10 Fascinating Facts About Chinoiserie

1. Chinoiserie was once the most coveted fashion of the aristocracy

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans became fascinated with Asian cultures and traditions. They loved to imitate or evoke Asian motifs in Western art, architecture, landscaping, furniture, and fashion.

China seemed a mysterious, far-away place and the lack of first-hand experiences only added to the mystique.

Chinoiserie derives from the French word chinois, meaning “Chinese”, or “after the Chinese taste”. It is a Western aesthetic inspired by Eastern design.

The fact remains that four thousand years ago, when we did not know how to read, they [the Chinese] knew everything essentially useful of which we boast todayVoltaire

To immerse yourself in the Chinoiserie experience, optionally play the traditional East Asian music.

A folding screen was one of the most popular expressions of Chinoiserie, often decorated with beautiful art.

Themes included mythology, scenes of palace life, nature, and romance in Chinese literature—a young lady in love could take a curious peek hidden from behind a folding screen.

Chinese Folding Screen. 18th century. Wood, glass paper, Imperial Furniture Collection, Vienna. Credit Sandstein
Chinese Folding Screen. 18th century. Wood, glass paper, Imperial Furniture Collection, Vienna. Credit Sandstein
The Toilette by François Boucher, 1742
The Toilette by François Boucher, 1742

2. Chinoiserie’s popularity grew with rising trade in the East

Rising trade with China and East Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries brought an influx of Chinese and Indian goods into Europe aboard ships from the English, Dutch, French, and Swedish East India Companies.

The European Factories in Canton by Thomas Allom, 1838
The European Factories in Canton by Thomas Allom, 1838

By the middle of the 19th century, the British East India Company had become the dominant player in East Asian trading, its rule extending across most of India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and British Hong Kong.

A fifth of the world’s population was under the trading influence of the British East India Company.

East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804)
(British) East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804)

3. Chinoiserie began with tea drinking

Drinking tea was the height of fashion for ladies of good taste and required an appropriate chinoiserie mise en scène.

Tea drinking was a fundamental part of polite society; much of the interest in both Chinese export wares and chinoiserie rose from the desire to create appropriate settings for the ritual of tea drinkingBeevers
Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton, Boston, MA. metmuseum
Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton, Boston, MA. metmuseum
1743. Tea Service. Italian. Porcelain. metmuseum
1743. Tea Service. Italian. Porcelain. metmuseum
1762 Tea Caddy. British. Silver. metmuseum
1762 Tea Caddy. British. Silver. metmuseum
1730. Sugar Box. Austrian. Hard-paste porcelain. metmuseum
1730. Sugar Box. Austrian. Hard-paste porcelain. metmuseum
1770 Tea Casket, British, Staffordshire. White enamel on copper painted in polychrome enamels. metmuseum
1770 Tea Casket, British, Staffordshire. White enamel on copper painted in polychrome enamels. metmuseum

Tea and sugar were expensive commodities during the eighteenth century and this chest could be locked to secure its valuable contents.

Containing two canisters for tea (green and black) and a larger one for sugar, the pastoral scenes, and Italianate landscapes, combined with Rococo gilding against a pink ground, create an opulent effect.

1770 Tea Casket, British, Staffordshire. White enamel on copper painted in polychrome enamels. metmuseum
1770 Tea Casket, British, Staffordshire. White enamel on copper painted in polychrome enamels. metmuseum
1726 Pair of Tea Caddies. British. Silver. metmuseum
1726 Pair of Tea Caddies. British. Silver. metmuseum

4. Aristocratic women were famous collectors of chinoiserie porcelain

Among them were Queen Mary, Queen Anne, Henrietta Howard, and the Duchess of Queensbury—all socially important women, whose homes served as examples of good taste and sociability.

Wealthy women helped define the prevailing vogue through their purchasing power. One story tells of a keen competition between Margaret, 2nd Duchess of Portland, and Elizabeth, Countess of Ilchester, for a Japanese blue and white plate.

Chinoiserie porcelain from Frankfurt c. 1700
Chinoiserie porcelain from Frankfurt c. 1700
Faience with Chinese scenes. Nevers Manufactory. c. 1680
Faience with Chinese scenes. Nevers Manufactory. c. 1680

Reflecting the English factory’s focus on Asian porcelains as a primary source of inspiration, this plate with its skillfully composed chinoiserie decoration, is an ambitious work from the 1750s, the decade during which Bow first achieved commercially viable production.

1755. Plate. British. Bow Porcelain Factory. Soft-paste porcelain
1755. Plate. British. Bow Porcelain Factory. Soft-paste porcelain
1755 Chines Musicians. Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory. Soft-past porcelain. metmuseum
1755 Chines Musicians. Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory. Soft-past porcelain. metmuseum

Distinguished by the chinoiserie scenes painted by Charles-Nicolas Dodin, these elephant vases from c. 1760 are thought to have been commissioned by Mme. de Pompadour, chief mistress of Louis XV of France. They are among the rarest forms produced by the famous Sèvres manufactory in the suburbs of Paris.

Pair of Vases. Charles Nicolas Dodin, Sèvres, France, 1760. Walters Art Museum
Pair of Vases. Charles Nicolas Dodin, Sèvres, France, 1760. Walters Art Museum

5. Chinoiserie is related to the Rococo style

Both styles are characterized by exuberant decoration, a focus on materials, stylized nature, and subject matter depicting leisure and pleasure.

Chateau de Chantilly. The Apartments of the Princes of Condé
Chateau de Chantilly. The Apartments of the Princes of Condé
The Cabinet of chinoiserie. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich, Germany. Credit Yelkrokoyade
The Cabinet of chinoiserie. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich, Germany. Credit Yelkrokoyade
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1745 Nécessaire with watch. German. Gold and mother-of-pearl, lined with dark-red velvet. metmuseum
1735 Wall clock. French. Étienne LeNoir. Soft-paste porcelain and partly gilded brass. metmuseum
1735 Wall clock. French. Étienne LeNoir. Soft-paste porcelain and partly gilded brass. metmuseum

Exotic chinoiserie accents in the pagoda-shaped outline of the tureen’s lid exemplify an interpretation popular in southern Germany.

1771 Tureen and stand. Silver, silver gilt. German, Augsburg. metmuseum
1771 Tureen and stand. Silver, silver gilt. German, Augsburg. metmuseum

6. European monarchs gave special favor to Chinoiserie

King Louis XV of France and Britain’s King George IV thought Chinoiserie 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.

Highly ornamental, yet elegant, Western interpretations of Eastern themes were fanciful expressions, often with exotic woods and marbles used to further the effect.

A room furnished in the Louis XV style
A room furnished in the Louis XV style
Chinese Gallery at Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton by John Nash, 1820
Chinese Gallery at Her Majesty’s Palace at Brighton by John Nash, 1820

Built in 1670 at Versailles as a pleasure house for King Louis XIV’s mistress, the Trianon de Porcelaine was considered to be the first major example of chinoiserie. It was replaced by the Grand Trianon 17 years later.

Trainon de Porcelaine
Trainon de Porcelaine. Credit Hervé GREGOIRE (top right image)

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia had a Chinese House built in the gardens of his summer palace Sanssouci in Potsdam, Germany.

Garden architect Johann Gottfried Büring designed the pavilion in the style of Chinoiserie by blending Chinese architectural elements with ornamental rococo.

The Chinese House at Sanssouci, Johann Friedrich Nagel, 1790
The Chinese House at Sanssouci, Johann Friedrich Nagel, 1790
The Chinese House, designed by Johann Gottfried Büring between 1755 and 1764; a pavilion in the Chinoiserie style: a mixture of rococo elements coupled with Oriental architecture.
The Chinese House, designed by Johann Gottfried Büring between 1755 and 1764; a pavilion in the Chinoiserie style: a mixture of rococo elements coupled with Oriental architecture.
Group of tea drinking Chinese (Johann Gottlieb Heymüller) Chinese Tea House Chinese House Sanssouci. Credit Steffenheilfort
Group of tea drinking Chinese (Johann Gottlieb Heymüller) Chinese Tea House Chinese House Sanssouci. Credit Steffenheilfort

7. Europeans manufactured imitations of Chinese lacquer furniture

Frequently decorated with ebony and ivory or Chinese motifs of pagodas and dragons, Europeans such as Thomas Chippendale helped popularize Chinoiserie furniture.

Chippendale’s design book The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director: Being a large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture, In the Most Fashionable Taste provided a guide for intricate chinoiserie furniture and its decoration.

1776 Rolltop Desk. German. Oak, cherry, pine, mahogany, veneered with maple, burl woods, holly, hornbeam (all partially stained), tulipwood, mahogany, and other woods; mother-of-pearl; partially gilded and tooled leather; gilt bronze, iron, steel, brass, partially gold-lacquered brass. metmuseum
1776 Rolltop Desk. German. Oak, cherry, pine, mahogany, veneered with maple, burl woods, holly, hornbeam (all partially stained), tulipwood, mahogany, and other woods; mother-of-pearl; partially gilded and tooled leather; gilt bronze, iron, steel, brass, partially gold-lacquered brass. metmuseum
1754 Harpsichord converted to a piano. French. Wood, paint, gilding, polychrome, gilded pewter, ebony, bone, felt. metmuseum
1754 Harpsichord converted to a piano. French. Wood, paint, gilding, polychrome, gilded pewter, ebony, bone, felt. metmuseum
Chinoiserie cabinet. Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid, Spain. Credit Daderot.
Chinoiserie cabinet. Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid, Spain. Credit Daderot.

8. Marco Polo was the first European to describe a Chinese garden

Marco Polo visited the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Xanadu in 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
Chinese Garden by François Boucher, 1742
Chinese Garden by François Boucher, 1742

Evolving over three thousand years, the Chinese garden landscaping style became popular in the West during the 18th century.

Built in 1738, the Chinese House within the gardens of the English Palladian mansion at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, was the first of its kind in an English garden.

Chinese House, Stowe Landscaped Gardens, Buckinghamshire, England
Chinese House, Stowe Landscaped Gardens, Buckinghamshire, England

Hundreds of Chinese and Japanese Gardens were built around the world to celebrate the naturalistic, organic beauty of their asymmetric design.

One admires the art with which this irregularity is carried out. Everything is in good taste, and so well arranged, that there is not a single view from which all the beauty can be seen; you have to see it piece by pieceJesuit priest Jean Denis Attiret, 1739
The Pagoda in Kew Gardens, London. Credit Marco Felhofer
The Pagoda in Kew Gardens, London. Credit Marco Felhofer
The Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney, Australia. Credit Wyncliffe
The Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney, Australia. Credit Wyncliffe
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Credit Damahevi
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Credit Damahevi

9. Wealthy gentlemen preferred Banyans to formal clothing

Made from expensive silk brocades, damasks, and printed cottons, banyans were types of dressing gown with a kimono-like form and Eastern origin. Worn with a matching waistcoat and cap or turban, they were so popular among wealthy men of the late 18th century that they posed for portraits wearing the banyan instead of formal clothing.

Joseph Sherburne (a wealthy Boston merchant wearing an elegant banyan) by John Singleton Copley, 1770
Joseph Sherburne (a wealthy Boston merchant wearing an elegant banyan) by John Singleton Copley, 1770
Banyan. Second half of 18th century. Silk, wool, linen. metmusem
Banyan. Second half of 18th century. Silk, wool, linen. metmusem

10. Chinoiserie enjoyed a renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s

Intimating the most elaborate past of the Chinese court, the Chinoiserie roundels of this Lanvin robe de style alternately resemble embroidered Manchu court badge motifs or the glinting scales of Mongol armor interpreted in Western embroidery.

1924 Robe de Style. French. Lanvin. Silk, metallic thread, glass. metmuseum
1924 Robe de Style. French. Lanvin. Silk, metallic thread, glass. metmuseum

Stressing tubular simplicity, Callot Soeurs used the reductive rubric of Art Deco to combine Chinoiserie with other styles, resulting in an intoxicating fusion of exoticisms.

1924 Evening Dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1924 Evening Dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum

Known for their Chinoiserie, Callot Soeurs also featured the long fluid vestigial sleeves of Ottoman coats.

1926. Evening Ensemble. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1926. Evening Ensemble. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum


References
Wikipedia
V&A Museum
The Met
The British Museum