Chinoiserie originated in the beginning of the 17th century in Europe.The word derives from “chinois,” which is French for “Chinese.” At the time, English and Italian designers and craftsmen sought to imitate the fanciful, decorative style of Chinese arts, silk, and lacquerware. European interpretations of these Chinese styles first appeared in interior design, furniture, pottery, and porcelain. Interpretations also surfaced in fine art, seen in the paintings of French artists like Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher.
A surge of interest in decorative art quickly spread through Europe, and entire rooms with decor inspired by Eastern influences began appearing in court residencies and European homes as a result. Today, Chinoiserie is still a heavily emulated design trend because its whimsical, fantastical scenery and playful flourishes contribute to a charming decorative aesthetic.
What is Chinoiserie?
Chinoiserie is a Western style of decorative art that drew upon Chinese motifs and techniques. The style was used widely throughout European art, furniture, and architecture during the 17th and 18th centuries, reaching its height from 1750 to 1765. Chinoiserie was often used in conjunction with the Baroque and Rococo decorative styles that reigned during the mid-18th century. It’s characterized by asymmetrical forms, blue-and-white motifs commonly found on Chinese porcelain, extensive gilding, Chinese patterns and figures, and extravagant scenery.
A Brief History of Chinoiserie
European fascination with the Far East began long ago, arguably traced back to the 14th century Italian explorer Marco Polo. During a period spent in prison, writer Rustichello da Pisa shared a holding cell with Polo, where the traveler shared stories from his voyages. Da Pisa chronicled these stories in The Travels of Marco Polo (also referred to as Description of the World, Book of the Marvels of the World, and other titles in different languages) which ultimately inspired Christopher Columbus’ journey to search for a Western route to Asia.
By the 18th century, European commerce with China blossomed, and one of the chief exports to European markets was that of stunning blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Europeans sought to recreate the Eastern aesthetic in their own porcelain, and a new style emerged that rejected the stiff opulence of the Baroque period which preceded it. This new style, which we know today as Chinoiserie, was light and airy, featured illustrations of dragons and phoenixes, and began to influence design trends in architecture and furniture.
The earliest appearance of a Chinoiserie interior scheme was in The Grand Trianon’s Trianon de porcelaine, built for Louis XIV at Versailles in 1670. The vast porcelain pavilion was designed by architect Louis Le Vau. The style became highly popular among the nobility and aristocracy, and it was rare to find a house without Chinese-influenced, exuberantly-styled rooms. They were often combined with French toile, surface decorations repeated on cloth fabrics.
Chinoiserie continued to appear in decorations throughout Europe and America. Even to this day, many consumers believe they are purchasing authentic, Chinese export porcelain and other collectibles without understanding the history of Chinoiserie style. Because it became so popular in Europe, Chinese manufacturers capitalized on the trend, making it even harder to distinguish the origin of many items today.
Chinoiserie Motifs and Characteristics
Chinoiserie fuses a diverse range of unique designs and trends, and this has piqued the interest of many designers. Since its rise to popularity inception in the 17th century, Chinoiserie shifted to incorporate new stylistic elements each century that followed, whether it be garden buildings, a fresh collection of prints, or Chinoiserie-style furniture. Below are the general characteristics used across forms of Chinoiserie.
In an age when intercontinental travel was uncommon, Europeans knew very little about Asian cultures. Consequently, they were seen as exotic and mysterious. Artisans, inspired by this mysticism and general fascination, often incorporated Chinese figures into their designs. Some were copied directly from Chinese objects while others were representations of what designers imagined Eastern cultures to portray.
Many designs incorporated vivid, whimsical landscapes with fanciful pavilions that included birds, nature, lush garden vignettes, and sprawling floral motifs. These landscapes are commonly found in textiles, wallpaper, paintings, and other Chinoiserie decor.
Dragons and Phoenixes
These mythical beasts were depicted in many Chinoiserie designs. Dragons are a symbol of strength and luck and hold a prominent place in Chinese mythology. Naturally, they appeared in clothing and interiors throughout Chinese history, and continue to adorn ceramics, silk screens, paintings, and decor. Foo dogs also appear on many Chinoiserie designs. Known as Shi, meaning “lion” in Chinese, Foo dogs are Chinese guardian lions that appear outside palaces and temples as a means to ward off negative energy.
Another integral part of East Asian culture was the prominence of pagodas, multi-tiered structures that often served a religious purpose Though they originated as sacred sites in India, the spread of Buddhism brought them to China. The sweeping lines of pagoda roofs were incorporated into China’s regional style and designs.
How Chinoiserie Has Influenced the Arts
Chinoiserie has had a profound influence on many facets of the arts and has been reflected in a variety of disciplines including interior design, porcelain and decorative art, paintings, architectural styles, and furniture.
Design and Decor
Like that of the Rococo style, Chinoiserie design and decor incorporates asymmetry, scrolling forms, and elements of fantasy. French painter and designer Jean Pillement published A New Book of Chinese Ornaments in 1755, which provided fanciful images of Chinese figures, pavilions, floral scenes, and other patterns. Books like Pillement’s and other Chinoiserie-influenced designers furthered the popularity and fascination of the trend. Since, it has had an impact on the design of ceramics, wallpaper, furniture, and textiles, allowing designers to blend both worldliness and history into a room.
Porcelain and china played an integral role in influencing Chinoiserie stylistic elements. The blue-and-white color scheme represented in much of the Chinoiserie design today reflects the Chinese porcelain that matured during the Yuan era in the 13th century. The iconic blue-and-white porcelain, decorated with cobalt blue under white glaze, was often produced in kilns in Jingdezhen, named the “Porcelain Capital” in China.
Some of the earliest Chinoiserie elements to appear in painting can be found in the 17th century still lifes of Dutch realist painter Willem Kalf. In the 18th century, French painters Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher created a number of paintings using Chinoiserie themes and features. Boucher’s 1742 piece entitled The Chinese Garden incorporates many of these motifs including that of Chinese figures.
Architecture and Gardens
Many of the Chinoiserie architectural designs took the form of garden pavilions, and European gardens began incorporating pagodas and tea pavilions in their design..The European ideas about Chinese philosophy combined with English fascination with the sublime, romantic, and the natural world led to the production of Anglo-Chinese gardens. A notable example of Chinoiserie architectural gardens is the Chinese House, a garden pavilion at Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany. It was created by Johann Gottfried Büring in 1755 who called upon ornamental Rococo and Chinoiserie elements.
Chinese motifs and styles appeared also in furniture design. Some of the most popular materials used were lacquered wood, faux bamboo, and brass hardware. Chinese fretwork, or ornamental design often carved by a fretsaw, was evident in chairs, tables, and cabinets. One of the most notable Chinoiserie furniture designers in the 18th century was English cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. Chippendale created lattice-back Chippendale chairs, drawing upon in Chinese fretwork for inspiration.
European designers drew upon the exuberance of Chinese motifs to create a style that proved popular beginning in the 17th century and continuing through contemporary times. The intrigue and versatility of Chinoiserie has influenced many facets of decorative art, from architecture to furniture to paintings. Asian influences can be seen in pagodas throughout Europe, home decor, lacquered furniture, and textiles and patterns in buildings’ interiors as contemporary Chinoiserie enthusiasts keep the trend alive through collecting.