Chinoiserie (pronounced [ʃinwazʁi], derived from the French word Chinois, meaning "Chinese") is the European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the decorative arts, garden design, architecture, literature, theater, and musical performances. First appearing in the 17th century, this trend was popularized in the 18th century due to the rise in trade with China and East Asia. Chinoiserie pictorial art is characterized by asymmetry, an emphasis on the decorative, and a rejection of Renaissance illusionism. It offered an alternative to the Classical-revival and Baroque styles that were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Whimsical and light in subject matter and appearance, chinoiserie, similar to the Rococo style, provided an option for anyone who wanted to reject the more rigid classicist notions that were prominent.
Chinoiserie is sometimes considered as "feminine." Prevailing wisdom suggested that part of the appeal that chinoiserie held for women was that it could be appreciated by the "untutored eye." The understanding of its aesthetics did not require an education in philosophy or the classics. Chinoiserie decoration was more frequently confined to the private spaces of a house, for example bedrooms and dressing rooms. These spaces were more associated with women than the more public areas of reception rooms, dining rooms or libraries which were considered the territory of men or mixed company.
Chinoiserie was not universally popular. Some members of society saw the style as "…a retreat from reason and taste and a descent into a morally ambiguous world based on hedonism, sensation and values perceived to be feminine." It was viewed as lacking the logic and reason upon which Antique art had been founded. Architect and author Robert Morris claimed that it "…consisted of mere whims and chimera, without rules or order, it requires no fertility of genius to put into execution." Those with a more archaeological view of the East, considered the chinoiserie style, with its distortions and whimsical approach, to be a mockery of the actual Chinese art and architecture. Finally, still others believed that an interest in Chinoiserie indicated a pervading "cultural confusion" in European society.
Chinoiserie entered the European repertory in the mid-to-late 17th century; the work of Athanasius Kircher influenced the study of orientalism. The popularity of chinoiserie peaked around the middle of the 18th century, when it was easily assimilated into rococo by the works of François Boucher. It declined when it seemed to European eyes the antithesis of neoclassicism.
Chinoiserie is often expressed in the decorative arts of Europe, and its expression in architecture was entirely in the field of whimsical follies. By contrast, the serious transformations that Chinese models effected in the eighteenth century, on the plain style of Early Georgian English furniture, notable in the cabriole leg, or on the "naturalistic" style of English landscape gardening, to take two clear examples, are not considered instances of chinoiserie.
Chinoiserie has made a comeback since the late 20th century. Modern interpretations of chinoiserie incorporate modern design elements and techniques. Chinoiserie can be seen as in influence in many housewares throughout Europe and North America.
There were many reasons why chinoiserie gained such popularity in Europe in the 18th century. Europeans had a fascination with the exotic East due to their increased, but still restricted, access to new cultures through expanded trade with East Asia, especially China. The limited number of European first-hand experiences of East Asia and their restricted circulation created a level of mystification and misinformation that contributed to the mystification of East Asian cultures.
While Europeans frequently held inaccurate ideas about East Asian, this did not necessarily preclude their fascination and respect. In particular, the Chinese who had "exquisitely finished art... [and] whose court ceremonial was even more elaborate than that of Versailles" were viewed as highly civilized. According to Voltaire in his Art de la Chine, "The fact remains that four thousand years ago, when we did not know how to read, they [the Chinese] knew everything essentially useful of which we boast today." In other words, somewhere, on the other side of the world, there existed a culture so rich that it rivaled the civilizations of Rome and Greece. Chinoiserie created a juxtaposition between something new and exotic for Europeans while at the same time reflecting the values of the 4,000 year old culture from which these objects came.
From the Renaissance to the 18th century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. One of the earliest successful attempts, for instance, was the Medici porcelain manufactured in Florence during the late-16th century, as the Casino of San Marco remained open from 1575-1587. Despite never being commercial in nature, the next major attempt to replicate Chinese porcelain was the soft-paste manufactory at Rouen in 1673, with Edme Poterat, widely reputed as creator of the French soft-paste pottery tradition, opening his own factory in 1647. Efforts were eventually made to imitate hard-paste objects, which were held in high regard. As such, the direct imitation of Chinese designs in faience began in the late 17th century, was carried into European porcelain production, most naturally in tea wares, and peaked in the wave of rococo chinoiserie (c. 1740-1770).
Earliest hints of chinoiserie appear in the early 17th century, in the arts of the nations with active East India Companies, Holland and England, then by mid-17th century, in Portugal as well. Tin-glazed pottery (see delftware) made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century. After a book by Johan Nieuhof was published the 150 pictures encouraged chinoiserie, and became especially popular in the 18th century. Early ceramic wares at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain naturally imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and tea wares.
The ideas of the decorative and pictorial arts of the East permeated the European and American arts and craft scene. For example, in the United States, "by the mid-8th century, Charleston had imported an impressive array of Asian export luxury goods [such as]...paintings." The aspects of Chinese painting that were integrated into European and American visual arts include asymmetrical compositions, lighthearted subject matter and a general sense of capriciousness.
William Alexander (1767-1816), a British painter, illustrator and engraver who traveled to the East Asia and China in the 18th century, was directly influenced by the culture and landscape he saw in the East. He presented an idealized, romanticized depiction of Chinese culture, but he was influenced by "pre-established visual signs." While the Chinoiserie landscapes that Alexander depicted accurately reflected the landscape of China, "paradoxically, it is this imitation and repetition of the iconic signs of China that negate the very possibility of authenticity, and render them into stereotypes." The depiction of China and East Asia in European and American painting was dependent on the understanding of the East by Western preconceptions, rather than representations of Eastern culture as it actually was.
Various European monarchs, such as Louis XV of France, gave special favor to chinoiserie, as it blended well with the rococo style. Entire rooms, such as those at Château de Chantilly, were painted with chinoiserie compositions, and artists such as Antoine Watteau and others brought expert craftsmanship to the style. Pleasure pavilions in "Chinese taste" appeared in the formal parterres of late Baroque and Rococo German and Russian palaces, and in tile panels at Aranjuez near Madrid. Chinese Villages were built in Drottningholm, Sweden and Tsarskoe Selo, Russia. Thomas Chippendale's mahogany tea tables and china cabinets, especially, were embellished with fretwork glazing and railings, c. 1753 - 70, but sober homages to early Qing scholars' furnishings were also naturalized, as the tang evolved into a mid-Georgian side table and squared slat-back armchairs suited English gentlemen as well as Chinese scholars. Not every adaptation of Chinese design principles falls within mainstream chinoiserie. Chinoiserie media included "japanned" ware imitations of lacquer and painted tin (tôle) ware that imitated japanning, early painted wallpapers in sheets, after engravings by Jean-Baptiste Pillement, and ceramic figurines and table ornaments.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Europeans began to manufacture furniture that imitated Chinese lacquer furniture, It was frequently decorated with ebony and ivory or Chinese motifs such as pagodas. Thomas Chippendale helped to popularize the production of Chinoiserie furniture with the publication of his design book The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director: Being a large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture, In the Most Fashionable Taste. His designs provided a guide for intricate chinoiserie furniture and its decoration. His chairs and cabinets were often decorated with scenes of colorful birds, flowers, or images of exotic imaginary places. The compositions of this decoration were often asymmetrical.
The increased use wallpaper in European homes in the 18th century also reflects the general the fascination with Chinoiserie motifs. With the rise of the villa and a growing taste for sunlit interiors the popularity of wallpaper grew. John Cornforth notes that previously the, "light-absorbing textures of tapestry, velvet, and damask" were preferred but now the general interest was in light-reflecting decoration. The demand for wallpaper created by Chinese artists began first with European aristocrats between 1740 and 1790. The luxurious wallpaper available to them would have been unique, handmade, and expensive. Later wallpaper with chinoiserie motifs became accessible to the middle class when it could be printed and thus produced in a range of grades and prices.
The patterns on Chinoiserie wallpaper are similar to the pagodas, floral designs, and exotic imaginary scenes found on chinoiserie furniture and porcelain. Like chinoiserie furniture and other decorative art forms, chinoiserie wallpaper was typically placed in bedrooms, closets, and other private rooms of a house. The patterns on wallpaper were expected to complement the decorative objects and furniture in a room, creating a complementary backdrop.
Architecture and gardens
European understanding of Chinese and East Asian garden design is exemplified by the use of the word Sharawadgi, meaning beauty, without order that takes the form of an aesthetically pleasing irregularity in landscape design. The origins of the word remain obscure. Originally, it was thought to be derived from a Japanese word for asymmetry. Sir William Temple (1628-1699) introduces the term sharawadgi in his essay Upon the Gardens of Epicurus written in 1685 and published in 1690. Under Temple’s influence European gardeners and landscape designers used the concept of sharawadgi to create gardens that were believed to reflect the asymmetry and naturalism present in the gardens of the East.
These gardens often contain various fragrant plants, flowers and trees, decorative rocks, ponds or lake with fish, and twisting pathways. They are frequently enclosed by a wall. Architectural features placed in these gardens often include pagodas, ceremonial halls used for celebrations or holidays, pavilions with flowers and seasonal elements.
Landscapes such as London’s Kew Gardens show distinct Chinese influence in architecture. A monumental 163-foot pagoda in the center of the garden designed and built by William Chambers exhibits strong English architectural elements, resulting in a product of combined cultures (Bald, 290). A replica of which was built in Munich's Englischer Garten. Though the rise of a more serious approach in Neoclassicism from the 1770s onward tended to replace Oriental inspired designs, at the height of Regency "Grecian" furnishings, the Prince Regent came down with a case of Brighton Pavilion, and Chamberlain's Worcester china manufactory imitated "Imari" wares. While classical styles reigned in the parade rooms, upscale houses, from Badminton House (where the "Chinese Bedroom" was furnished by William and John Linnell, ca 1754) and Nostell Priory to Casa Loma in Toronto, sometimes feature an entire guest room decorated in the chinoiserie style, complete with Chinese-styled bed, phoenix-themed wallpaper, and china. Later exoticisms added imaginary Turkish themes, where a "diwan" became a sofa.
Tea and chinoiserie
One of the things that contributed to the popularity of chinoiserie was the 18th-century vogue for tea drinking. The feminine and domestic culture of drinking tea required an appropriate chinoiserie mise en scène. According to Beevers, "Tea drinking was a fundamental part of polite society; much of the interest in both Chinese export wares and chinoiserie rose from the desire to create appropriate settings for the ritual of tea drinking." After 1750, England was importing 10,000,000 pounds of tea annually, demonstrating how widespread this practice was. The taste for chinoiserie porcelain, both export wares and European imitations, and tea drinking was more associated with women than men. A number of aristocratic and socially important women were famous collectors of chinoiserie porcelain, among them Queen Mary, Queen Anne, Henrietta Howard, and the Duchess of Queensbury, all socially important women. This is significant because their homes served as examples of good taste and sociability. A single historical incident in which there was a "keen competition between Margaret, 2nd Duchess of Portland, and Elizabeth, Countess of Ilchester, for a Japanese blue and white plate," shows how wealthy female consumers asserted their purchasing power and their need to play a role in creating the prevailing vogue.
Persistence of chinoiserie after the 18th century
Chinoiserie persisted into the 19th and 20th centuries but declined in popularity. There was a notable loss of interest in Chinese-inspired décor after the death in 1830 of King George IV, a great proponent of the style. The First Opium War of 1839-1842 between Britain and China disrupted trade and caused a further decline of interest in the Oriental. China closed its doors to exports and imports and for many people chinoiserie became a fashion of the past.
As British-Chinese relations stabilized towards the end of the 19th Century, there was a revival of interest in chinoiserie. Prince Albert, for example, reallocated many chinoiserie works from George IV’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton to the more accessible Buckingham Palace. The renewed interest in chinoiserie allowed the declining aristocracy to be reminded of their past power, while also signaling their feigned importance in British modern society. Chinoiserie served to remind Britain of its former colonial glory that was rapidly fading with the modern era.
While interest in China was somewhat renewed at the turn of the century, European taste turned with increasing enthusiasm to Japanese crafts, culture, design and visual art. After its isolation ended in the mid-19th century, the Japanese aesthetic was no longer seen as part of the generalized chinoiserie style but more precisely, as something individual with its own discrete characteristics. Japonisme eventually replaced chinoiserie as the favored East Asian style for Westerners and its popularity persisted well into the 20th century. Nevertheless, the exhibition China through the Looking Glass, which explored the profound impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashions and design, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from May 7 to September 7 of 2015, indicates that interest in chinoiserie persists.
The term is also used in literary criticism to describe a mannered "Chinese-esque" style of writing, such as that employed by Ernest Bramah in his Kai Lung stories, Barry Hughart in his Master Li & Number Ten Ox novels and Stephen Marley in his Chia Black Dragon series.
References and sources
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- Beevers, David (2009). Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain, 1650-1930. Brighton: Royal Pavilion & Museums. p. 19. ISBN 0948723718.
- Porter, David L. (2002). "Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth- Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste.". American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies 53.3: 395–411. Retrieved September 20, 2015.
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- Shimada, Takau (Aug 1997). "Is Sharawadgi Derived from the Japanese Word Sorowaji?". The Review of English Studies. 48.191: 350–352.
- William Temple. "Upon the Gardens of Epicurus; or Of Gardening in the Year 1685." In Miscellanea, the Second Part, in Four Essays. Simpson, 1690
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- Gelber, Harry G (2004). Opium, Soldiers and Evangelicals: England's 1840-42 War with China and its Aftermath. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403907004.
- Marley rejects the chinoiserie label in favour of his own term, "Chinese Gothic".
- Calasibetta, Charlotte Mankey; Tortora, Phyllis (2010). The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (PDF). New York: Fairchild Books. ISBN 978-1-56367-973-5. Retrieved 2011-02-17.
- Eerdmans, Emily (2006). "The International Court Style: William & Mary and Queen Anne: 1689-1714, The Call of the Orient". Classic English Design and Antiques: Period Styles and Furniture; The Hyde Park Antiques Collection. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. pp. 22–25. ISBN 978-0-8478-2863-0.
- Honour, Hugh (1961). Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay. London: John Murray.
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