Chikanobu executed this series of triptychs depicting court ladies from the Edo period (1603-1868) engaged in gentile activities such as playing the koto or, in this case, enjoying the chrysanthemums in autumn. The flower itself would immediately have indicated the season to the viewer.
The lady in the right print stands near an arrangement of white, orange, pink and red chrysanthemums in what looks to be a large pentagonal ceramic pot. One face (rightward) is decorated with a wave pattern called seigaiha (literally “blue ocean wave”) of stacked semi-circles. The other visible face (leftward) is decorated in a kikkou ni hanabishi, or “a flower crest in a tortoise-shell” pattern. The flower inside the hexagon is a stylized caltrop (Trapa japonica). A white ceramic rabbit sits next to the pot, possibly attatched to it. Around the pot yellow pom-pom (also known as “ping-pong”) chrysanthemums are growing. To the lady’s left is a woven bamboo fence (chikusaku).
The lady in this right print is wearing an elaborately designed purple kimono with wave and flower patterns. She looks over her shoulder at the woman in the center print and gestures with at her blue folding fan (sensu), as if to make a point. Faint white chrysanthemums bloom in the background.
Chrysanthemums were symbols of longevity, although beginning in the Meiji period, they came to symbolize the Imperial Family. Under the Meiji Constitution, for example, only the Emperor of Japan could use the Imperial Seal, a stylized crest of a sixteen-petal chrysanthemum.
Historical Background: After an extended policy of isolation in which trading was limited and foreign travel was forbidden; Japan was forced to open foreign trade with the West in 1859 and sign unfavorable treaties because of its inferior military technologies. Post-1868, the new, emperor-headed government embarked on a nationwide effort to adopt Western institutional structures and ideologies, and thus enter into an age of “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika). By changing Japanese society to fit Western definitions of a cultured nation, the Japanese government hoped to improve its power within Western trade treaties. Thus, every aspect of pre-Meiji period Japanese culture was critically examined by government bureaucrats, intellectuals, the rising group of students of Western thought (yogakusha), and even commoners. Often these groups concluded that native cultural norms should be discarded in favor of existing Western equivalents. Others, however, reacted critically or nostalgically to the sweeping technological and societal changes this ideology provoked; these individuals argued for the value of traditions, worldviews, and customs of the Edo era and for their preservation into the future. In the late 1880s in particular, a wave of nostalgia for the former Edo period swept over the populace. Chikanobu capitalized on this national sentiment by producing prints depicting women engaging in traditional activities or extoling long-established virtues such as filial piety. This triptych, as well as the series to which it belongs, is part of his nostalgic repertoire.
Mark & Seal Notes:
Special Printing Techniques: Embossing (karazuri “blind printing”) found on the lady’s white under-kimono (nagajyuban). Its collar and folds revealed near the woman’s feet are decorated with the sayagata pattern, which is formed by altering the Buddist symbol of the manji, or swastika form. There are also thin karazuri lines on the petals of the group of three white chrysanthemums in the pot (near the left edge). Karazuri is achieved when an uninked block with the desired pattern carved into it is pressed into the paper.