One Scientist Painstakingly Establishes a Chronology for More than 100 Surviving Prints of ‘The Great Wave’ by Hokusai


#art history
#Katsushika Hokusai

Capucine Korenberg, a scientist at The British Museum, is a big fan of ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, who lived during the Edo period in Japan. Hokusai is best known for a series of woodblock prints titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes his iconic “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

Often referred to simply as “The Great Wave,” the work spawned thousands of editions—some estimates put the total output at more than 8,000—until the blocks wore out and could no longer be used. When the piece was made in 1831, people could purchase a print at a price point Korenberg compares to a “double helping of soba noodles.”

In a video, Korenberg describes how scientific analysis of the three editions in The British Museum’s collection drew her closer to the 19th-century masterpiece. She commenced a search for all existing copies to try to establish a chronology based on the specific characteristics of each impression. At the time of filming, there were 111 known versions, and a further two have been uncovered since.


All images © The British Museum

How does one begin to sort through the chronology of a print? The blocks now long gone, Korenberg relied on tiny details in the images themselves, such as the quality or completeness of linear elements, plus the quality of color or alignment of different layers. She could begin to narrow down the states, which refers to impressions made when a key block—the first block to be carved that contains the outline of the composition—is added, removed, or altered.

Scholar Roger Keyes had researched the subject before 2007 and based his findings on the archival material available, often relying on low-resolution, black-and-white Polaroid photos. He initially devised a theory that “The Great Wave” included 21 states, characterized by breaks in the cartouche, signature, Mount Fuji, the boats, or the wave itself.

Through a painstaking compare-and-contrast process using the original pieces from the museum’s collection and additional high-resolution photos supplied by institutions around the world, Korenberg narrowed down the number of woodblock wear states to eight.  She also employed ultraviolet and infrared technologies to get a closer look at the coloration and how, over time, certain elements faded due to fugitive pigments. Her next challenge is to find out what the print looked like when it was newly pressed and pristine.

You can dig further into Korenberg’s research in her report, and you might also enjoy checking out Jason Kottke’s look at the evolution of “The Great Wave.”


a still from a short documentary about Hokusai's "The Great Wave" print, showing a the print on a blue background

a gif from a short documentary about Hokusai's "The Great Wave" print, showing hand grabbing some markers and making notes on a scan of the print

a still from a short documentary about Hokusai's "The Great Wave" print, showing a detail of a reproduced woodblock

a gif from a short documentary about Hokusai's "The Great Wave" print, showing hands moving scans of the print around on a table

#art history
#Katsushika Hokusai


Do stories and artists like this matter to you? Become a Colossal Member today and support independent arts publishing for as little as $5 per month. You’ll connect with a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about contemporary art, read articles and newsletters ad-free, sustain our interview series, get discounts and early access to our limited-edition print releases, and much more. Join now!