Collecting and Picturing the Orient: China’s Impact on 19th European Art

Wong, Mei Kin Maggie 黃美堅
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas and Prof. David Clarke

In view of the overwhelming emphasis in art history on Japanese art and its influence on modern Western art, this research sets out to establish some of the contributions of Chinese art to the development of modern Western art. This issue will be examined on various levels, including political engagement among Britain, France, and China in the nineteenth century, the Western perception of China at that time, collecting practices, and the artistic engagement of the European avant-garde with Chinese art and culture.

James McNeill Whistler, the great avant-garde artist who was then active in the British and French art scenes, has emerged in this research as a major focus because of his profound interest in collecting Chinese blue and white porcelain and his ability to translate the Eastern aesthetics derived from blue and white into his own works. Whistler’s circle, including such artists as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Tissot, also forms part of this scrutiny.

Chapter one sets out two goals. The first is to re-examine the two dominant Western interpretive models of Far Eastern cultural influence, i.e. Chinoiserie and Japonisme, and see how these two models obscure certain facts and create a gap in our understanding of China’s influence while diminishing China’s visibility in nineteenth-century British and French art. The second goal is to show how China was configured on various levels in nineteenth-century Britain and France, the two imperialist powers, as a way to reinforce their European identity.

Chapter two deals with nineteenth-century collecting tastes in London and Paris, and the British and French perceptions of Chinese material culture. The relations between collectors and artists, and artists as collectors, are highlighted. Focusing especially on the activities of A.W. Franks, Henri Cernuschi, Théodore Duret, Émile Guimet, and Whistler, it shows that collecting China in the nineteenth century was closely connected with the development of museums, expedition, and Oriental warehouses.

Chapter three tries to establish, through an analysis of Whistler and his circle, that the craze for Chinese blue and white was a key note of European engagement with Chinese aesthetic value, thereby creating a new aestheticism in Western modernist art. By analyzing Whistler’s many depictions of blue and white porcelain and his occasional blending of Chinese and Japanese motifs, the chapter demonstrates Whistler’s eclectic approach to receive and assimilate Far Eastern art.

One of the ultimate purposes of this thesis is to critically re-examine the discourse of Orientalism and Japonisme, so as to emphasize the importance of cultural eclecticism in nineteenth-century art history. By singling out China’s influence on nineteenth-century European art, this thesis aims to participate in the discussion of a well established discourse while opening up a new dimension for cross-cultural studies.