The Great Wave 2, Courbet to Gauguin

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), 神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa oki nami ura (The Great Wave off Kanagawa) (Edo, 1830-32), woodblock print, 25.7 x 37.9 cm, Tokyo National Museum 東京国立博物館, Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

In the previous of these two articles, I looked at European paintings of near-breaking ‘regular’ or “surfer’s” waves prior to 1850, and the appearance of Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which became so popular in Japan.

No one knows when Hokusai’s Great Wave first appeared in Europe. Although it’s sometimes claimed that this didn’t happen until the re-opening of Japan to the West with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there are records of the first ukiyo-e prints reaching the hands of artists in France more than a decade earlier.

They appear to have first arrived as protective wrapping for porcelain, and in about 1856 the French artist Félix Bracquemond, also an accomplished print-maker, first came across Hokusai’s prints at the workshop of his printer. Japonism(e) spread rapidly through artistic circles in Paris and other European cities. Among those who collected these prints were Bracquemond, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Édouard Manet, and Paul Gauguin.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Autumn Sea (1867), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Ohara Museum of Art 大原美術館, Kurashiki, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1860s, Gustave Courbet’s coastal paintings came to concentrate more on the waves breaking on the beach, as in his Autumn Sea from 1867.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Wave (1869), oil, dimensions not known, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Then in 1869 Courbet painted a breaking ‘regular’ wave which must surely have at least been influenced by Hokusai’s popular print.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Waves (c 1870), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 92.5 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Appropriately, this development of the motif, in Courbet’s Waves from about 1870, is now in Tokyo, where it should perhaps be exhibited alongside Hokusai’s Great Wave.

Vilhelm Melbye (1824–1882) (attr), Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 × 112 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Although I don’t have a date for this fine painting of Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse, and it has only been attributed to Anton Melbye’s younger brother Vilhelm, this too is likely to be post-Hokusai. At the right is a fine breaking wave.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Memory (1870), oil on panel, 51.6 x 37.5 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

It’s hard to judge the scale in Elihu Vedder’s Memory from 1870, but its waves appear much smaller, though beautifully regular. This remarkable painting is one of the earliest symbolist images made by an American artist, and is part a response to Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break (1842), in which he ponders the memory of loved ones when contemplating the sea. I feel sure that Vedder had at least glimpsed a Hokusai print too.

Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Seals on the Rocks, Farallon Islands (c 1872-73), oil on canvas, 66 x 91.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The great American landscape artist Albert Bierstadt only painted about thirty coastal views out of a total of around five hundred catalogued paintings, but at least three of them show breaking regular waves. In May 1872, he visited the Farallon Islands, a group of uninhabited rocks thirty miles to the west of San Francisco, responding with his dramatic Seals on the Rocks, Farallon Islands (c 1872-73).

Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (1878), oil on canvas, 163.8 × 108 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Bierstadt’s wife was diagnosed with ‘consumption’ in 1876, and the following year the couple visited Nassau in the Bahamas, where they hoped the warmer climate would help her condition. During that visit, Bierstadt was inspired to paint The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (1878), showing a wave breaking on the coast there: surely a direct reference to Courbet and Hokusai. Bierstadt also painted a second, larger development from this work after 1878, now exhibited in the Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA, as After a Norther.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Seaweed Gatherers I (1888-90), gouache and graphite on grey board, 27.6 × 32.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In France, the mainstream Impressionists and their successors seemed less impressed with Hokusai, preferring other Japonist themes such as tree blossom. The Great Wave found greater enthusiasm with Paul Gauguin and his circle who gathered first in Pont-Aven then Le Pouldu in Brittany. Gauguin’s gouache Seaweed Gatherers I (1888-90) shows two Breton women gathering seaweed on the beach. Behind them is a huge wave, its spume formed into a claw, which could only have come from Hokusai.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), In the Waves, or Ondine (I) (1889), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 72.4 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1889, Gauguin painted two works showing Ondine in the sea among waves. The first, known now as In the Waves, or Ondine (I), also refers to Hokusai.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Cannon Rock (1895), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 101.6 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Like JMW Turner before, Winslow Homer’s many paintings of the sea tend to depict waves for effect rather than their form. One of the few paintings in which he has formed a breaking wave regularly is this showing Cannon Rock, which he made in his nearby studio on the Maine coast.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896), oil on panel, 66 × 150 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1896, Great Waves swept across Europe on many canvases. Arnold Böcklin’s retelling of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus shows Odysseus’ crew rowing frantically out to sea, through large waves, as Polyphemus prepares to hurl a huge rock at them from the shore.

Henry Moret (1856–1913), Waves at Pen-men, Île de Groix, (1896), oil on canvas, 73.3 x 92.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Henry Moret, one of the Pont-Aven school, found his Waves at Pen-men, Île de Groix, on the far western tip of the island of Groix, with the mountainous sea for which this part of the Bay of Biscay is notorious.

Georges Lacombe (1868–1916), Vorhor, The Green Wave (1896), egg tempera on canvas, 100 x 72 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Image by Zambonia, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Nabi sculptor, and painter from Gauguin’s school, Georges Lacombe took Hokusai’s motif forward in several of his paintings. This is his treatment of Vorhor, The Green Wave in egg tempera, which shows an Atlantic swell coming into the seacliffs of Vorhor near Camaret-sur-Mer in Brittany.

Georges Lacombe (1868–1916), The Violet Wave (1896-97), oil on canvas, 62.5 x 47.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Lacombe’s slightly later The Violet Wave also makes its influence abundantly clear.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), The Wave (1896), oil on canvas, 121 x 160.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In that same year, even the notorious academic artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau joined Hokusai’s crowd of admirers, in The Wave.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905), Off the Coast of Cornwall (1904), oil on canvas, 55.9 × 91.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

My last example of a post-Hokusai Great Wave is one of the late marine paintings of William Trost Richards: Off the Coast of Cornwall from 1904. In its impeccably-painted breakers are the spirits of Bierstadt, Courbet, and Hokusai.

A very Great Wave indeed.