CHINOISERIE: NO MYSTERY BEHIND THIS CLASSIC DESIGN CHOICE
No one is more closely associated with the Western world’s ‘”discovery” of Chinese society than Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Emilio Polo. In The Travels of Marco Polo, published circa 1300, author Rustichello da Pisa describes an odyssey along Asia’s Silk Road from 1271 to 1295 as told to him by Polo. It was the first substantial travelogue published about the Far East and even includes details of Polo’s time with the Chinese Emperor Kubla Khan of the Yuan Dynasty. The book served as the West’s introduction to China’s early culture and included the secret of porcelain, the use of gunpowder, and commentary on architecture and social customs of the East. Thus began the Western fascination with China.
After the success of Polo’s Eastern adventures became known, merchants and traders increased their trade with China along the Silk Road, with a special interest in the blue and white porcelain goods produced by a method that had been kept secret by the royal court for centuries.
Chinese porcelain wares, or “Chinese export china,” consisted mostly of oversize serving plates. They were thicker than the ones produced for domestic use to give them a better chance of surviving overseas transport without breakage. They were designed with a mix of Chinese and European scenes that, in some instances, included family crests and coats-of-arms.
Teapots, vases, covered jars, and general household items were also made specifically for export to Europe with design elements that featured pagodas, dragons, fanciful landscapes, the foo dog (a Chinese decorative lion) in paintings, on furniture and even striking wallpaper mostly in blue, white, red, and black colors. Sometimes these elements were artistic representations of “mysterious China” as initially interpreted by missionaries and merchants like Polo.
The art of Chinese porcelain and ceramics found a market in other parts of the world, too. Exports to the Islamic countries featured mostly Quranic verses painted into fanciful calligraphy, for example, while Japanese exports featured swimming koi, haiku poetry and even depictions of Buddha destined specifically for those specific faraway markets. After nearly 400 years, those design elements continue to define the art of chinoiserie.
Over time, chinoiserie (from the French word chinois, meaning Chinese) as a design element has come and gone in cycles. It was particularly prevalent from about 1750 to about 1765, in tandem with a period during which Baroque, highly gilded and Rococo styles were seen in the royal courts of England and France. Chinoiserie, on the other hand, was lighter – white and light blue – and added a calm feeling to stiff, formal surroundings. In 1670, King Louis XIV created an entire room at Versailles that was decorated exclusively in chinoiserie. He was not alone, The homes of royals and aristocrats throughout Continental Europe and even early America were decorated with their owners’ own collections of chinoiserie.
Collectors will find blue and white export porcelain china primarily identified as being from the Yuan Dynasty (1215 to 1332) beginning with Kublai Khan and Marco Polo’s association with his court, then the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Qing Dynasty (1616 to 1917) and ending with the reign of Puyi, the last Emperor of China.
The reverse of official Chinese porcelain created at the royal porcelain factories in Jingdezhen will show the specific “reign mark” for each respective emperor. There are usually six reign marks and are read from top to bottom, then right to left. The first two refer to the dynasty, the second two refer to the emperor and the third set translates as “made for.” In porcelain featuring only four reign marks, the first two referring to the dynasty weren’t added.
Earlier reign marks, from the late 14th-century Ming Dynasty forward, were deliberately added to some porcelain produced in the 19th century. It was intended as a show of respect, not as a deception, but it can be difficult to discern an original from a later piece on the basis of reign marks alone. Guide to Marks on Chinese Porcelain by Gerald Davidson can help identify and translate reign marks more effectively.
When examining early chinoiserie porcelain, be careful of flaking or any unnatural brown or yellow color, as it is a sign the piece has possibly been repaired. Always use a flashlight to help find any small cracks. It’s possible that small chips may have been repaired and covered over with paste.
On chinoiserie furniture, one might see a pattern that features red and black lacquer finish with gold or painted accented Chinese elements. Bamboo, lacquered wood, red sandalwood, brass, and very detailed fretwork are consistent design elements for tables, chairs, cabinets, secretaries, bed frames, trunks and other necessary home furnishings beginning in the early 17th century.
Father and son craftsmen who were both named Thomas Chippendale were the most notable furniture designers to utilize elements of chinoiserie in their pieces. Fretwork lattice-backed chairs are their most famous iteration of chinoiserie. They primarily used maple, walnut, cherry and some veneers for their furniture and chairs, although they are mostly known for their use of mahogany, a hardwood. All Chippendale furniture is popular at auction, but chinoiserie is the most sought after. There are no personal or factory marks to confirm that a piece of furniture is a Chippendale production, so it is advisable to buy from a reputable, knowledgeable auction house when seeking an authentic item.
Furniture collectors should focus on the material from which a piece is constructed. Pieces made from Chinese hardwoods like huanghuali and zitan are most likely to increase in value. Furniture should be jointed, with no glue, nails or staples.
Even after nearly 400 years, the chinoiserie style that evolved from the Chinese export market remains a staple in the design of elegant interiors, bring peace and harmony to any environment it graces.
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