Chinoiserie from China - The exotic appeal, and great expense, of imported Chinese wares inspired European craftsmen of the 17th and 18th century to use oriental motifs and details in creating their own hybrid style. Fine products from China, and in particular silks, porcelain and lacquer, have found their way into Europe from Roman times, but the journey cross-country along the famous silk road via Samarkand to the Middle East was a hazardous one, and it was only when Portuguese navigators discovered the sea route around Africa to China in the 16th century that trade began to open up.

 

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Chinoiserie from China


UNDERSTANDING CHINOISERIE

 The exotic appeal - and great expense - of imported Chinese wares inspired European craftsmen of the 17th and 18th century to use oriental motifs and details in creating their own hybrid style.

 Fine products from China, and in particular silks, porcelain and lacquer, have found their way into Europe from Roman times, but the journey cross-country along the famous silk road via Samarkand to the Middle East was a hazardous one, and it was only when Portuguese navigators discovered the sea route around Africa to China in the 16th century that trade began to open up.

 In the 16th century, Oriental trade remained primarily a Portuguese affair, but in the 17th century the Dutch, operating through the Dutch East India Company, were responsible for bringing Chinese wares, particularly porcelain, round the Cape of Good Hope to sell to the aristocrats of Northern Europe.

 In the 18th century, the English East India Company took over, bringing tea and spices as well as less perishable luxury wares.

THE CHINESE TASTE

 The Chinese taste was well established in Europe from the mid-17th century on. In particular, there was a great fashion among the wealthy for Chinese porcelain - both for display and for use - and for lacquer panels.

 Inevitably, European craftsmen were inspired by the new fashions. Some made deliberate attempts to produce Chinese-style wares using European methods.

 In particular, they reproduced Chinese lacquer finishes by 'japanning' pieces of furniture and made copies of its blue and white porcelain in tin-glazed earthenware.

 Most craftsmen, though, were content to introduce into their work motifs and design details based on a rather romantic idea of China - 'far Cathay' - nurtured by travellers' tales.  It is this style, rather than the straightforward reproduction of Chinese designs, that is most accurately described as chinoiserie.

 European versions of dragons, peacocks and the phoenix, strangely-dressed Chinamen and Chinese landscapes - almost always including a pagoda or two were painted on pottery, applied to furniture in paint, carved wood, gesso or inlay, engraved or embossed on precious metals, painted on walls or woven in tapestries and silks.

 In the mid-18th century, the Chinese style was seen as an exotic alternative to Gothic. Chippendale appropriated the geometric open lattice style of carving and the rather square, right-angled outlines from traditional Chinese pieces to design Chinese Chippendale furniture. Other cabinetmakers created chairs with 'Chinese railings' instead of a splat, or with crest-rails carved as a pagoda.

BLUE AND WHITE CHINOISERIE

 At the same time, potters continued to put chinoiserie patterns on blue and white earthenware and porcelain alike. This trend reached its height when just about every pottery manufacturer in Staffordshire turned out variants on Willow Pattern ware, a design created in England from vaguely oriental prototypes.

 Some of these European products made their way back to China, both directly and from India, where many Chinese-style goods were made for export to the West.

 These, in their turn, influenced the way that Chinese craftsmen created goods made for export, and the demarcation line between Chinese export wares and chinoiserie got a bit blurred at times.

 Chinoiserie influenced other European styles, too. The French were slower to appreciate oriental wares than the Dutch and the English, but they did influence the busy rococo style, which spread from France throughout Europe in the 18th century.

NEW IMPETUS

 In England, the fashion for the neo-classical towards the end of the 18th century put chinoiserie into retreat, though a hard core of enthusiasts kept the style alive until the Regency.

 At that time, under the influence of the Prince Regent, later George IV, and particularly of his seaside home, the Brighton Pavilion, it came back into the forefront of interior design.  Rooms in the Chinese style were included in most of the important pattern books of the day.

 Japanning remained the commonest decorative technique, though some beechwood chairs were turned and painted to resemble bamboo.

 The craze for chinoiserie waned somewhat in 19th-century Europe; even the eclectic Victorians did not revive it.

 When interest in oriental craftsmanship did return in the second half of the century, it was the products of Japan, not China, which caught the popular imagination and led to a new style of European pastiche, japonaiserie.





Collecting Chinese Art by Sam Bernstein; Paperback

Chinoiserie by Dawn Jacobson; Paperback

Chinoiserie for the Decorative Artist by Rena Friedman

Chinoiserie: The Impact of Oriental Styles on West Art and Decoration by Oliver Impey

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Turning Bricks into Jade: Critical Incidents for Mutual Understanding Among Chinese and Americans
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