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14 February 2013

Chinoiserie

A French chinoiserie inkwell, ca. 1880 April's painting for the
Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar
Happy Valentine's Day All! Today, in honor of the day, I'm sharing the painting I did for the month of April in the Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar along with several other Valentine-hued chinoiserie pieces. April's painting features a 19th century French chinoiserie inkwell of painted metal, or tole, with beaded gilt metal fittings.  As you can see in my illustration, this inkwell is a bit on the shabby side, with some chipping to the paint and dents to the fittings.... But that color! I simply couldn't resist including it in this year's collection, and from what I hear so far, many of our clients have chosen it as their favorite.  

A  similar 19th Century French inkwell, with smooth gilt fittings,
recently sold on 1stdibs
In the preface to her inspiring book, Chinoiserie (Phaidon, 1993), Dawn Jacobson writes:
"Chinoiserie is an oddity. It is a wholly European style whose inspiration is entirely oriental. True chinoiseries are not pallid or incompetent imitations of Chinese objects. They are tangible and solid realizations in the West of a land of the imagination: an exotic, remote country, fabled for its riches, that through the centuries remained cloud-wrapped, obstinately refusing to allow more than a few foreigners beyond its gates."

A French chinoiserie inkstand by the same maker as the inkwell in my painting,
from Susan Silver Antiques
Ms. Jacobson continues: " Those few travellers to make the long voyage to Cathay, as China was known in the Middle Ages, returned with tales that surpassed the imaginings of their fascinated audience in Europe. This fanciful vision of a quasi-mythical land was fuelled by the inimitable nature of those few objects brought to the West by the returning adventurers who had penetrated Cathay's mysteries. The notion that China was a land unlike any other, inhabited by people  whose manners and conduct were unknown elsewhere, found fertile soil in the western mind. In the seventeenth century, evidence of the Orient's prodigious wealth buttressed western imaginations. Porcelain, lacquer, ivory and silk, unloaded from the great ships of the East India Companies, filled the wharfs and warehouses of Europe's maritime powers." 

An English red lacquer chinoiserie chest, 1850-1900,
from Susan Silver Antiques

"To meet the growing demand for Eastern imports, inventive artists and craftsmen from all over Europe began to produce their own alternatives--chinoiseries-- which while evoking the products of China did not imitate them. Indeed the means of imitation were not at hand. So pottery factories throughout Europe strove to produce versions of blue-and-white Ming porcelains, local 'japanners' lacquered furniture with wayward designs, English needlewomen reproduced the Indian Tree of Life design in crewel embroideries, and imaginative tapestry makers represented the life of the Chinese emperor. The taste for chinoiserie became ubiquitous and affected every area of the decorative arts from complete interiors to needle-cases..." 


An English lacquer tea trolley, ca. 1880,
from Susan Silver Antiques

"In the nineteenth [century], chinoiserie's high point was furnished by the Prince Regent's Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and the adoption of a new style by the new middle classes invigorated and extended its role."

The Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion,
from John Nash's Views of the Royal Pavilion, 1826
"Chinoiserie continues to flourish. Its ability to bob along with the changing tides of fashion has made it an abiding, if often unrecognized leitmotif in the design of everyday objects. When we drink tea from a blue-and-white china cup, choose paeonies and plum-blossom to flower on our curtains, or conceal the television behind a lacquered screen, we are its unconscious heirs, followers of the passion for the arts of China that consumed the West for hundreds of years and led its artists and craftsmen in an exhilarating pursuit of its charms."

If, like me, you can't get enough of the exhilarating pursuit, you may enjoy perusing Ms. Jacobson's thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated book...and don't forget the tea, of course!

13 comments:

  1. Hello Erika, These are all enchanting objects you have selected. I was considering whether these would fool me if I saw them in Taiwan. The desk objects really don't look authentically Chinese, but the next two are more reasonable, although a second look betrays their European origin. The shelves in particular could have been ebonized and then called 'Japanesque'.

    In the past, Europeans and Americans created exotic fantasies such as Chinoiserie, American Indian imagery, minstrel shows and even Egyptomania. The important thing is not to allow these to become stereotypes by which we judge real people and places.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your comments. I fear that my intention in sharing these objects may have been misunderstood: I find chinoiserie decorative arts objects fascinating particularly for what they tell us abut their European creators, and the material culture of their time and place, rather than as imitations or representations of Asian culture. And I'm not sure I'd include cross-cultural borrowing of motifs in the decorative arts, which has occurred throughout the centuries, with the objectification and appropriation of entire cultures like those you mentioned... Which is not to say that these appropriations aren't illustrative, distasteful as they are, as cultural products worthy of study in their own right, but I'll leave that to my colleagues in the field of cultural criticism!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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    2. Hello again, Sorry, I didn't mean to be so serious. My response was becoming essay-length, so I cut it and left that isolated last comment.

      I of course delight in Chinoiserie as well as the "real" thing. In fact, my own selections of Chinese antiques and art represent a kind of Chinoiserie.

      The pieces you illustrate are so strikingly attractive that they show how Europeans enjoyed Chinese art as a model of taste and aesthetics. --Jim

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    3. Dear Jim,
      No apologies necessary, my friend! I do love a great, serious and vigorous art/culture discussion, and often get carried away, myself... Does that make me sound like an argumentative bore? I suppose it's all the years of art criticism/philosophy..! I hope you'll always feel free to share your thoughts-- I so respect your point of view.
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  2. Dear Erika,
    I always learn new things when I read your posts.

    I had always liked the 'look' of Chinoiserie but fell in love with it when I saw the magnificent Chippendale Chinoiserie bed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I would love a bed like that but I am not sure what AGA would say!

    One thing though: I may be wrong but I don't think that the fifth photograph is of an étagère. I think that it is a butler's trolley/tea trolley. Ornate trolleys were very much the rage in the late Victorian era. I checked the website where this photograph came from and I see that they do call it an étagère but I would question that. They also call the fretwork on the piece 'Greek key' which I am not sure is correct either (Mark Ruffner would be the expert on that).

    My favourite type of Chinoiserie work would have to be wallpaper. Some of the designs are very beautiful.

    I have never been to Brighton Pavilion but my mother tells me that it is spectacular.

    Bye for now and keep warm,

    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your message-- of course you are correct about that tea trolley...In my zeal to give appropriate photo credits, I forgot to change the caption!

      I seem to remember a fantastic bed on view at the V&A last time I visited...perhaps it's the same one you speak of? How wonderfully huge and extravagant it is!! In the book I mentioned in the post, there is a beautifully decorated German harpsichord that you might like to add to your decor once you convince AGA about that bed...!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  3. Dear Erika - Chinoiserie was a period when I believe designers in the West had fun. Wallpaper, china, lacquer work, furniture and even buildings.
    I am fortunate enough to have visited the Brighton Pavilion, a cornucopia of both Chinese and Indian style. The building was said to have been inspired after the Prince Regents visit to Seizincote a wonderful house in the Cotswolds.
    I love your bright red inkwell examples especially the last one.
    I have taken a look at Susan Silver Antiques and guess you are in your element when browsing her site.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your comments. It seems that 19th century European decorative arts was extremely 'exuberant', shall we say??!! So much imagery, from so many sources, all wonderfully jumbled, as in the Brighton Pavilion... One part of me sees it as a time of poor aesthetic decisions on the part of architects and designers, and the other part simply marvels at the joyful humanity of it all... And, isn't it amazing how chinoiserie motifs (especially fretwork) continue to prevail in contemporary product design? Most interesting...
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  4. Hello Erika:
    Chinoiserie adds a touch of the exotic to any interior we think and we absolutely love the inkwells you feature here. The red lacquer colour is particularly striking and we should certainly know where to place such items should we ever be fortunate to own one!

    The Brighton Pavilion is indeed spectacular, particularly so at the moment as the exterior has recently be cleaned and restored.It is especially striking at night when it is illuminated in a myriad of colour!

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    1. Dear Jane and Lance,
      Thank you for your comments- I'm so pleased that you enjoyed seeing these pieces. They seem to fit in with your recent post on the Year of the Snake!!!

      I've yet to visit Brighton, but I've seen images of the evening illuminations. It seems completely appropriate to add this extra layer of crazy color to the experience of such an exuberant structure... I think "over the top" would be an impossibility there! It will definitely be on my list of places to visit the next time I'm in England...perhaps this summer? I hope so!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  5. Dear Erika,

    My earlier message must have gotten lost in the ethers. I sent a comment to compliment you on your painting of the ink well, and to wonder if you achieved that perfect red completely in watercolor, or whether you might have added guache or acrylics. At any rate, it's a beautiful job, as always.

    I very much like that red chest, and I can easily imagine having a fun sideline, painting furniture. I'll be on the lookout for Dawn Jacobson's book!

    Best wishes, Mark

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  6. Hello Mark!
    Thank you for your kind words-- isn't that frustrating when a message disappears? It's happened to me several times as well...! That red is intense, and although I do love using gouache, I think in this case it was straight watercolor-- Windsor & Newton, colors, straight out of the tube with no water. I'm sure true watercolor experts would be appalled! But as my training is in oils, this seemed to work for me... I think it was a few different reds/oranges together.

    I often think about painting a table I have with chinoiserie motifs--my sons would prefer vignettes with ninjas rather than Chinese fishermen! I think it would be such fun...

    I found Ms. Jacobson's book at the Phaidon store in NY... Beware if you dare to enter this store-- I think you'd be as tempted as I was by all of the gorgeous art books!

    Thanks again Mark, and warm regards from cold Michigan,
    Erika

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