Nature has many wonderful forms, of which the near-breaking or “surfer’s” wave is one of the most fascinating. Unless you were an artist in central Europe who didn’t get out much, chances are that you would have witnessed these forms, even if their scale wasn’t so impressive.
This article and its sequel tomorrow look briefly at the depiction of the near-breaking ‘regular’ wave in painting. Unlike almost every motif in art, this divides neatly into two around a single work: Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print of The Great Wave of Kanagawa first made in about 1830-31, but not seen in Europe until the latter half of that century.
Water waves were among the earliest physical phenomena to be painted, in the ancient and classical civilisations around the Mediterranean, which provided an endless source of models. Although those artists must have seen ‘regular’ near-breaking waves, they don’t really appear in paintings until they became more strictly realist in the middle of the eighteenth century. Prior to that, waves generally appear confused: impressive, atmospheric, but lacking that characteristically beautiful form.
As far as I can see, it was the marine painter Claude Joseph Vernet who first made a serious attempt at capturing the form, here in A Storm on a Mediterranean Coast from 1767. He has grasped all their essential features, such as their increasing transparency towards the crest, and their breaking, and I think these look thoroughly convincing.
Painstakingly careful realism, even if cast romantically, was also Géricault’s hallmark in his monumental painting of The Raft of the Medusa completed in 1818-19 and exhibited exactly two centuries ago. Right behind the makeshift raft with its desperate survivors is a superb depiction of one of these waves, which must have come from personal observation on the part of the artist.
For an artist who throughout his career painted some marvellous marine works, JMW Turner is a bit of a surprise, and seems to have had a career-long aversion to painting such regular waves. In his early watercolour of the Bell Rock Lighthouse from 1819, the waves are furiously irregular. In most if not all of his marine paintings, Turner opts for effect over form, and the water is often vague – a word which coincidentally is the French for wave.
Perhaps the closest that Turner comes to painting the form of a regular wave is in his Wreckers from 1833-4, where a breaker runs diagonally from the lower right up to the centre.
Contrast Turner’s rich effect with John Martin’s emphasis on the form of waves, in his Destruction of Tyre (1840), seen unusually along rather than facing into the breakers.
Another artist who placed great emphasis on accurate form is the prolific marine painter of the nineteenth century Ivan or Hovhannes Aivazovsky. His best-known painting The Ninth Wave from 1850 contains a visual reference collection of wave forms, lightly influenced by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. The detail below shows how carefully-rendered these waves are.
Its title derives from the belief that waves occur in trains of nine, progressively increasing in size to the ninth wave. Some nautical traditions claim that the number is seven rather than nine, and although there is some underlying evidence to support wave trains, inevitably real life is not as regular.
Japan’s eastern seaboard is exposed to the Pacific Ocean, which despite its name is often far from being pacific, with large waves generated by frequent storms. They had been depicted in Japanese art since the sixteenth century, forming their own sub-genre of painted screens known as ariso byōbu, or ‘rough seas screens’.
In about 1797, the woodblock print-maker Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) (1760–1849) started to develop motifs from this theme, with his print of Springtime in Enoshima. Here the small and densely-vegetated island of Enoshima is seen at the end of its sand spit, with the snowy cone of Fuji in the far distance. Just about to crash on the beach is a ‘regular’ wave, and a precursor to the most famous Japanese work of art in the West.
By about 1803, Hokusai’s attention had moved further south and east along the coast to another island, Kanagawa, from which he made this print of a View of Honmoku off Kanagawa. The wave has grown into a monster, its talons reaching out from the crest at a cargo vessel sailing along its trough. Two years later came the parent of his most famous print, then in around 1830 he struck gold.
Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (Edo, 1830-32) was included in the collection Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and proved popular not only in its home market, but also in Europe, when it arrived there more than twenty years later.
That wasn’t the last of Hokusai’s versions of this motif either: a few years later it appeared as The Big Wave in his 100 Views of Mount Fuji.
Other masters of ukiyo-e took up this theme too: Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) (1797–1858) was one of the last. In this view of The Seven-Ri Beach, from about 1835, looking towards Enoshima and Fuji from the east, he includes a similar ‘regular’ wave just about to break on a small group of people.
In the next and concluding article, I will show how Hokusai’s Great Wave influenced European and American art.