In visual art, the term Chinoiserie is from “chinois”, the French word for Chinese. The artistic style was a fanciful European interpretation of art and designs seen in countries all over East Asia, including China, Korea and Japan.
The beginnings arose in the 13th century when trade routes opened between Europe and China. Marco Polo (1254-1324) was the first European to extensively travel the Far East, his adventures detailed in his book The Travels of Marco Polo. Below is his description of a Chinese garden, the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Xanadu, which he visited around 1275.
There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment. ~Marco Polo
As the styles evolved from Medieval to Renaissance, to Baroque and Rococo, Europe’s fascination and demand for Eastern objects continued to grow. The resultant interest in Chinese products led to early instances of Italian Chinoiserie in the form of 14th century silks made at the Lucca silk factories, and blue-and-white porcelain being produced in the late 16th century at the Medici porcelain works. Prized goods included the blue and white porcelain, exotic spices, tea, silk, precious gems and oriental carpets. The origin of tea, porcelain, and silk worms were mysterious, and thus a rarity. However, Chinoiserie as a term and decorative style is traditionally applied during the 17th to 18th centuries when the fad flourished throughout Europe thanks to a surge in trade with the Far East. Despite the centuries of oriental objects trickling into the West and motifs placed onto everything from fabrics to pottery to furniture, the region remained one of exotic mystery.
A few examples of artistic objects given an Oriental touch include:
- Porcelain vases and bowls in still life paintings, notably the genre of vanitas painting by Dutch Realist artists like Willem Kalf and Jan Davidsz de Heem
- Pottery made at Delft and Southwark
- French and English embroidery
- English tapestry art made in the workshops of Soho and Mortlake
- Dutch and English lacquered furniture
Interior design was also given an oriental flair, the earliest major example of Chinoiserie interior design being the Trianon de Porcelaine of the Versailles Palace, designed by Louis Le Vau in 1670.
When the Swedish-born Scottish architect Sir William Chambers retired from his trips to China after 1749, he brought with him a resurgence of Chinoiserie design. As a young man Chambers travelled in the East, visiting the great Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou). In 1757 he published Designs of Chinese Buildings which contained his observations. He designed a number of Chinoiserie buildings for Kew Gardens, including the pagoda, aviary and bridge.
The still standing ten-story Pagoda at Kew Gardens (picture in the slideshow below) was completed by Chambers in 1762 and is a longstanding example of Europe’s interest in imitating the Chinese arts. Not quite the colorful splendor it was in its heyday, the pagoda originally boasted a roof of varnished iron plates with a dragon perched at each corner. A total of 80 dragons carved of wood and gilded in gold once adorned the pagoda. None remain today.
The fashionable, overcome with the asian craze, decorated their homes with porcelain, silks, and laquerware, adding elements from Chinese fret on staircases, wallpaper, and floors to the marvelous commodes, vases and mirrors of the period. Even everyday objects like sugar bowls were not spared the far east touch. Much of this design, however, was derived from the artist’s re-imagining of the east with a westerner’s unique flair for the Chinese manner.
The slideshow below contains a small sampling of Chinoiserie dating to the 17th and 18th century.