With flowers in shades of gold, copper and red, echoing the tones of autumn foliage, chrysanthemums reach their peak in November. As short day plants, chrysanthemums produce their spectacular blooms in response to decreasing day lengths and longer nights, providing an especially welcome sight at the end of the growing season.
The chrysanthemum has been celebrated in Japan for centuries, long associated with the imperial family whose symbol is a golden chrysanthemum flower. From the 17th to 19th century, chrysanthemums were the focus of intensive development amongst Japanese horticulturalists and hundreds of new cultivars were created.
In her series of woodcuts entitled One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika (1893), the Japanese artist Keika Hasegawa captures the astonishing variety of their forms. Published as a book in three volumes, and with an entire page dedicated to each chrysanthemum cultivar, Hasegawa’s powers of observation are matched by her extraordinary skills in depicting these flowers.
Many chrysanthemums show their strongest colour on the top side of their petals, contrasting with a paler tone on the underside. The curving nature of the petal sometimes allows both colours to be visible at the same time, an effect Hasegawa captures perfectly. She also observes the way the petals of some varieties curl inwards along their length to form tight quills, giving the flowers a spiky shape. Other blooms reveals startling colour breaks, as if one half had been dipped in pigment. The petals of another white chrysanthemum appear to be rolled up along their length.
One single yellow flower is shown supported by a paper collar, keeping the petals flat and preventing them from arching downwards, perhaps suggesting this bloom was being prepared for exhibition. As well as the detail of the flowers, Hasegawa records the distinctive curved shape of their veined, dark green leaves, and their somewhat coarse texture.
In the latter half of the 19th century chrysanthemums with enormous blooms, as much as 20cm across were introduced in Japan. In the second volume of her series, Hasegawa occasionally represents a flower horizontally across two facing pages, suggesting the scale of these super-sized specimens.
Today the chrysanthemum still takes centre stage in the autumn months in Japan, when Kikatenrankai, or specialist shows and exhibitions dedicated to these flowers take place. As well as single specimens, some chrysanthemum plants are encouraged to branch and produce a mass of flowers supported by central wheels. Others form cascades, as if growing over the edge of a cliff, and there are even bonsai chrysanthemums. All these forms demonstrate the precision and control of the grower, a strong theme in traditional Japanese gardening.
Sadly, I’ve been able to discover very little about the life of the artist, Keika Hasegawa. The British Museum (from whose online collection these images are taken) was kind enough to check Japanese online sources, but these yielded no details of Kasegawa’s dates, her training or information about her process. The University of Otago in New Zealand which has a book of textile designs by Hasegawa in its collection records only that ‘the artist flourished c. 1893-1905’.
It’s my hope that in future more details about Keika Hasegawa’s career will come to light, providing some context for her extraordinary work. Until then, I would encourage everyone to marvel at One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika – links to all three volumes below:
Vols 1 & 2 of One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika at the British Museum online collection here
Vols 2 & 3 of One Hundred Chrysanthemums by Keika at Smithsonian Libraries here
64 colourful printed textile patterns produced by the Japanese artist Keika Hasegawa, University of Otago here
Kikatenrankai – Chrysanthemum Exhibition or Festival taking place in Japan in October and November – an illustrated description here
Profile of the Chrysanthemum on Wikipedia here