chinoiserie n : a style in art reflecting Chinese influence; elaborately decorated and intricately patterned
Chinoiserie refers to a recurring theme in European artistic styles since the seventeenth century, which reflects Chinese art and is characterized by the use of fanciful imagery of an imaginary China, by asymmetry in format and whimsical contrasts of scale, and by the attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain and the use of lacquerlike materials and decoration. Chinoiserie entered the European repertory in the mid-to-late seventeenth century; its popularity peaked around the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was easily assimilated into rococo, then declined somewhat, for it seemed to European eyes the very antithesis of neoclassicism. Chinoiserie is expressed entirely 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, are not considered instances of "Chinoiserie".
Chinese porcelainFrom the Renaissance to the 18th century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. 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 (ca. 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 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. But in the true Chinoiserie décor fairyland, mandarins lived in fanciful mountainous landscapes with cobweb bridges, carried flower parasols, lolled in flimsy bamboo pavilions haunted by dragons and phoenixes, while monkeys swung from scrolling borders.
Interior decorationVarious 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. The whole 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, ca 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.
Interior decoration in England
Queen consort Catherine of Braganza brought with her from Portugal such Chinese cabinets as had never before been seen. Oriental rugs were already known and some Japanese cabinets and screens had come into the country, perhaps by way of the Dutch commerce with the East. French furniture, also, was imported by the court at this time; but with the exception of the great mirror and toilet of beaten and massive gold given by the queen-mother to this same young Portuguese princess on her marriage, the most splendid furniture of the court was of solid silver, or of silver plates of very fine Repoussé work. Much of the furniture of the Duchess of Portsmouth was of this precious metal; Mary of Modena, the queen of James II, had a cabinet of silver filigree; there is still some of the sort at Windsor, as is some of the silver furniture in the King's Room at Knole House.
Changed by decoration and delicate china
But the decorative art of England had now become a mongrel affair, and it became still more so with the accession of William and Mary. These sovereigns brought with them certain Dutch fashions and predilections for bandy-legged chairs, articles of Japanese lacquer, and of carved ebony — the Dutch settlement of Ceylon having made ebony much more attainable — all of which, together with a pictorial marquetry, added new elements to the confusion. This marquetry, although but a prelude to the wonderful Boulle work that had not yet crossed from France, was much more elaborate than the old inlay. It was executed either in the natural woods or in ivory, ebony, or mother-of-pearl, and was to be found in some degree on almost everything. The use of it demanded an unprecedented extent of flat surface, and it thus wrought a vital change in the appearance of the larger objects, bringing into view broad smooth doors to upright pieces, tall clocks and wardrobes, curiously curved planes for the display of the marquetry, and doing away necessarily with a great deal of the carving and much of the architectural character of the construction, so that articles ceased to be miniature temples, became boxlike in comparison, and were covered with this flat and pictured decoration of tulips, birds, figures, and landscapes.
Some of the old ornament remained, and a sculpture of foliage based on the Elizabethan scallop shell, or "when in length not unlike the frill of a shirt," was on many of the chairs of the reign of William III, that were followed by the white and gilt chairs, with silken backs and cushions, peculiar to the time of Queen Anne. But this use of shapes adapted to the display of marquetry brought about a departure from the Jacobean of a nobler sort, which made use of the same simplicity of form, the vertical lines of which in upright articles were perfectly straight till at the top curving over frequently in the old cove, and the surfaces decorated again with carvings chiefly of ancient figures and conventionalized florage in low relief — a variation which, begun under William and Mary, perfected itself under Anne, and was subsequently deteriorated by the influence of Louis Quatorze. It was immediately succeeded by the work of Thomas Chippendale, who chose what he fancies in the existing style and added to it what he fancies in the French.
It was in the reign of William and Mary that old china came to the throne which has held sway ever since by the divine right of its own charm. The pleasant Queen Mary was a Stuart, in spite of her virtues, and loved to see pleasant things about her, and the fantastic forms and rich colors of the Oriental porcelain had touched her fancy. She had accumulated it during her absence from England and she brought great quantity of it with her from the Hague, where the taste for it was already formed, as everyone knows that is familiar with the Dutch articles of the day, whose fronts are often mere plastrons of porcelain, the access of the Dutch to the ports of the Orient having filled Holland with strange wares and strange fashions. Holland not only imported, but in Delft also imitated the Chinese wares, sometimes carrying out the imitation exactly to all the curiosity of its quaint design, and sometimes decorating the objects with the pencils of her best artists. The queen procured other china also, wherever it was to be had, so that, as we are told, her collection was "wonderfully rich and plentiful." Persian and Damascus cups, and fine glasses, such as the storied "Luck of Eden Hall", were not unfamiliar by that time in England, and there were several potteries producing fine results in France. Later would come the beautiful Sèvres, with all its exquisite colors — its bleu do roi, rose du Barri, vert pre, and jonquille; its embedded jewels, and Antoine Watteau paintings — single plates of whose earlier and best manufacture were quite valuable. The Dresden was not yet in existence, nor the Capodimonte porcelain with its shells and corals and figures in such high relief as to cast distinct shadows, nor many other fine chinas. Nevertheless, the Henri II faience, decorated with masks and scutcheons and fine damascene work, with its rosy reliefs and dark yellow backgrounds, was all that could be wished; the Palissy ware had reached perfection in cups, platters, incense burners, and possibly statuettes, having unrivaled brilliancy of enamel colors, purity of tint and outline, in all its reptiles, shells, fruits, and foliages; and there was almost unlimited choice among Italian wares, the gorgeous Luca della Robbia, the delightfully decorated Venetian majolicas, and countless others on which Raphael and his contemporaries had lavished their designs. The queen filled her palace with china, jars, vases, idols, statuettes, pilgrim bottles, cups and plates and monsters, giving preference always to the Japanese and Chinese products — the eggshell, the sea-green, the imperial ruby, the blue and white Nankin, the crackle — perhaps by reason of the remoteness which gives factitious value, perhaps through the fascination of the hideousness of its gods and demons. "In a few years almost every great house in the kingdom," says the historian, who did not appreciate this sort of beauty, "contained a museum of these grotesque baubles; even statesmen and generals were not ashamed to be renowned as judges of teapots and dragons…". In the next reign the passion for this decoration had become a rage; there were piles and pyramids of plates and platters in every fashionable drawing room — "a chaos of Japan".
Of course this fashion of the use of china, carried to such lengths, required conveniences for its care and display even beyond the old cabinets, buffets, and court-cupboards, or the simple shelf of the village inn, and thus with William and Mary had come in all sorts of odd little racks and sets of shelves, hanging cabinets, and mantelpiece contrivances in woodwork, which produced almost a revolution in furnishing, and decked out with their precious burden, gave an amazingly different character to the walls that had been wont to the dark rich unrelieved paneling and the heavy tapestry, and on which now paper-hangings imported from the East through Holland first found place. The reign of these monarchs was, however, a very short one, and the fashions that they set were hardly well developed until the reign of Queen Anne, but the general shape of the furniture was more or less Dutch in character, with an aspiration after the severe but not yet perfectly understood classic, combined with strange leanings to the fascination of the Oriental. The Elizabethan peculiarities had largely disappeared, although some of the beauties were preserved; and the Renaissance that remained was still rather that of the Louis Treize period of France rather than any other. France was becoming that fountainhead of elegance and taste in the public appreciation that Holland had been. The Quatorze was unfortunately creeping over, but in no great quantity, save where new houses were built and furnished, as the great mansions were not too often emptied and refilled, and when it came at last it was frequently debased by the Rococo; Japanese work of every sort was in high favor, both the imported and that imitated at home by figures embossed in gold dust upon black lacquer and enriched with metal mounts, and whole suites were furnished in it. Sir William Chambers published an interesting book of Chinese interiors and designs; and Thomas Chippendale, who produced many simple and elegant forms, and also formed some of the surprising tours de force among the rolling lines and absurd caprices of the Rococo, printed a series of plates for furniture, in the introduction to which he says that he has been encouraged by persons of distinction, who signify regret that the art of ebenisterie is executed with so little propriety and excellence, remarks upon the novelty of his publication, and declares that his pencil has but faintly copied his fancy. There are, he says "nine chairs in the present Chinese manner, which, I hope, will improve that taste or manner of work, it having yet never arrived to any perfection; doubtless it might be lost without seeing its beauty." Innumerable carved wooden tea trays, tea tables with raised openwork rims for the security of the cups and saucers, somewhat like the old Roman abaci, and decorated tea caddies, did honor in their almost invariable Chinese ornament to the origin of the now general fashion of tea drinking. Many of the articles of this school were acquired by American colonial families. They are sometimes made in birch and in cherry wood, as well as oak, and the later ones in mahogany, with a delicate satin-wood inlay, and fitted with fine brasses.
- (Getty Museum) "Imagining the Orient" exhibition, 2004-05.
- Entry in encyclopedia.com
- Example of Chinoiserie in French Style Harpsichord
- Antique Chinoiserie Accessories
- Honour, Hugh. 1961. Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (London: John Murray)
chinoiserie in German: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in Spanish: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in French: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in Korean: 중국 양식
chinoiserie in Dutch: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in Japanese: シノワズリ
chinoiserie in Polish: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in Portuguese: Chinoiserie
chinoiserie in Russian: Шинуазри
chinoiserie in Slovak: Chinoizéria