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Detail of the Great Wave showing two boats on whitecapped blue waves with Mount Fuji in the distance

The Great Wave: Anatomy of an Icon

Marco Leona, David H. Koch Scientist in Charge, Department of Scientific Research

Just in time for the New Year's festivities of 1831, the Eijudo printing firm advertised Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a series of prints of Japan's most sacred mountain that featured an exotic pigment newly available for the print market: Prussian blue.

One print in the series, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (commonly known as The Great Wave), has become a global icon, synonymous in both the East and the West not only with the artist, Hokusai, but with Japanese art in general.

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849). Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), ca. 1830–32. Japan, Edo period (1615–1868). Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 10 1/8 x 15 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)

Woodblock printing was an enormously popular art form in the Edo period and the most advanced color-reproduction technology anywhere in the world. Thanks to investigations carried out by The Met's Department of Scientific Research, we are beginning to learn how much Eijudo's printers—and, in particular, their handling of the new color—contributed to the impact and success of Thirty-six Views.

The Great Wave is a visually dynamic print with fully saturated blues and extraordinary contrast. Spectroscopic analysis shows that to achieve this, the printers did not simply substitute the exotic Prussian blue for the traditional (and duller) indigo. Instead, they mixed the two together to create a bold outline, and printed one pigment on top of the other to darken the bright Prussian blue without reducing the intensity of its hue.

Left: Color swatches showing indigo and Prussian blue. Right: A detail from an untrimmed impression of The Great Wave that reveals evidence of double printing at its lower edge. Private collection, New York

This is strikingly evident in the towering wave that breaks over the leftmost boat. When Eijudo's anonymous printing masters laid down the outlines of the design, they printed the dark vertical stripes first, using a mixture of Prussian blue and indigo to create a dark gunmetal blue. Then they printed the hollow of the wave, applying a pure Prussian blue over the initially printed stripes, and filling the white spaces left between them.

The transition—from the deep blue, produced by the double printing, to the bright and saturated pure Prussian blue—animates the surface of the wave, adding visual depth and movement. This simple technique allows for a more suggestive, three-dimensional rendering of the wave and heightens the impact of the print.

Technical photos of the color blue

Left: A 3-D scanning microscope zooms into a detail in the deep-blue hollow of the wave. Right: The 3-D scan produces a topographical map of the detail, revealing that the white paper (at upper right) sits higher than the medium blue (depicted in green), which has been printed once. The medium blue in turn sits higher than the deep blue, which has been printed twice.

The double-printing method has another, more subtle effect. As printing pushes the paper into the block, the reliefs carved in the block bite into the paper, indenting it as they deposit their color. The effect is even more pronounced when the block is printed twice, as in the deep blue hollow of the wave, where the white foam, the bright blue, and the deep blue all sit at different heights. A viewer holding the print would perceive—almost subliminally—a step at each color, adding real, three-dimensional depth.

With its bright and saturated hue, Prussian blue made landscape printing both possible and popular in Edo-period Japan. Until today, however, we did not know how much the anonymous woodcutters and printers working at Eijudo contributed to Hokusai's vision of Fuji "caught on the artist's brush-tip."

The Met's Great Wave was probably one of the earliest impressions of the work to be printed. The quality of its line and the vibrancy of its colors remind us that Hokusai was only one of the artists involved in its creation, although he is the only one whose name we know.

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