In Awe of China
At the start of the 18th century, Cathay, (as China was called during medieval times) was seen as an exotic land with the best of everything and idolized by ordinary people in Europe. Expeditions to the Orient during the 17th and 18th century led to a heightened interest in anything that arrived from the East.
China was seen as a nation with benign and well-educated leaders and according to Voltaire (1694 - 1778): " the Chinese for four thousand years when we were unable to read, knew everything essentially useful of which we boast at the present day"
Chinoiserie is a style that grew out of a melange of travellers' tales, exaggerations, odd lots from India to Japan, and the European imagination of the exotic.
- Alex Lawrence
Merchants returned from the East with vast quantities of Chinese objets d'art and Europeans were in awe of the exquisite workmanship and taste that could be seen in Chinese manufactured goods like silk, lacquer-work, ivory and porcelain.
Genuine imported Chinese items were far too expensive for the middle-classes and European artists and craftspeople quickly started producing cheaper imitations to satisfy the growing demand for Eastern imports. This new style that emerged became known as Chinoiserie. The term comes from the French word chinois, or "Chinese" and refers to goods imported from China for the European market, objects made in Europe fashioned in the Chinese taste and the Eastern-inspired aesthetic style based on Oriental art and design.
Chinoiserie differs from authentic East Asian design in almost every way imaginable.
Chinoiserie continued to flourish during the first half of the 18th century, but it was a style entirely invented by Europeans. Chinoiserie didn't accurately portray Chinese motifs and designs, but rather relied on the imagination of the European creators.
Chinese-style objects were eagerly collected throughout Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with Chinese, Japanese and Indian objects and materials becoming standard components of grand European interiors. ('Indian' being synonymous with 'Chinese' or 'Asian')
According to David Porter in his book The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England,
"By the 1730s a Chinese room, decorated with imported paper and screens, plump figures of the laughing Buddha, porcelain vases on the mantelpiece and blue and white plate lining the walls, was de rigueur in respectable country houses."
Chinoiserie Furniture and other Interior Accessories
Furniture in the Chinese style was famous for its surface decorations and frequently decorated with ebony and ivory, brass hardware, Chinese lacquer and faux bamboo.
Chinese fretwork could be seen in chairs, tables and cabinets.
The production of Chinoiserie style furniture was popularised by the publication of Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director in 1754 that provided a guide for intricate chinoiserie furniture and its decoration. He created a trademark style which was a blend of Rococo with Chinese and gothic elements. This style was the basis of "English" Rococo. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Chippendale believed his delicate Chinese fretwork chairs were "very proper for a lady's Dressing Room"
Chinoiserie was mixed with other styles such as Rococo and the Gothic style. Designers of the time were inspired to use oriental motifs like pagodas, dragons and peacocks for a wide variety of objects and the passion for the Chinese taste heavily influenced the Rococo. Both the Rococo and Chinoiserie styles are characterised by their stylised nature, animated decoration and subject matter depicting pleasure and leisure.
Chinoiserie symbolised a new freedom for individual creativity outside the rigid rules of classicism.
The folding screen, decorated with chinoiserie motifs and scenes was often seen in 18th century country houses and it was a popular expression of the Chinese style.
Although Chinese porcelain had been exported to Europe since the 16th century, it was enthusiastically collected during the 18th century. The fashion for Chinese porcelain had a great effect on the production of decorative objects in Europe and also played an essential role in influencing Chinoiserie elements. The blue and white Chinese-style china so popular today reflects the Chinese porcelain of the Yuan era in the 13th century which was often produced in Jingdezhen - the "Porcelain Capital" of China.