surrounding…