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The First Warbles of Spring

Scene from Tale of Genji Chapter 23, “Hatsune (First Warbler)”, 1890
Yōshū Chikanobu (Japanese, 1838-1912); Tokyo, Japan
Woodblock print on paper; 21 1/2 x 33 in.
Gift of Mr. William Drell
Tale of the Equinox

Spring is in the air! The spring equinox, which occurred Tuesday, March 20th, provides the possibility for rebirth, renewal, and regrowth. In this oban tryptich, a triple print of ink on paper, the Japanese artist, Yōshū Chikanobu (1838-1912), provides an abundance of floral blooms and greenery in the form of the silk worn by two young women. Embedded with elements of symbolic significance as well, this scene of the first day of spring from Chikanobu’s illustrations of the Tale of Genji reflects the vitality and lightheartedness the budding season can bring.
Yōshū Chikanobu, also known as Toyohara Chikanobu, was born Hashimoto Naoyoshi in 1838. As was customary for a child raised in a samurai family, he studied painting and calligraphy alongside swordplay. When the Meiji Revolution arose, Naoyoshi fought in the battles of the Boshin War on behalf of the dying samurai class where he was commended as a war hero for his bravery. After the loss against the insurmountable Imperial forces, Naoyoshi travelled to the newly renamed Tokyo and began a career as an artist. He studied under Toyohara Kunichika and following an old tradition changed his name to Toyohara Chikanobu. Though he was a masterful painter, he became enamored with ukiyo-e woodblock printing. His first works were tempered by the scenes of combat he had witnessed which depict famous battles and historical events. Later in life, his focus turned to a variety of subjects that often reflected the Westernization of Japan, including current events, kabuki actors, and perhaps his most recognized print subject—women.
Depiction of the Ganhwa Island incident by Chikanobu, c. 1875
Printed Fashion
During a time when Western styles and values were increasingly permeating Japanese society, Chikanobu often illustrated his interest in Japanese women’s traditional fashion. His attention to detail regarding appropriate fashions for the time period he was depicting was one of the things he was best known for. In the Bowers Museum's print, two young women model this expertise, casually reclining on tatami. Their furisode robes are the most formal style of brightly-colored, long-sleeved silk kimono worn by young unmarried women in Japan. The woman in the foreground wears a yukata covered with peonies which is symbolic of the spring season, high honor, and good fortune. Behind her, a woman wears a black robe wrapped in wisteria, a flower of mystery and beauty. The vibrant floral motif saturating the majority of the image reflects the feminine vitality of the young women in a moment of lighthearted, youthful amusement.
Another of Chikanobu's scenes from the Tale of Genji
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The 23rd Genjimon, Hatsune.
To the right of the women is a small lamp covered in rich, symbolic imagery: the ginko leaf is symbolic of longevity and endurance, and a frequent motif among Japanese decorative arts; the sprig of yellow chrysanthemum at the object’s base is a flower highly regarded in Japanese culture for its beauty, elegance, and representation of strength and pleasure; and serving as the keystone of the entire triptych is the red Genjimon symbol resting just below the upper lip of the lamp. There are 54 Genjimon, each associated with the 54 chapters of the 11th century classic Japanese novel, the Tale of Genji. The story depicts the complex romantic escapades of Prince Genji amongst the splendor, refinement, and sophistications of life in the imperial court, setting the tone for appropriate behavior and aesthetics among the social classes of Japanese society. Today the book is revered in Japan as a literary masterpiece, conveying spring-like themes of fleeting pleasure, the beauty of impermanence, and the relationship between nature and human emotions. The Genjimon in Chikanobu’s print is the one for Chapter 23, titled “Hatsune,” or “The First Day of Spring.” The scene is likely one of the moments of respite shared within by Genji’s daughters and their ladies-in-waiting.
Floating World has Sprung
Independent of their roles in the Tale of Genji, the enjoyment the figures show amid the vibrant flourish of their attire echoes the energy and vivacity arriving with the new season. As we head deeper into the ever-sunnier skies of spring, be sure take similar breaks to enjoy the floating world Chikanobu depicted!

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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