Chinoiserie (17th/18th Century)
In visual art, the term "Chinoiserie" ("Chinese-like") describes the pseudo-Chinese decorative style which flourished in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In effect a sort of populist Chinese art, it was based on a fanciful European interpretation of 'Chinese' styles, taken from countries all over East Asia, including China, Korea and Japan. Similar to the breadth of the later Japonism movement - the 19th century fashion for Japanese art - Chinoiserie motifs (including dragons, pagodas, figures, landscapes) were introduced into numerous different types of art, including: architecture, interior design, ceramic art, textiles and silks, fine art painting, as well as decorative art and a variety of crafts. Emerging during the era of Baroque art, Chinese-style objects and designs achieved their greatest appeal during the period of Rococo art at the court of Louis XV, around 1750-70, before fading with the revival of Neoclassicism. Notable examples of Chinoiserie include: the Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles Palace; the Chinese House in the gardens of the Sanssouci Palace at Potsdam; William Chambers' Pagoda at Kew Gardens; and the painting entitled "The Chinese Garden" (Le Jardin chinois) (1742, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon) by Francois Boucher, as well as widespread attempts by European craftsmen to imitate Chinese pottery and lacquerware.
Trade routes were opened between Europe (Venice) and China during the 13th century. The resultant interest in Chinese products led to early instances of Italian Chinoiserie in the form of 14th century silks made at the Lucca silk factories, and blue-and-white porcelain being produced in the late 16th century at the Medici porcelain works. However, the term Chinoiserie is traditionally applied to objects produced in the 17th and, more especially, the 18th centuries.
The main Chinese-style motifs used by Western artists, craftsmen and designers when creating Chinoiserie decorations, included images (either copied from Chinese goods or dreamt up by the designer) from at least ten categories, including: (1) Chinese men and women, dressed in Chinese costumes and hats; (2) Chinese faces, typically with pig-tails and Fu-Manchu beards; (3) Dragons - in all sizes and colours; (4) Pagodas of all shapes and sizes, with their characteristic roofs and multi-tier structures; (5) Chinese water gardens, with their typical hump-backed bridges and weeping willows; (6) Chinese-style landscapes of all types including typical arrangements of mountains, trees and mist; (7) Chinese-style vegetations, such as pink and white lotus leaves, bamboo plants; (8) Lacquered furniture and decorative objects, including cabinets, chests, boxes and screens; (9) Porcelain pottery, especially blue-and-white ware, including plates, bowls, vases and urns; (10) Chinese-style calligraphic symbols or script.
Of course, as alluded to above, most European consumers were quite unable to distinguish Chinese from Korean or Japanese imagery. For them, the attraction of Chinoiserie lay in its Far Eastern exoticism. For a brief comparison between Asian arts and crafts from different countries, compare Traditional Chinese Art with Korean Art (from 3,000 BCE) and Japanese culture (from 14,500 BCE). Contrast the architectural designs of Chinese Palace pagodas with South-East Asian models, such as the Angkor Wat Khmer Temple (1145) in Cambodia, or the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (1029) in India.
In the field of architecture, Chinoiserie commonly took the form of garden pavilions - such as those that ornament the gardens of late Baroque and Rococo palaces in Germany, Sweden and Russia. One of the most famous examples is the Chinese House at Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam - a Chinoiserie-style pavilion designed by Johann Gottfried Buring (1755-64), to decorate Frederick the Great's flower and vegetable garden. It was built using a mixture of architectural elements taken from Rococo art and Chinese architecture.
In England, in 1759, when creating the botanical gardens at Kew, on the western outskirts of London, Dowager Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (1719-72) commissioned the architect William Chambers (1723-1796) to build a number of exotic buildings, including a Chinese pagoda. This building - still the most celebrated example of Chinoiserie in England - started a fashion for Chinese-style gardens around the country.
Further north, several entire "Chinese Villages" were built in Drottningholm, Sweden and Tsarskoe Selo, Russia.
One of the best examples of Chinoiserie in interior design is the Chinese Room designed about 1775 in the Museum Geelvinck-Hinlopen - a canal-side mansion in Amsterdam. The room has eight Rococo wallpaper panels decorated with Chinese motifs, fantasy flowers and birds. The artist, also used engravings by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728-1808), noted for his Chinese-style designs.
The most elaborate surviving Chinoiserie interior in England is the Chinese Room at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. Designed in 1769 by Luke Lightfoot, almost the entire room is a fantastic melange of Chinese fretwork, carved pagodas, temples and bells, ornamented with oriental scrolls and swirls, reaching a decorative crescendo in a temple-like canopy, which originally would have contained a bed, and the tea-alcove.
From the quattrocento (1400-1500) to the 18th century Western designers tried everything they knew to replicate the manufacture of Chinese porcelain, with only limited success. One of the earliest attempts was the Medici porcelain produced in Florence during the late cinquecento (1575-87). Other attempts were made in the mid-17th century by Edme Poterat at the soft-paste factory at Rouen. However, nothing definitive was achieved until 1708, when the German Meissen scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) succeeded in making a hard, white, translucent type of porcelain. At any rate, porcelain or similar-looking China - especially the blue and white porcelain associated with the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644) - remained a constant feature of Chinoiserie.
The earliest examples of Chinoiserie motifs appearing in oil painting are the porcelain bowls and vases seen in still life painting by Dutch Realists such as Willem Kalf (1619-93) and Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83). These distinctive and exotic objects were typically incorporated into moralistic Vanitas painting, examples of which include: Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar (1669, Indianapolis Museum of Art), and Still-Life with a Nautilus Cup (1660, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), both by Kalf; and A Table of Desserts (1640, Louvre, Paris) by de Heem.
In the 18th century, during the era of Rococo art at the French court, the painters Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Francois Boucher (1703-1770) created a number of paintings using Chinese-style themes and features. An excellent example is The Chinese Garden (Le Jardin chinois) (1742, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon) by Boucher.
One of the best known exponents of Chinoiserie is the English classical architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). Chambers travelled widely in the East in his youth, visiting the great Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou) and other cities. In 1757, he published his observations in his book "Designs of Chinese Buildings" which contained his observations. Two years later he built a number of Chinese-style structures in Kew Gardens. Neither the aviary, bridge or pagoda, were based on real Chinese examples, but Chambers did manage to create a much closer imitation of authentic Chinese architecture than his contemporaries.
Jean Pillement (1728-1808)
William Linnell (1703-1763) and
John Linnell (1729-1796)
For more about Chinese arts and crafts, please see the following articles:
Jade Carving in China (c.4900 BCE onwards).
Chinese Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE).
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (c.100-present).
Chinese Painting (Characteristics, Aesthetics).
Chinese Painters (c.220-present).
Art Appreciation Resources
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