Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas
European writings on Chinese art were cultural products illustrating how Europeans understood and evaluated Chinese visual and material culture at different times. However, these European writings have not been thoroughly studied in art history. Most scholarship has examined Chinese influence on western art, western collecting of Chinese art, or western reactions to specific works of Chinese art and architecture. The present thesis instead traces the evolution of the European reception of Chinese art, with a focus on painting and calligraphy, as expressed in 34 English-language texts published from 1600 to 1860, based on a selection of the most important, influential, or typical writings in the period. It identifies every mention of painting and calligraphy in the selected texts and compares them to comments about Chinese architecture and material culture. By tracing the recycling of various ideas from one author to another, the thesis shows how the English-language discourse of Chinese art evolved from 1600 to the Second Opium War.
I make four major arguments regarding these writings. First, there were three main stages in the development of European understanding of Chinese art during this period: what I call an exploring stage, a translating stage, and a diverging stage. In the exploring stage (c.1600-1750), Europeans showed a high level of sensibility to Chinese civilization and cultural products. They carried out a wide range of explorations of Chinese art and culture and described many cultural differences and artistic practices without trying to explain what they noticed in terms of European cultural frameworks or concepts. In the translating stage (c.1750-1840), Europeans now tried much more to comprehend Chinese aesthetic practices and conventions based on frameworks and concepts from their own European cultural discourse and artistic tradition. The diverging stage (c.1840-1860) saw most writers shift attention away from art and material culture, while a few writers were able to reach more profound understandings of Chinese painting and calligraphy. The remarkable person in this phase was George Lay, who in 1841 expressed an exceptional appreciation of Chinese aesthetics and artistic features in both painting and calligraphy, based for the time on Chinese rather than western tastes and principles.
My second argument is that the physicality and materiality of art forms played a critical role in European appreciation of Chinese art. As a result, painting and calligraphy were little valued and discussed in this period, while Europeans paid much more attention to architecture, gardening, porcelain, silk, and mechanical arts like printing and paper making. My third argument is that cultural compatibility was another pivotal factor affecting how Europeans evaluated Chinese painting and calligraphy. They generally based their judgments on European artistic references, particularly illusionistic realism, linear perspective, 3-D modeling, and color. Many writers appreciated flower-and-bird painting because the naturalistic outlining of objects and use of bright colors matched European principles and tastes in oil painting. On the other hand, most writers throughout the period ignored portraiture and monochrome landscape painting and criticized the Chinese depiction of space for failing to use linear perspective. Such criticism was not due to cultural arrogance or political ideology, but due to the incompatibility of Chinese art forms with dominant practices and principles within Europe. My fourth argument is that Europeans’ preference for art forms that had more physical and material appeal paralleled the taste for chinoiserie in the 17th and 18th centuries. This materialist taste helps explain why the thriving development of European portraiture and landscape painting in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries did not lead to any increased appreciation of Chinese portraiture or landscape.
These four major arguments help illustrate how Europeans’ knowledge construction took place and explain the driving forces behind such a long and complex process of understanding Chinese culture. Examining the written texts as analyzed in the present study not only opens up such a new horizon but also deepens our vision in seeing that even cross-cultural writings that seem highly empirical (e.g. travel writing, encyclopedias, scientific reports, etc.) are not as neutral or impartial as they appear; that the processes of empirical knowledge-making are loaded with many preconditions; and that these processes are also affected by physical and material factors that are outside those social cultural realms. By examining the European reception of Chinese painting and calligraphy, we can better understand the evolutionary process of and the factors affecting European interpretation of Chinese art, and how those early views influenced the later development of Chinese art history in the west.