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The Boucher And Chinoiserie History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Chinese culture, history and civilization have gradually trickled into the Europe since the 1st century. Although very few Westerners had been to the East, oriental silk, tea and other curiosities were transported to the West via the Silk Road. [1] Meanwhile, Europeans never stopped trying to construct their own images of the other side of the world. By merging their imaginations and the real goods of the Far East, they created a false image of a peaceful utopia in the East.

With the development of transportation, the Europeans gained increased access to Eastern products. During the 17th and 18th century, European nobility was in favor of oriental curiosities. Chinese porcelains, silk, garden plans, Japanese lacquer, and Indian fabrics were incorporated into the aristocratic collections. The word “Chinoiserie”, signifying “Chinese-esque” was created to describe the oriental style. This French term especially reflects the fascination with Chinese art of Europe. Based on exotic objects and ornaments, Europeans applied Chinoiserie style widely in the decorative art, garden, and interior design.

Edward Said, the American literary theoretician, once claimed that the concept of the Orient was in many respects a European invention, which created a false “a place of romance, exotic beings… and landscape, remarkable experience.” [2] Due to the Europeans’ misunderstanding of the Far East, Chinoisere, became an artistic term that encompassed the stylistic components of Japanese, Indian and other oriental cultures.

Boucher and Chinoiserie

Francois Boucher, a proponent of Rococo taste, dedicated his enthusiasm to Chinoiserie in the mid-18th century, when the fashion was at its height. In the 1740s, Boucher produced ten sketches for the second La Tenture chinoise series, six of which were then rendered into tapestries. The surviving oil sketches are at the moment exhibited in the Musee des Beaux-Art Besancon. The subject of the images includes Chinese feasts, fairs, fishing, dancing, hunting, gardens and weddings. (Festin de l’empereur de Chine (ill. 1), L’Audience de l’empereur de Chine (ill. 2), La Foire chinoise (ill. 3), La Danse chinoise (ill. 4), La Pêche chinoise, La Chasse chinoise, La Vue d’un jardin chinois (ill. 5), Un Mariage chinois (ill. 6), Curiosité chinoise, L’Oiseau à bonne fortune). These images, motivated art craftsmen of chinoiserie, were soon imitated by workshops throughout Europe.

Jo Hedley points out that, Boucher likely derived inspiration of chinoiserie from travel books and his own collection. Merchants, diplomats and missionaries, who had come to the orient, love to depict their journeys to the east in travelogues. Meeting the curiosity of the public, these books were welcomed, and Nieuhof’s travelogue is an excellent example of the warm reception. Johan Nieuhof, a Dutch traveler, went to China and India in the second half of the 17th century. The book, An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperor of China, describing Nieuhof’s trip from Canton to Beijing during the 1650s, Established him as a writer on China. In the book, Nieuhof painted many illustrations of China. Published in 1666 in Paris, and 1667 in London, this book provided significant visual sources of China in Europe. [3] Besides Nieuhof, Kirchner (La Chine d’Athanase Kirchnere illustre de plusieurs monuments sacres que profanes avec un Dictionnaire, Amsterdam, 2 vols. 1670) and Montanus (A. Montanus, Ambassades vers les empereurs du Japon, Amsterdam, 1680), also contributed to the oriental travelogues in the 17th century. Although there is no evidence to attest to Boucher’s reading of these texts, [4] it still worth speculation as these would have been the sources available to artists who had not actually traveled to the east.

Moreover, Boucher’s posthumous sale catalogue records his Chinese collection. [5] He owned a quantity of Chinese jade, paintings, porcelains, furniture, teapots, boxes, chopsticks, fans, screens, and silverware. He also possessed a number of statues, including over forty pieces of Pagods and Magots’ s Statues, which depict the Chinese god of good fortune and happiness. These exotic objects, transported by the East Indian Company from Asia, support the illustrations in travelogues, and played an essential role in helping the artist create convincing China’s images in Chinoiserie works.

The explorations of the subjects from the orient soon appear in Boucher’s early works, for example, Le Déjeuner (ill. 7), created in 1739. This painting illustrates a family enjoying lunch. The young man, standing in front of a shelf, has been identified as Boucher, and other figures are his wife, children and servant. [6] The family surrounds a lacquer table holding a far eastern tea set. An oriental teapot and a fat Mairewya Buddha are exhibited on the shelf in the background. All of these objects could be found in Boucher’s sale catalogue, reflecting Boucher’s tastes of fashion and chinoiserie collection. Additionally, this painting exemplifies Boucher’s preference in creating portraitures. Hedley concludes, “Boucher, was no ape of nature. His genius was for idealization and he generally avoided specific characterization, and normally even the lucrative practice of portrait painting.” [7] His delicate oriental collection displays the artist’s preference of exquisite beauty. When luxurious items meet portraits, the light of the ideal material life covers figures’ character and emotions. His fondness of depicting real objects, decorations, settings, and background rather than the figure’s personality, also shows on his other group portraits, such the second La Tenture Chinoise series.

Boucher’s advisor, Antoine Watteau had previously created a series of thirty paintings of Chinese subjects around the 1730’s. Each painting presents a single Chinese figure standing or sitting in the open air, surrounded by simple settings. These works, marked by Katie Scott, as “Watteau’s largest and most ambitious decorative ensemble,” [8] provided Boucher an essential opportunity to practice Chinese looking people. The widow Jean de Jullienne, a print-seller, assigned Boucher to engrave Watteau’s work, and then placed them in a cabinet of the Chateau de la Muette, which had been designed to exhibit solely Chinoiserie luxuries. Although this cabinet no longer survives, copies of Boucher’s engravings are exhibited in the British Museum. From the existing paintings, we can figure out Watteau’s understanding of Chinese figures. For example, in Tao Kou ou Religieuse de Tau (ill. 8), a woman sits on a hill, holding a very Chinese fan. Trees and a bridge in the background display a pastoral scene, which often appears in western paintings. Although the artist intends to represent Chinese women, the western face and the not so Chinese robe make the women a little strange. Despite the inappropriate combination, it is still an honest attempt at portraying a foreign culture. Furthermore, it would allow Boucher the opportunity to become acquainted with Chinoiserie.

Rather than emulating his advisor’s style, Boucher continued to explore the way to paint Chinese figures. Between 1738 and 1745, Boucher designed and engraved a set of Chinese figures for the Recueil de diverses chinoises du Cabinet de Fr. Boucher peintre du Roi. This series consists of twelve plates and was published by Gabriel Huquier. The contents and composition of Boucher’s work are similar with Watteau’s collection. However, when comparing Boucher’s figures with Watteau’s, Boucher’s creations present more reliable details of Chinese. For example, in illustration 9, Boucher depicts a Chinese woman carrying a basket. We can trace the hairstyle and the dress to the images on eastern trading goods. The face of the woman is more close to realistic Chinese face than that in Watteau’s collection.

Before Boucher’s publication of the second chinoise series, in 1690s, the Manufacture des Gobelins produced the first edition of La Tenture chinoise. This set, containing 9 pieces of work, focuses on a variety of daily activities of Manchu emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) of the Qing dynasty. Several artists were involved in designing this series, such as, Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-1699), Guy Louis Vernansal (1648-1729), and Jean Baptiste Belin de Fontenay (1653-1715). [9] 

L’Audience de l’empereur de Chine (ill. 10) displays an audience with the Chinese emperor. The first series of this work incorporates a range of diverse exotic elements. Although the painting intends to express a Chinese subject, the majority of objects in the painting are not Chinese. The guards’ and empress’s costumes, the loggia-like structure, the throne, and the dark-skinned slaves, depicting a mixture style of India, Japan, the Middle East, and Africa, reflects European’s illusion of exotic cultures. The set of La Tenture chinoise experienced short-term popularity. However, with the development of Chinoiserie, people have a higher demand for Chinese visual images. When the cartoons were deemed outmoded, Boucher designed a new program for the second edition of images.

Although with the same title, Boucher’s L’Audience de l’empereur de Chine (ill. 2) is quite different from the one of the first set. Boucher emphasized the portraits of different people rather than the exotic settings and constructions. The emperor sits at the center of the picture, on an elevated platform. His empress sits below him and gently leans on his right side. Three canopies are set behind the emperor. Female servants are placed all around. In front of the emperor, people kneel on the ground, showing their respect to the ruler. We can easily realize the influence of Boucher’s earlier practices. For example, the empress’s hairstyle and the old man with beard, could be attributed to the Recueil work the artist produced from 1738 to 1745. We can also trace the hair of the kneeling men to Watteau’s I Geng ou Medicin Chinois (ill. 8), in the Muette series.

Moreover, A man with a straw hat, suggesting either a Chinese farmer or fisherman, found on the left of the composition can also be found in the Element of Fire (ill. 11), La Foire chinoise (ill. 3), La Danse chinoise (ill. 4), and La Vue d’un jardin chinois (ill.5). Rather than indicating the identity of the straw-hat man, Boucher is more likely to portray the parasol-like hat. In La Vue d’un jardin chinois, for instance, the hat on the right side can be compared with the larger thatched parasol on the left; and in La Danse chinoise, the function of the hat is highlighted by people around the straw-hat man. According to Boucher’s collection discussed above, the artist obtained a Chinese parasol and hat, and thus explains his constant inclusion of these objects. On the other hand, Boucher seems to neglect the characteristic of figures in this group portrait. We cannot tell the emotions of these people from their similar and simple faces. But the detailed settings and objects imply that the figures in this paintings are more likely models displaying the oriental objects, the real “leading role”.

It is curious to think why was Boucher more interested in painting authentic Chinese objects and decorations rather than the real Chinese faces or portraits. Is it because he does not know what does Chinese look like? According to his collection, this may not be the answer, because he did collect Chinese paintings. [10] The combination of western faces and eastern settings show the connection of these paintings with the European society.

When masquerade meets costume portraits

To celebrate the new year of the new century in 1700, Louis XIV held a Chinese masquerade at the Versailles. Wearing Chinese clothes, and sitting on a Chinese sedan chair, the king’s debut astonished people. The chinoiserie decoration in the Versailles set the best background for the masquerade. Actors and actresses wore Chinese dress and played Chinese music for the New Year party. [11] 

Boucher’s La Danse chinoise (ill. 4) is a reflection of this masquerade. In the painting, a group of people sings and dances against a tropical background. Palm trees, lush plants, and temple-like structures surround the people. A noble man, sitting on a platform, enjoys the dance and music around him. Noticeably, although people in this painting play Chinese instruments, and the gesture of the white man playing the mandolin, is suggested to have originated from images depicted on imported Chinese porcelains. [12] The scene of playing music in the garden is more widely seen in Rococo art, for example, Watteau’s paintings, such as The Love Song, Recreation Galante, and Mezzetin (ill. 12).

Along with La Danse chinoise, the preliminary oil painting of La Vue d’un jardin chinois was exhibited in the French Salon exhibition in 1742. According to Jo Hedley, this painting is a delicious masquerade of the themes dear to the 18th century disguised in Chinese fancy dress. [13] 

Masquerade, popularized in the 18th century Europe, was originally applied to the English festival, the “Antiquarius,” dated back to Edward III’s reign (1327-1377), [14] and was used in the late 16th century. The term, in the Oxford English Dictionary advocates both Arabic source, “maskhara,” meaning “laughing-stock” or “buffoon”, and French source “mascurer,” meaning “to blacken the face.” [15] 

The eighteenth century masquerade ball held deep roots in European court entertainment traditions. In the House of Tudor, masked balls played a significant role in the noble’s lives. In the seventeenth century, nobility disguised themselves as gods and goddesses and acted out fantastic allegories of court life. Then in the early of the 18th century, the “Midnight Masquerade” stepped into the urban public life. “It was again supported by aristocracy and people of fashion, and in turn stimulated the court’s fascination with exotic costumes, jewelry and make-up.” [16] 

Ribeiro states that many contemporary sources give evidence to the existence of people wearing dress copied from old paintings at masquerades. Such as the report written in 1742 by van Dyck Walpole: “there were quantities of pretty Vandykes and all kinds of old pictures walked out of their frames.” [17] Interesting, when this fashion extended to the creation of portraitures, artists directly turned old masters work into portraits of living nobles. The imitation was carried out, numerous images of van Dyck’s gentlemen and Rubens’ ladies were then appeared. Portraiture painters retained clothes and settings of a famed masterpiece, and changed the figure’s face. Although the portraitures seem to link the sitter with the prevailing fashion, the sitter lost their characteristics in the creation. Just as the figures in Boucher’s work, they are models for the clothes, objects, or the techniques of masters, but not the lead in the paintings.

The surviving masquerade pattern books record the Chinese fancy dresses. For example, in Jefferys’ A Collection of the Dresses of Different Nations. Ill. 13 shows a masquerade scene at the Pantheon, London in 1772. On the left of this picture, a man dressed as a Mandarin. Other dresses can be seen in the contemporary newspaper illustrations of popular masquerades. (See ill. 14) People did not just wear dresses of the contemporary Qing dynasty, but the former Ming dynasty. Although few portraits of sitters in Chinese costume have been survived, we can still trace the Chinese costume portraits in Catherine Read’s Lady Harriet Christian Fox Strangways (ill. 15). In this painting, the lady wears a Chinese outfit with a high collar and fastening on the tunic. The hat, even though inaccurate, can be found in portraitures of empress’ in Qing dynasty (ill. 22 right). Zoffany’s Two Children in Oriental Costume (ill. 16) is another example of figures in traditional garments. The child on the left wears a Mandarin dress without the projecting shoulder wigs, depicted in Jefferys’ pattern book (ill. 17). The other child wears an embroidered Indian dress and a turban.

The figures in Boucher’s La Tenture Chinoiserie are not real Chinese people. Many Chinese researches on this topic focus more on the descriptions of Chinese images in European’s eyesight. [18] But to say that the images of the so-called Chinese emperor, empress, and servants display the artist’s imagination of the east is too superficial. Firstly, it was not only the artist’s speculation. Other sources also took part in this image making process, such as the travelogues, and trading objects previously mentioned. Secondly, rather than acquiring real Chinese items, the European customers would like to embellish their lives with some exotic elements. The custom-made trading porcelain is an example. European customers did not prefer some authentic Chinese decoration such as objects decorated with dragons. East Indian Companies commissioned Chinese craftsmen to produce specific forms of porcelains decorated with specific motifs preferred by their customers. Sketches or wooden samples were constantly sent to China. [19] Furthermore, Boucher did have access to real Chinese paintings, as seen in his collections. If he really favored Chinese art, why did he not reproduce these images faithfully? It would be better to think that the combination of western faces and Asian background reveals the chinoiserie masquerade in France and group costume portraits around 18th century. As the royal painter, Boucher was tasked with recording the scenes and the European’s mishmashed representation of the East.

Similar to Louis XIV, Emperor Yongzheng of the contemporary Chinese court also enjoyed masquerading as others. An album of 14 leaves portrays him in various guises. There are depictions of him as a Persian warrior holding a bow and arrow and as a Turkic prince receiving a peach from a black ape. Additional guises include, daoist magician, Tibetan monk, Mongolian nobleman, daydreaming fisherman and Han literati. (ill. 18)

Strikingly, the album also shows the emperor’s portraiture as a European gentleman, wearing a black curly-haired wig (ill. 19 left). But instead of performing European activities, the Chinese emperor attempts to kill a tiger with a spear. This scene could be attributed to the Chinese household heroic story “Wusong Kill the Tiger” in the book of Heroes of Marshes. The emperor, in a western guise, acting as an eastern fictional hero, is amusing. The mixture of western dress, Chinese settings and context gives rise to the question: who on earth did the emperor want to be? A Chinese hero, a westerner, or an odd amalgamation of the two? However, no historical clue reveals Yongzheng’s original motivation. At least, this painting reveals the emperor’s willingness to be guised as a westerner. Yang Boda, art historian and the former vice president of the Palace museum, advocates that emperors of Qing dynasty controlled the royal painters’ creations strictly, especially when dealing with the imperial portraitures. “Only after inspection and approval of a preliminary version [by emperors] was painter permitted to officially undertake the full painting.” [20] 

Except the killing-tiger portrait, the emperor Yongzheng has another portraiture in western guise (ill. 19 right). Without any discrepancy in representation, this ¾ bust looks more formal. But interestingly, the emperor did not change his clothes, still wearing the same wig, coat, and collar from the killing-tiger one. From these two portraits, we may begin to speculate if the Emperor owned an actual western outfit, as the details in the two paintings seem to suggest the court painter had been painting from a model. No evidence supports this assumption. However, if one portrait suggests the emperor’s interest in presenting himself as a Westerner, the two together seem to present him as a brave and strong western hero.

Wu Hung indicates that although Yongzheng’s two western-dress portraits seem to shape symmetry with European Oriental-dress portraiture, such as Boucher’s work, they were completely different, and even implicated opposing meanings. The European ones “show the expansion of western culture into Asia,” while the Qing examples, “were imperial, and only renewed the time honored self-imagination of a Chinese ruler as One Man under Heaven.” [21] 

Based on the historical map in Qing dynasty, Mongol and Tibet were all under the control of the Chinese emperor. Han people, the majority of Chinese population, conquered by Manchu rulers, covered ¾ of Chinese territory. Turkey and Persia, to the west of China, did not have much communication with the country in the East. Therefore, The Manchu ruler’s diverse guises cannot be explained generally as a self-imagination or presenting the image of the Emperor being a man of the people. The Han guises indeed serve as a populist approach to the Han literati, and ordinary Han people. The Mongolian and Tibetan guises can be interpreted as “one man under heaven.” Meanwhile, Yongzheng has Manchu, Mongol, and Han bloods [22] , which also makes sense to explain these three guises.

Moreover, Yongzheng was not a belligerent ruler. During the thirteen years reign, except five wars against insurgencies in China, he did not invade any country. To say Yongzheng had no ambitions of conquering other nations is not strictly true. However, he was not at liberty to imagine the glories of conquest as he inherited a nation with a weak economy. The national treasury was almost empty when Yongzheng ascended the throne. However, the hardworking emperor accumulated a great deal of wealth for his inheritor, Qianlong, who reigned during the most prosperous period in the Qing dynasty. Based on the existing manuscripts of the emperor, some scholars have computed that, Yongzheng wrote 7000-8,000 words on average per day, dealing with daily issues of the empire, for thirteen years. [23] 

Before and after Yongzheng, there was no other Chinese emperor who approved a self-portrait as a Westerner. At least, Yongzheng’s western-dress portraitures are the only two left to the present days. Actually, costume portraits of emperors first appeared in Yongzheng’s period. His son, the emperor Qianlong, left behind many costume portraits (ill. 20), which is apparently influenced by his father. At any rate, it is interesting to explore what element inspired Yongzheng, an introvert and diligent ruler, to be portrayed in European, Persian and Turkic guises. Is it possible to speculate that the masquerade, popularizing in Europe at this time, also exerted an influence in Yongzheng’s several costume portraits?

Based on current historical records, it may be difficult to trace if there is a real masquerade in Yongzheng’s period or in Qing dynasty. But at least, Yongzheng and his son emperor Qianlong are both interested in acting as others. Yongzheng and his wives indeed wear farmers’ clothes and practiced farm work out of the palace. The album Tilling and Weaving (Geng Zhi Tu) (ill. 21), records this activity. His son, Qianlong, built a special street, Suzhou jie, in the Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan). The emperor asked hundreds of his servants and officials to act as vendors, sellers, customers, thieves, beggars, etc. He and his wives enjoyed acting as ordinary people in the fabricated urban atmosphere.

What did the emperors expect to gain from the role-playing activities? Yongzheng and Qianlong provided different answers. The Tilling and Weaving album, is likely to be a teaching or a political propaganda to display the ruler’s attention and support to agriculture. Since China was an agricultural society in Qing dynasty, Yongzheng and his royal ladies were held up as models for ordinary people. Additionally, Yongzheng did actually enjoy pastoral life. To avoid the political struggle when he was a prince, he spent most of his time on a farm. It exactly Yongzheng’s willingness to participate in farm labor that set him apart from his licentious brothers and assured his father of his propensity to rule. Whether this episode in his life was a ruse or the subsequent living in the imperial city required Yongzheng to put on a placid face, his successful masquerades aroused his interest in hiding himself under diverse guises. By masquerading as others, Yongzheng seemed have found the potential to explore his other self, which had been long forced to remain solemn as the ruler of China.

Unlike his father, Qianlong focuses more on incorporating his collections in the costume portraits, even the form of the works are based on old Chinese paintings. Wu Hung argues, the emperor wanted to show that he had power but literally and symbolically over everything. “He had literally to embody these works by transforming them into his costume portraits.” [24] And the theater-like street, for the emperor, would better be regarded as a living cabinet. Instead of imitating the real urban street, Qianlong made it an extravagant representation of reality. He asked people to transport sculptures, architectures, and other curiosities from the southern China to the street. Maybe he did not intend to experience ordinary life, but to exhibit his wealth and powerfulness in another approach: he was the director, producer, and the investor of the play.

The Meeting of East and West

The identity of Yongzheng’s portrait painters has not been recorded in history. But we could still speculate that the western painters took part in the creation. In Qing dynasty, a number of western missionaries dominate the royal painting academy, especially in Yongzheng and Qianlong’s reigns. Although these western missionaries were supposed to preach Christian religions, Chinese emperors showed little interest on it. On the contrary, they were fascinated by missionaries’ knowledge of science, math, astronomy, and art. In the early Qing dynasty, some Jesuits served as emperor’s teacher, such as Johann Adam Schall von Bel. Schall von Bel helped emperor Shunzhi win military success, taught him scientific knowledge, and was called by the young emperor as “grandpa Bel”. Other talented Jesuits become royal artists. They spread European artistic skills, attended architecture design, and influenced the fascination of “western-esque” among Chinese aristocracy. The Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) is the most influential one.

Born in Milan, Castiglione studied painting in Italy. In 1715, at the age of 27, he went to China, and spent the rest of his life in Chinese court. He served for emperor Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, witnessed the most prosperous times in Qing dynasty. As a royal painter, Castiglione skilled in various subjects, including still life, birds and flowers, and historical paintings. Significantly, he paints portraits for the emperor and his wives (ill. 22).

Nie Chongzheng, researcher of the Palace Museum, indicates that Castiglione may have been responsible for all of Qianlong’s images, at least all of the emperor’s faces. [25] In some situations, Castiglione and other western painters just painted the face of the sitter, leaving the rest part to their Chinese colleagues or their disciples. For example, in a historical record of Qing dynasty, the emperor asked Ding Guanpeng and other Chinese painters created four female portraitures for the painting “Bie You Dong Tian,” but left all faces to the French artist, Denis Attiret. [26] Sometimes, western painters contributed more in a painting, they painted the leading figures and let others finished the backgrounds. The Qianlong Emperor as a Chinese scholar in a Snowy Landscape (ill. 23) is a special example. The emperor himself imitated an old painting created by Xiang Shengmo in Ming dynasty, and then summoned Castiglione to paint Qianlong’s portrait in a Han scholar guise. In the postscript of the painting, the emperor happily stated his cooperation with the Italian artist. The contradiction of Chinese settings and western figure in Yongzheng’s western guise may reflect the cooperation too.

In 1765, with the assistance of French artist Denis Attiret, Italian artist Joannes Damasceuns Salusti, and Bohemian artist Ignatius Sickltart, Castiglione finished the historical paintings Pingding Zhunbu Huibu Zhan Tu (ill. 24) to record Qianlong’s triumph of conquering Xinjiang. Under the recommendation of Jesuit’s leader in China, the emperor approved to made copperplate copy of the painting. In the same year, this set of work, along with Qianlong’s greeting letter and Castiglione’s instructions of the engraving, was sent to Paris by the East Indian Company of France. Louis XV attached importance to the project, and entrusted French royal academy with it. During the next eight years, supervised by the director of the French royal academy Marigney, French famous engraver, Charles Nicolas Cochin and other seven artists took over the project. In 1773, all of the 200 sets of the paintings (ill. 25) were sent to China. Satisfied with these work, Qianlong exhibited them in his palaces, royal gardens as well as royal temples. [Cite This Work

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