Imitation as flattery: Chinoiserie mixed Asian style with European Sensibilities

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the 17th-century Europeans must have been truly impressed with the wares coming out of theFar East. From textiles and pottery to silver and furniture, the decorative items being created inChina,JapanandIndiafeatured distinctly Asian ornamentation and motifs.


As those items made their way back toEurope- specificallyEngland- in the late 17th century, their popularity inspired a wave of what was later known as chinoiserie (sheen-WAH-zuh-ree). Those European-crafted “imitations” of Asian wares were named after the French word for Chinese, chinois. That term, however, wasn’t used until the 19th century, according to Sarah Fayen, assistant curator at the Chipstone Foundation inMilwaukee. Fayen also curated the current chinoiserie exhibit at theMilwaukeeArt Museum. The exhibit, “Enter the Dragon: The Beginnings of English Chinoiserie, 1680-1710,” runs through April 30.


Beginning around 1680, trade was expanding dramatically betweenEuropeand theFar East, Fayen said. “More and more people were traveling to theFar East.”


Primarily the wealthy brought back the decorative items, which included lacquered furniture, enameled porcelain, silver wares and Asian-inspired textiles. It was, after all, quite an extensive and expensive journey to make. “The imports were still so expensive,” Fayen said. Still, other classes began to take note of the items’ imagery, which included birds, florals and unusual animals. To feed a growing market, it wasn’t long before the English decided to craft similar items inspired by this art.


“It was quite a craze,” Fayen said. “It was a great influence of people making and buying the things. What the English were trying to do was take motifs and add them to their conventions. The forms are still conventionally English.”


The forms, motifs and techniques grew out of what Fayen called “fruitful experimentation.”


In addition to being a design craze, Fayen said, the creation of chinoiserie also dramatically influenced the pottery industry. “The ceramics coming intoEuropewere all porcelain,” she said. With well-advanced kilns in theFar East, porcelain had yet to be created inEurope.


“The Europeans were completely blown away,” Fayen said. They had never seen anything like the all-white porcelain, and they had no idea how to create it, she said. It would still be close to 100 years later that English Staffordshire potters would create creamware.


Instead, English potters used delftware, also known as tin-glazed earthenware, to replicate Asian porcelain pieces. These pieces, however, were easy to distinguish from the imports. They were considerably thinner and, if broken, the inside would be coarse and brown, rather than the creamy white of the Asian porcelain.


While the blue-and-white motif might still be evident on the chinoiserie, “It was usually painted in a more sketchy fashion,” utilizing less detail work, said Fayen.


Fayen said it’s hard for scholars today to know if the chinoiserie was well received at the time. But, she added, “The upper echelons continued to buy the porcelain when they could afford it. They bought both of them (imports and chinoiserie) and used them in their homes.


“The consumers were savvy enough to know the difference,” she said.


TheMilwaukeeArt Museumexhibit contains about 70 pieces of English chinoiserie from 1680 to 1710 – a time when the style was of great interest. One of the highlights is a Montieth silver vessel created by George Garthorne in 1688. The piece was recently acquired by the museum.


“Chinoiserie sort of went in and out of fashion for centuries,” Fayen said.


Overall, Fayen said there may not be a widespread interest in chinoiserie, mainly because so few pieces come onto the market. But it remains a design movement that had great influence at the time on many types of decorative wares.


“The appeal was sort of new visions of a faraway place,” Fayen said. “It was a really fervent exchange of ideas.”


For more information on the MilwaukeeArt Museumexhibit, visit or call (414) 224-3200.