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  • Monique Riccardi-Cubitt

Term derived from chinois (Fr.: ‘Chinese’) denoting a type of European art dominated by Chinese or pseudo-Chinese ornamental motifs. The term is most often applied to decorative arts produced from the second half of the 17th century to the early 19th, when trading contacts between Europe and East Asia were at their height.

1. Origins.

Although overland and sea routes had brought a steady supply of Asian spices, silk, furs, ivory and other commodities to the ancient world, it was Marco Polo who first fired the imagination of the West with his description of his travels and experiences at Kublai Khan’s court that he published after his return to Venice in 1295. Other travellers also recorded their tales, the most famous being the pseudonymous ‘Sir John Mandeville’ whose Travels was published in Lyons in 1480. Its fairy-tale evocation of the Near East and East Asia was translated into every European language and fuelled a longing for ‘Cathay’. This romantic vision, taking the various forms of Chinoiserie, Orientalism and Japonisme, characterized the Western view of Asia until the 20th century.

2. Ceramics.

Direct trade with China was established by the Portuguese in 1554 and expanded rapidly after the formation of the British East India Company in 1600 and the Dutch Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) two years later. Thereafter spices and other goods were imported on a regular basis, including the highly prized blue-and-white porcelain first described by Marco Polo. This mysterious substance—white, hard and translucent—was thought to hold nearly magical properties in the West. Some Chinese pieces had found their way to Europe and were displayed in Kunst- und Wunderkammern alongside such rarities as ostrich eggs, shells and other exotica, often set in European mounts of gold, silver gilt or ormolu to enhance their value and rarity. As trade with China increased and prospered, so too did the desire to produce porcelain in Europe. The first successful attempt was made at the Medici court in Florence in 1575 by the architect Bernardo Buontalenti. He produced basins, jugs and vases in blue-and-white soft-paste porcelain decorated with very early chinoiserie motifs; about 60 pieces have survived (e.g. London, V&A; New York, Met.). Nevertheless, until the 18th century it was Dutch tin-glazed earthenware that imitated most successfully the style and technique of Chinese export porcelain (chine de commande). The taste for Chinese blue-and-white ware prompted the development of delftware, a tin-glazed earthenware with cobalt-blue decoration in the style of porcelain made in China during the Wanli period (1573–1620). Chinese motifs were used to decorate forms derived from Dutch silver or maiolica, or from imported East Asian wares. In China, export porcelain was produced specifically for the Western market at the same time. As design models were traded between East and West, individual motifs became increasingly fanciful; these included figures in Oriental dress with fans and parasols, exotic birds, bridges, pagodas and stylized landscapes, some of which can be seen on a wig stand (London, V&A) by Samuel van Eenhorn (fl 1674–86).

In England, factories in Southwark, Brislington, Bristol and Lambeth also produced blue-and-white delftware decorated with chinoiserie motifs inspired by original Chinese or Dutch imitation prototypes. In France blue-and-white faience in the Dutch chinoiserie style was produced in Rouen, Moustiers and Nevers. Blue-and-white chinoiserie faience was fashionable throughout the 17th century and most of the 18th. Imported Chinese pieces were still avidly collected by the wealthy and were sometimes displayed in special rooms called Cabinets Chinois (see Cabinet §4, (i)), in vitrines, on shelves or brackets, or massed on top of cabinets. Entire porcelain rooms were also created, including one designed c. 1690 by Daniel Marot I for Het Loo in the Netherlands, and later re-created (now destr.), by Queen Mary, at Hampton Court. After the formula for hard-paste porcelain was discovered in Meissen c. 1708–9, rooms were made wholly of European porcelain decorated with Chinese figures and scenes: the Salottino di Porcellana in the Palazzo Reale in Pórtici, near Naples, contained an entire room made of 3000 interlocking panels of porcelain made at the factory of Capodimonte and decorated with Chinese figures modelled in relief and painted in Rococo settings of rocaille and scrollwork (1757–9; Naples, Capodimonte). Until the mid-18th century chinoiserie porcelain combined Chinese forms and designs with motifs derived from the Imari and Kakiemon ceramics produced by the Arita kilns (province of Hizen) in Japan. After 1752 porcelain produced at Sèvres and decorated with enamelled flowers, birds, or landscape paintings on richly coloured grounds became more fashionable.

3. Lacquer.

An enthusiasm for lacquer painted with oriental motifs was also an important aspect of chinoiserie (see Lacquer, §I, 3). Lacquer was first imported from Japan in 1542 and soon became one of the most important export commodities of the East. Most pieces were either used as screens (see Leather, §3, (i), (c)) or made into cabinets of a European form based on a Spanish or Portuguese prototype of a chest divided into tiers of drawers; these were imported from China, Japan and India by the Dutch East India Company. Such cabinets were highly prized and given a prominent place in early inventories: Cardinal Mazarin had some ‘Cabinets de la Chine’ listed among his oriental objects in 1658. At Ham House, Surrey, the 1679 inventory described an ‘Indian Cabinet’ with a carved gilt frame in the Long Gallery; it is still in situ and is characteristic of the export lacquer cabinets for which a European stand in the Baroque style would have been provided.

Lacquer was imitated in Europe from the early 17th century (see Lacquer, §I, 3). In the Netherlands the first mention of japanning ‘after the fashion of China’ dates from 1609 with William Kick, a member of Lackwerken, the japanners’ guild of Amsterdam (1610). Nuremberg, Augsburg and Hamburg also produced japanned wares. In France it was called ‘Lachinage’ and in 1661 Gole [Golle], Pierre provided two japanned tables for the château of Vincennes. In England japanning became a fashionable pastime for ladies after the publication in 1688 of Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing. The book provided technical hints and designs inspired by imported lacquer as well as by blue-and-white porcelain and the exotic ‘Cathay’ motifs of the engraver Matthias Beilter, whose designs were published in Holland in 1616. Many types of furniture and other objects were covered in naive chinoiserie figures. At the end of the 17th century the Netherlands, England and the town of Spa in Belgium were the most important centres for japanning, while in Boston, MA, there were several outstanding japanners, among them John Pimm (fl 1740–50), who created the japanned tallboy (1740–50) in the H. F. Du Pont Winterthur Museum, Wintherthur, DE. Entire rooms were decorated with japanned panels; an example is the Japan Closet by Gerrit Jensen at Chatsworth, Derbys, completed in the 1680s.

In the 18th century, commodes, bureaux, encoignures and secrétaires were decorated with panels of lacquer set within japanned or vernis Martin surrounds and enriched with elaborate ormolu mounts. The nobility were carried around the streets of London in lacquered sedan chairs. Paris was the leading centre for cabinetmaking and when Thomas Chippendale (i) published his Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director in 1754 most of the designs were in a modified French Rococo style, with some in the Gothick and Chinese taste. ‘Chinese Chippendale’ was inspired by the interest in oriental art and architecture represented by such books as Chinese and Gothic Architecture Properly Ornamented (1752) by William Halfpenny and John Halfpenny.

4. Metalwork and objects of vertu.

In metalwork, chinoiserie motifs for flat-chasing on toilet-sets and punch-bowls were designed by Daniel Marot I in the 17th century and by Christophe Huet (see Huet family, §1) and Jean Pillement in the 18th century. Such motifs are especially evident in English silver produced between 1680 and 1720. In the mid-18th century chinoiserie tea-caddies were especially popular, either lavishly embossed with oriental scenes or engraved with bands of ornament and pseudo-Chinese characters in imitation of tea bales shipped from China (e.g. silver tea-caddy by Louisa Courtauld and George Cowles, 1773; London, V&A). In France, exquisite snuff-boxes made during the first half of the 18th century featured enamelled chinoiserie decoration on a gold ground or Chinese or Japanese lacquer mounted in gold. A snuff-box by Nicholas Prevost (fl 1742–56) has gold fans copied from the borders of Chinese screens set into panels of imitation lacquer in purple and black (1750–56; Lugano, Col. Thyssen-Bornemisza).

5. Textiles.

Patterned silks were a major and early vehicle for the introduction of Chinese designs to the West. Dragons, dogs, lions and phoenixes feature in Italian silks of the 14th century, and the geometric fretwork in the background of German linen embroideries of the same date may also have a Chinese origin. A more conscious dependency followed the opening-up of trade with East Asia during the 16th century and its expansion in the 17th. The channelling of Chinese and Japanese goods through India blurred Western views of their individual traits and resulted, for example, in English embroideries of c. 1700 showing the Indian tree of life standing within a bamboo fence on Chinese rocks and alive with phoenixes and long-tailed cranes. Birds and blue-and-white china were the favoured Chinese motifs on amateur embroideries of the late 17th century and early 18th but, in professionally produced textiles, the dress and occupations of the Chinese were preferred; they feature, for example, in the masquerade costumes (c. 1700) designed by Jean Bérain I and in the wall panels of applied pieces of Indian painted cottons (1720s; Vienna, Mus. Angewandte Kst) that were made for the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th several tapestry series were woven in France, England and Germany on the theme of Chinese life. The Manufacture Royale des Tapisseries at Beauvais introduced the first set of ‘Tentures chinoises’ after cartoons by Guy-Louis Vernansal (1648–1729), Jean-Baptiste Belin (1654–1715) and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, also known as ‘Baptiste’; a second set after designs by François Boucher was produced in 1742 and copied numerous times. Tapestries with chinoiserie motifs were also being produced at the Gobelins at this time (see France, Republic of, §XI, 1, (iv)). The silk designers were initially less obvious in their use of Chinese motifs, although some figures, mixed with Indian images, appear in French and Italian silks of c. 1700, and Chinese-style buildings hide among the exotic foliage of the designs (c. 1705) of James Leman (1688–1745). In the mid-1730s the French designer Jean Revel (1684–1751) produced a number of chinoiserie silk designs in an early Rococo style, and from the mid-1750s Pillement, Jean(-Baptiste) engraved fanciful chinoiserie designs that were drawn upon by other textile designers in his One Hundred and Thirty Figures and Ornaments and Some Flowers in the Chinese Style (London, 1767). His designs also appeared in such source books as Recueil de différentes fleurs dans le goût chinois, propres aux manufactures d’étoffes de soie et d’indiennes (London, 1760) and were used by English cotton printers (see Cotton, §2) and, in the 1780s, by the Oberkampf factory at Jouy (e.g. Mulhouse, Mus. Impression Etoffes; London, V&A). Delicate floral designs showing varying degrees of Chinese influence appeared on embroideries, woven silks and printed cottons into the 1790s and there was a brief revival of printed cottons decorated with bamboo interlacing and Chinese flowers in the early 19th century.

6. Architecture and interior decoration.

In architecture, the taste for chinoiserie was most apparent in fanciful garden follies. The fashion for ‘Anglo-Chinese’ follies that swept across Europe was started by William Chambers, who had travelled to China. His pagoda at Kew Gardens (1761–2) was imitated in Munich and Amboise, although nothing quite rivalled the picturesque Chinesisches Haus (1754) designed by Johann Gottfried Bürring at Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam. An important English example of the influence of chinoiserie is the Royal Pavilion (c. 1815) at Brighton, where Indian and Chinese motifs mingle in an apotheosis of oriental luxury and splendour (for illustration see Overdoor).

In about 1650 Chinese wallpaper was imported into Europe, although it was often thought to be Indian; in 1753 the boudoir of the Duchesse de Mortemart was described as ‘Un Cabinet de Papier des Indes’ (H. Henry: Dictionnaire de l’ameublement et de la décoration depuis le XVIIième siècle jusqu’à nos jours, i (Paris, 1887), p. 491). Imitation Chinese wallpaper was produced in England by the 1680s and in America by 1700 (see Wallpaper, §II, 1). Chintz and wallpaper were used primarily in private rooms, and reception rooms were hung with japanned or painted panels in the Chinese manner.

During the 18th century the taste for chinoiserie reached its height in France, where the word was first used in conjunction with the Régence style of Jean Bérain I, Claude Audran III and Antoine Watteau; it subsequently spread throughout Europe with the dissemination of the Rococo style. Rooms were decorated in a light-hearted, fanciful chinoiserie manner that reflected a new feeling for a more relaxed way of life. Antoine Watteau’s graceful arabesques exemplified the gay and elegant spirit of the Régence, and in 1709 his panels (destr.) for the Cabinet du Roi at the château of La Muette were engraved by François Boucher as Figures Chinoises et Tartares, depicting an ‘Empereur chinois’ and a ‘Divinité chinoise’. Christophe Huet followed the fashion at the château of Champs and the château of Chantilly, where his decorations, called Singerie, used monkeys in a chinoiserie type of grotesque first introduced by Bérain. Watteau produced designs (Stockholm, N.Mus.) for singerie (destr.) at the château of Marly. The Rococo style developed in the early 1730s in the work of Nicolas Pineau and Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, who assimilated chinoiserie elements into their designs for fanciful, assymetric ornament. Although chinoiserie survived the more rigorous Neo-classical style of the latter part of the 18th century, the Revival styles of the 19th century brought about its demise. Orientalism remained a favourite theme in painting, however, and, with the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854, Japonisme became an important influence on the decorative arts.


  • H. Belevich-Stankevich: Le Goût chinois en France sous Louis XIV (Paris, 1910)
  • J. Guerin: La Chinoiserie en Europe au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1911)
  • H. Honour: Chinoiserie (London, 1961)
  • T. H. Lusingh-Scheurleer: Chine de commande (London, 1974)
  • O. Impey: Chinoiserie (London, 1977)
  • M. Jarry: Chinoiserie (Fribourg, 1981)
  • D. Jacobson: Chinoiserie (London, 1999)