China in Eighteenth-Century European Art

by Kristel Smentek

Nothing gave a more concrete shape to China in the European imaginary than imported things. Brought to Europe in increasing numbers by the various eighteenth-century East India Companies, lustrous Asian porcelain, gleaming lacquer, painted wallpaper and sumptuous silks materially reinforced textual accounts by missionaries and diplomats of Far Eastern opulence. Added to the sensuous allure of such imports were the mysteries of their fabrication. The qualities of Asian lacquer, for instance, could never be replicated in Europe (among other reasons, the tree saps essential to Asian lacquer were unavailable to European artisans), and the secrets of hard paste porcelain production had eluded European potters for centuries. The mystery of porcelain endured until the discovery at Meissen in 1708 of the formula for its composition. Even then, however, many European manufactories could not produce hard paste porcelain until much later in the century, and some Chinese glaze technologies were never mastered by European ceramicists.

For European elites, Asian silks, porcelains and lacquers conjured visions of a sophisticated court culture with which they could vicariously identify. At the same time, the idea of China conveyed through imports, travel illustrations, and texts lent itself to the projection of fantasy. Vicarious identification and vicarious entertainment combined in the European phenomenon of Chinoiserie. This nineteenth-century term is frequently used to describe the European artistic creation of works in a variety of media incorporating motifs from Chinese, Japanese and Indian sources, or imitating Asian forms and techniques. Spurred to emulation by imported objects and the desires of European consumers for Chinese things, artists and artisans responded with an accelerated production of ceramics, textiles and furniture that simulated Asian materials and featured fanciful figures, often in garden settings, dragons and exotic birds, and architectural elements such as pagodas and bells adapted from Asian imports and from European illustrations purporting to represent China and Japan. Other European works such as decorative paintings and tapestries featured idyllic impressions of the Chinese court peopled by thinly disguised European men and women in Asian costume. For less well-heeled clients, European porcelain factories produced numerous tea wares in the popular blue and white patterns that had come to be associated with China. Depending on the inclination of their viewers, Chinoiserie productions invited Europeans to imaginatively project themselves into a mythical, belittling or utopian vision of China. At the same time, such objects offered the aesthetic pleasures of sleek surfaces, brilliant colors and figural representations devoid of the learned artistic conventions and moralizing or mythological meanings characteristic of much eighteenth-century European art.


Kristel Smentek is Associate Professor of Art History in the Department of Architecture at MIT. Her research interests include the history of collecting and display, the history of the art market, and the impact of Asian-European exchange on Enlightenment art and aesthetic theory.


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