The Display of Chinese Art in Late 19th-century French Houses and Museums

Wong, Yuet Heng 黃悅行
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

In late 19th-century France (1870-1900), due to openings of ports by the two Opium Wars, more bourgeois people were able to form large-scale collections of Chinese art, through acquisitions in Parisian curio shops or travels to China. Seeing display as an important form of cross-cultural representation, this thesis looks at how these artworks were displayed in domestic homes and museums, and how Chinese culture was interpreted by bourgeois collectors. In terms of scholarship on 19th-century western interpretations of the east, Orientalism by Edward Said has been very influential, with its approach and argument widely applied in studies of different forms of representation of different eastern cultures by different western countries. On one hand, I conceptually agree with the post-colonialist discourse that a display of non-western art is not neutral, such that objects on display have gone through the process of de-contextualization and re-contextualization. On the other, I insist on examining the contextual details and aesthetic effects of different cases in order to analyse if western superiority is a major representation, and the various meanings of each individual display.

Therefore, this research is both macroscopic and microscopic. I look into different elements of each display (its geographical location, architectural structure and style, division of space, system of categorization, and decoration), each collector’s attitude to and interpretation of Chinese culture, and the reasons behind these interpretations in relation to larger French social-political contexts, not limited to western expansionism in China. Considering these three groups of issues, I argue that most displays in late 19th-century France represented an appreciation of Chinese culture, and that such an appreciation was usually emphasized through effects of correlation and equivalence between Chinese and European cultures. The thesis discusses four individual displays that were relatively well known at the time, in the sequence of their formation. They include the house of the d’Ennery couple (1875), the house of Henri Cernuschi (1875), the Musée Guimet of Emile Guimet (1879), and the installation of the collection of Ernest Grandidier in the Louvre Museum (1894). While the first chapter provides an overview of the history of collecting and display of Chinese art before the late 19th century, each of the following four chapters focuses on one display. These four cases demonstrate a set of different but positive interpretations of China, pointing to different aspects of Chinese culture, as well as various forms of symmetry between Chinese and French cultures, such as analogy, comparative studies, and presentation of the history of Sino-French interaction.