An elegant perennial that blooms for a long period of time, and with a pure fragrance, the chrysanthemum is a flower of high status.
In the Japanese imagination, luxurious clusters of chrysanthemums (kiku) immediately call to mind Kikujido (The Boy with the Chrysanthemums), who became an immortal by writing the words of the Lotus Sutra on chrysanthemum leaves in a beautiful valley brimming with flowers. From popular woodblock prints to Noh dance, this auspicious theme of longevity, adapted from Chinese legend, had wide appeal in Edo-period Japan. The boy dancing with mums became a trope for purity.
Chrysanthemums are emblematic of autumn and the ninth month. In early Japanese poetry they may conjure dark overtones of sadness, mortality and impermanence. But there is also the opposite side of the coin—brilliant colors and the elixir of immortality associated with chrysanthemum wine. This seasonal drink is said to have wholesome effects on sharpness of the eye, alleviation of headache, drop of hypertension and weight reduction, thus contributing to longevity. An age-old tradition in China is to climb to a high place on the ninth day of the ninth month, or the Double Ninth, to eat and drink with family and friends and enjoy the autumn scenery, especially chrysanthemums. Drinking chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth is said to promote good health and prolong life.
Here, the rainbow-colored array of blossoms—a cornucopia verging on excess—suggests conspicuous wealth. The clusters of blossoms are yellow, white, red and orange, but also shades of pink, violet and purple—the colors preferred by gardeners. (Some flowers even appear blue, although the world’s first true blue chrysanthemums were only created in 2017 when Japanese scientists combined the DNA of three plants.)
Golden clouds—perhaps a band of mist—drift along the bottom, obscuring the immediate foreground. Both screens feature a beautifully crafted, low bamboo fence. Look closely and you will also discover prickly brushwood hedges, highlighted with a slightly greenish-gold color, located both behind and in front of the fences. Artfully bound together, the individual sticks and twigs are painstakingly modeled in relief to create an interesting texture. Clusters of blossoms, some built up in relief, are planted in front of, between and behind the hedges, a complex layering to suggest depth. Blooms hang over the fences, or tower behind, in rhythmic sequences. Clumps of spiky, dark-green bamboo grass accentuate the foreground.
The artist, Kano Tsunenobu, is not a household name, unlike his famous and influential uncle, Kano Tan’yu (1602–1674). He was the eldest son of Kano Naonobu (1607–1650), who was a younger brother of Tan’yu. Naonobu worked in Edo (Tokyo) for the Tokugawa shogunate and was granted property there in Tatekawacho. Tsunenobu was only fifteen when he became head of the Tatekawacho lineage of Kano artists upon his father’s untimely and somewhat mysterious death. Tan’yu then took him on and tutored him, teaching him to sketch from life, not only plants but fish, insects and birds. Judging by the signature on these screens, which lacks the honorific title hokkyo (“bridge of the Law”) conferred upon Tsunenobu in 1704, the painting predates that year.
Tsunenobu was well versed in Chinese studies and the work of ancient masters. And he loved poetry. He was also well connected socially, collaborating with the likes of the cultivated Kyoto nobleman Konoe Iehiro (1667–1736). An album of Tsunenobu’s paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has an inscription on its wood storage box indicating that it was once in the possession of Iehiro.
It is possible that a courtier among Tsunenobu’s circle of friends commissioned this dazzling pair of golden screens. We are presumably gazing at the well-tended garden of a member of the uppermost elite. Seated on the host’s verandah, we await our cup of wine.