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Chinoiserie

For Europeans China has always been fascinating and enigmatic. It is far from Europe, has a closed political system and an extremely rich cultural history.

The arrival in Western Europe of the first shiploads of Chinese porcelain, lacquerware, ivory and silk in the 17th century stimulated interest in China, or Cathay, as it was then called. Europeans soon began copying the Chinese artworks and decorative objects. These decorative arts inspired by China, which enjoyed their heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, are known as chinoiserie.

Fables?

China closed its borders to all foreigners in the year 878. It was not until the 13th century that Europeans became reacquainted with China through the stories of the Italian explorer Marco Polo (Venice 1254-1324). He told, for example, of Chinese women who had their feet bound so that they would not grow bigger. Such images seemed so unbelievable to his countrymen that his stories were dismissed as fabrications.

On his deathbed Marco Polo was asked if he wanted to confess his lies, to which he answered that he had described less than half of what he had actually seen. In the second half of the 17th century there was a European craze for all things Chinese. The wealthy designed special rooms to display their Chinese porcelain and even dressed in the Chinese style at parties.

Do you want to know more about Marco Polo? Watch the video ‘Marco Polo: Journey to the East’.

Did you know

that in the 17th century the northern part of China was known as ‘Cathay’? Marco Polo popularised this name in Europe. The name for the southern part of China is ‘Mangi’.

Chinese porcelain

Chinese porcelain was introduced to Europe at the end of the 15th century. This ‘white gold’ was initially sold sporadically in the Netherlands by Italian and later also Portuguese and Spanish merchants. It was so expensive that only the very wealthiest could afford it.

In 1602 two Dutch East India Company (VOC) ships from Zeeland seized the cargo of the Portuguese ship St. Jago. The booty, which included Chinese porcelain, was sold for an enormous sum at auction in Middelburg. As a result Chinese porcelain became better known in the Netherlands and was admired by a broader public. Thereafter the VOC began to import porcelain directly from China on a large scale.

Mix & Match

The importation of Wanli porcelain – the Wanli Emperor reigned from 1572 to 1620 – inspired Dutch potters to modernise their products after 1620. They applied exuberant patterns to their plates, bowls and jugs in imitation of Chinese decorative motifs. This resulted in a fascinating mix of borrowed Buddhist symbols, biblical scenes and Dutch landscapes.

Mix & Match
Louwys Victorsz., Tulpenvaas, 1700-1725, tinglazuuraardewerk, schenking J.P. van der Schilden 1921

A good example is this tulip vase in the form of a Chinese pagoda but decorated with a classical European allegorical scene.

Allegorical scene

Allegorical scene

The classical European allegorical scene on the tulip vase is clearly visible in this detail.

‘Chinese’ blue

The famous blue and white patterns of Delftware are based on Ming dynasty Chinese porcelain imported to Europe. The exotic earthenware soon became so popular that Dutch earthenware production came under serious threat. To save their businesses, Dutch potters imitated Oriental porcelain: and so Delft blue was born. For the decorations, they consulted travel journals or handbooks with examples of decorative motifs.

An example is the tea caddie with an Oriental scene shown here with a simple blue and white depiction of figures in a landscape with a bird inspired by Oriental examples.

‘Chinese’ blue
Anonymous, tea caddy, 1700-1800, faience, donation: J.P. van der schilden 1921

Rococo-chinoiserie

In the 18th-century artists working in the rococo style, an outgrowth of the baroque, looked to nature rather than classical Greek and Roman examples. They introduced playful asymmetry and irregular forms and patterns. Artists such as the Frenchman François Boucher combined these innovative elements with Chinese motifs. The rococo style was especially popular with the French monarchy. European models and scenes were transported to a Chinese-looking setting, including pagodas, silk kimonos and rice-paper parasols. However, the theme was always European with a central role for the so-called ‘fêtes galantes’: parties of elegantly dressed people amusing themselves in the countryside.

Did you know

the word ‘chinoiserie’ comes from ‘chinois’, the French word for Chinese?

Chinoiserie’s popularity dwindled in the 19th century. The political relationship between East and West worsened, partly due to the Opium Wars between England and China. The more Europeans learned about China, the less it inspired them. As the mystique faded, the spell was broken. Interest now shifted to the primitive visual cultures of Africa and Oceania, where technological development appeared to be less developed.

François Boucher, Chinoiserie, ca. 1750, oil on paper on canvas, acquired with the collection of: D.G. van Beuningen 1958
François Boucher, Chinoiserie, ca. 1750, oil on paper on canvas, acquired with the collection of: D.G. van Beuningen 1958

Chinoiserie today

China is now a major player on the world stage and so the relationship between East and West has changed. Today it is Chinese artists who are world-famous. Buddhist beliefs and Eastern practices such as yoga and meditation are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and America. Many contemporary artists explore the complexities of globalisation.

In 2009/2010 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen exhibited the work ‘ten to one’ by artists Sylvie Zijlmans and Hewald Jongenelis, which revealed the connection between the West and clothing production in the East.

The land of dragons, porcelain and pagodas continues to inspire Rotterdam-based artist Harmen Brethouwer. In 2008 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen organised a retrospective exhibition of his work entitled ‘On Superfluous Things’.

 
Sylvie Zijlmans en Hewald Jongelis, Ten to one-Made in China, 2004-2007, colorprint on Photo Rag paper (Hahnemühle), donation from the artists 2010
Sylvie Zijlmans en Hewald Jongelis, Ten to one-Made in China, 2004-2007, colorprint on Photo Rag paper (Hahnemühle), donation from the artists 2010
Harmen Brethouwer, Dragons and eight precious objects, 1997, earthenware, purchase 1997
Harmen Brethouwer, Dragons and eight precious objects, 1997, earthenware, purchase 1997

Want to know more?

You can read more about this subject in the book ‘Chinoiserie’ by Dawn Jacobson. There is a copy in the museum’s library.