This Is How Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” Became a Global Icon

by Owen James Burke


Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ (1830-31) will be on exhibition in Boston starting April 5th. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

First published in 1831 and brought round the world by 19th century sail and steam, Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” has become the single most recognizable piece of nonwestern art in history, argues Christine Guth, author of “Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon,” which was released this year.

Guth, who is head of the history of design program at London’s Royal College of Art, wanted to chronicle the presence of the piece as a symbol throughout history, “An image that originated in Japan took on a life of its own.”

It’s true, since it was first published (though it wasn’t exhibited until 1890s), “The Great Wave” has been used to depict everything from war to political powers and natural disasters.


“The Great Wave” has found its way into pop culture over and over again. Above: “Uprisings” (2007) by Scuttlefish friends Kozyndan, is featured in Guth’s new book.

Hokusai began drawing when he was six, but didn’t report to think much of himself until later in life:

“At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects,” he wrote. “When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.”


Order Christine Guth’s “Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon,” and read more at the Wall Street Journal — OJB

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