The Great Wave off Kanagawa is among the strongest images in Hokusai’s famous Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and it has become an artistic icon, known around the world. Hokusai’s greatest rival, Utagawa Hiroshige, who specialized in views of famous places (meisho-e), criticized Hokusai’s unconventional compositions as too artificial. Certainly this image is the most extreme example of Hokusai’s unusual approach.
Mount Fuji appears smaller here than in most of the series’ other images. The great wave, arching over the view of the distant mountain, dominates the composition. In fact, Fuji is nearly eclipsed and might even be overlooked by a casual viewer. As if to prevent that, Hokusai designed the curling foam of the wave so as to lead the viewer’s gaze toward the far-off sacred mountain. Three boats, tossed by the waves, symbolize the inconsequence of humankind in relation to the power and majesty of nature.
(Modified text courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, CC BY 3.0.)