Objects in focus
The Great Wave: spot the difference

The print Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), better known as ‘The Great Wave’ is famous throughout the world. First published in 1831, the woodblock print has inspired generations of artists – one of the official posters of the Paralympics in Tokyo, now postponed until August 2021, is The Sky above The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa by manga artist Araki Hirohiko that depicts sporting gods descending on Japan from a stormy sea of clouds.

A screenshot of our new Collection online showing the Museum's three impressions of the Great Wave.
Three impressions of the Great Wave in our new Collection online.

You may not know that there are many impressions of the Great Wave, and there isn’t one ‘definitive’ version. For example, the British Museum has three impressions in the collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has four and Maidstone Museum (UK) has one that was recently displayed in its exhibition Japan: A Floating World in Print. My work, in collaboration with researchers in the Department of Asia, has focused on finding out how we can tell the differences between these impressions, aiming to piece together a chronology of these amazing prints, so we can tell when in the sequence they were made.

Woodblock prints were inexpensive (you could buy a print of the Great Wave for the same price as about two helpings of noodles in the mid-19th century) and prints of a given design were produced as long as there were customers willing to buy them.

An early print of the Great Wave. A huge wave on the left looms over three small boats which struggle in the spray and swell. Mount Fuji can be seen in the background.
Early printing of the Great Wave.

Hokusai’s famous work was among the first prints in Japan to use Prussian blue, a new synthetic pigment that resisted fading, imported from China and the Netherlands (the only countries Japan traded with in the 1830s). Before Prussian blue reached Japan, printmakers used the blue dyes indigo and dayflower blue, which are much less vibrant. The drama of the gigantic wave about to engulf the three small boats together with the new blue colour made the print incredibly popular in Japan.

The making of woodblock prints

Japanese woodblock prints of the same design vary in the exact colours and printing effects used. The example of Kajikazawa in Kai Province by Hokusai below shows how a print can evolve over time, a phenomenon that intrigues art historians and collectors. Surprisingly, although The Great Wave is probably the most famous Japanese artwork of all time, its evolution has rarely been studied in detail.

Two prints showing two people fishing off a small headland into the wavy river below. The top image uses only blue and black tones, while the image below uses vivid greens for the land, and the people wear orange clothes.
Kajikazawa in Kai Province by Hokusai printed using different colour schemes. Top and bottom.

Prints like this are not dated or numbered, but woodblocks suffer damage during the printing process, which can be used as a way to determine the evolution of a design through time. We can search for signs of woodblock wear in the prints, which is what I have been doing as part of this project. For instance, when prints of the Great Wave are compared carefully, you will notice that lines in the image have disappeared in some prints, but not in others, like in the example below. The prints without lines were made with a woodblock that had missing ridges, hence we can say they were made after the prints with the lines, which were printed when the woodblock was still in good condition.

A comparison of two prints of the Great Wave - a close-up view of the boat beneath the wave. On the left print, a line is clearly visible under the boat, and on the right there is no line.
Close up on the area under the boat on the left hand side of two prints of the Great Wave: the wave outline is well-defined in the print on the left (British Museum 2008,3008.1.JA) but has almost disappeared in the print on the right (British Museum 1937,0710,0.147).
Catching the waves

No records of the number of prints of the Great Wave produced during the Edo Period exist, and how many of these have survived to this day has not been established. But given the commercial success of the design, printmakers would have produced prints until the woodblocks literally wore out. Experts have estimated that this might represent around 8,000 prints. And because the prints were not considered valuable at the time, their owners did not take much care of them and in most cases would end up throwing them away! Earthquakes and fires were also frequent in Japanese cities and many prints were destroyed. Therefore, it is likely that the majority of the prints of the Great Wave have been lost, so we have a limited number that we can compare and analyse.

To study the evolution of the design of the print, I have been searching for surviving impressions. I consulted the online collections of numerous museums, galleries and libraries as well as the records of major auction houses. I also examined books and approached art dealers and private collectors. I found several photographs of the Great Wave using the Google Arts & Culture and online on Flickr, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and even TripAdvisor (the Great Wave is very popular on social media!). In total, I managed to obtain photographs of 111 original prints. During the detective work I also came across some reproductions (i.e. later prints made with a different set of woodblocks) that were falsely labelled as originals, but that is another story…

Analysing the details
A photograph of a keyblock carved with the design for the Great Wave. Dark ink has been used on its surface.
Keyblock of a modern reproduction of the Great Wave.

The main outlines you see in the Great Wave were printed using the ‘keyblock’, which is carved with very fine ridges. The set of woodblocks used for the original prints of the Great Wave are long lost, but you can see the keyblock of a modern reproduction above. The keyblock suffered the most from wear and tear, in particular in the delicate title cartouche (the box with writing in) in the top right hand corner (left on the actual print of course). Looking at different editions of the print, I observed losses in three areas in the double frame of the cartouche, as highlighted below.

A comparison between two versions of the print. On the left, a perfect impression. On the right, parts of the cartouche that are missing are highlighted.
Over time, the ridges of the title cartouche in the Great Wave suffered damage in three areas. Compare the pristine cartouche on the left (British Museum, 2008,3008.1.JA) with the three breaks in the cartouche on the right (British Museum 1937,0710,0.147)

The print of the Great Wave in the first image of this blog has no breaks in its outlines – it is an early printing. Early printings are very important as experts believe that the artists only chose the colours and printing effects for these prints. Later on, the publisher (whose role was to commission and sell prints) would make changes in order to appeal to more customers or lower the cost of production.

I noticed that breaks in the keyblock also occurred in the outline of Mount Fuji in the background and in the outline of a wave on the right. You can see the location and the order in which the losses took place on a late printing below. Note how different this late printing looks compared to the early printing – the sky is much more colourful and the printmaker has inked the grey woodblock in such a way as to depict rain in the sky, which is incredibly rare.

A print of the Great Wave, annotated with areas that feature line breaks. 1, 3 and 5 point to the cartouche, 2 points to the tip of Mount Fuji, 4 points to the wave on the right.
Location of the breaks in the keyblock on a late printing of the Great Wave. The numbers indicate the chronological order in which the breaks occurred. (Katsushika Hokusai. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), 1830/33. The Art Institute of Chicago 1952.343, CC0 Public Domain Designation)

I was excited to discover that printmakers used two new woodblocks in very late printings of the Great Wave – one for the light blue patterns in the sea and another one for the yellow parts of the boats. These new woodblocks were far from perfect replacements of the original woodblocks, though. See, for example, below how the light blue areas in the late printings have a more angular shape than in earlier printings. There are also areas on the late printing where the boats should have been printed yellow originally but were left white. If you look back at the image above, there is no yellow at all in the boat on the left hand side.

A comparison between two versions of the wave, close up on the water. On the left, the light blue is straight and features sharp edges. On the right, the light blue part is curved and has rounder edges.
Light blue areas in late impressions (left: Katsushika Hokusai. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), 1830/33 The Art Institute of Chicago 1952.343, CC0 Public Domain Designation) were not printed with the same woodblock as in early printings (right: British Museum 2008,3008.1.JA).

Finally, I came across four prints that look completely different from all the others and ones that I had never encountered before starting this research – the boats were pink and the clouds were printed dark brown with a gradation effect (below). Nevertheless, when I examined these four prints in detail, I came to the conclusion that they are indeed originals. To be more precise, they are the very last printings of the Great Wave. There are signs of woodblock wear in all the expected areas and the printmaker had used a new woodblock for the boats to print them in pink. The reason for carving this new woodblock remains a mystery, but I find it fascinating that, even when the woodblocks were very damaged, there were still people wanting to buy a print of the Great Wave!

One of the latest prints of the Great Wave (1916.685, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr Denman W. Ross, © President and Fellows of Harvard College).
What does this tell us about the making of this masterpiece?

My findings raise some questions. Why did the publisher commission new woodblocks? Why did the woodblock cutter carve them so differently from the original ones, and even make obvious mistakes?

Perhaps the original woodblocks became so damaged that they had to be replaced. Nevertheless, it would not have been difficult for an experienced woodblock cutter to make new woodblocks very similar to the original ones. This might suggest a rushed operation or lack of care.

A photograph of a woodblock for the Great Wave being carved.
A woodblock is carved as part of our 2017 documentary on Hokusai.

But the publisher of the Great Wave, Nishimuraya Yohachi, was recognised for having a very high standard of carving and printing, so this lack of care would be surprising. According to a letter dated 1836, he experienced economic difficulties in the mid-1830s so this might provide an explanation. Maybe Nishimuraya sold the woodblocks to another publisher with lower standards. Another possibility is that he had to commission cheap woodblocks because he didn’t have the resources for high quality ones anymore.

We may never know… but I hope that the next time you come across an image of the Great Wave, you will take time to look carefully, and see if you can spot any differences.

Zoom in to this incredible work using our revamped Collection online

To find out more about Hokusai and to see the Great Wave in person, visit our latest exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun.

You can also buy the accompanying hardback book, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, on our website.