← Philament 5: Ornament

Mimesis to Mockery

Chinoiserie Ornament in the Social Space of Eighteenth-Century France

Phoebe Scott

Sublimated in the delicate tints of fragile porcelain, in the vaporous hues of shimmering Chinese silks, there revealed itself to the minds of the gracious eighteenth-century society in Europe a vision of happy living… [1]

Reichwein’s phrase reveals an important aspect of the relationship between eighteenth-century French nobles and Chinese culture: it was anchored and fundamentally formed by the experience of Chinese consumer goods. Chinoiserie, the European taste for Chinese or Chinese-inspired cultural products,[2] has existed in different styles over time, but in early eighteenth-century France it assumed a playful, light and delicate cast. It was significant that the first point of contact with chinoiserie for eighteenth-century French nobles was the commodity. This allowed for the privileging of the sensual, the illegible and the pleasurable, in a manner deeply significant for the visual articulation of values held by the noble and aspirational classes. By virtue of its foreign and largely illegible nature, chinoiserie had the potential to be widely appropriated. Two early eighteenth-century chinoiserie decorative schemes, one by Watteau at La Muette, the other by Huet at Chantilly, indicate how chinoiserie was adapted to serve a variety of seemingly irreconcilable class interests. In its passage through the aristocratic social space, chinoiserie decoration was implicated in the complexities of eighteenth-century leisure. The decorations at La Muette and Chantilly give evidence of the tensions in that practice of leisure: the status components of taste and reception, and the elements of aristocratic ‘work’ steeped in the vision of fantasy and exotica.

Watteau’s chinoiseries for the decoration of the Chateau de La Muette, a small residence on the outskirts of Paris, are now known only through subsequent engravings.[3] The engravings show predominantly single figures, dressed exotically and sometimes named, set amongst briefly drawn foliage. Costume notwithstanding, there is little attempt at ethnography in the images, as most of the characters are resolutely European in physiognomy. Jeurat’s engraving of Huó Nu, Chinese Musician shows a young woman, dressed in loose Asian-inspired robes, seated on the ground playing an instrument that resembles a shamisen. Watteau’s sources for this work must have been diverse: the name suggests he had researched Chinese characters, while the posture and instrument are drawn from Turkish seraglio imagery.[4] But despite these researched exotic elements, Watteau’s ethnographic interest appears to have extended only as far as costume and accoutrements, as the woman’s face appears to be European. With her loose ringlets about her forehead, snub nose and rosebud mouth, she resembles other women drawn and painted by Watteau, outside the context of chinoiseries. Thus, in Huó Nu, it is not China or ‘Chinese-ness’ that Watteau attempts to represent. Rather, an aristocratic ‘player’ assumes chinoiserie and exotic elements like a mantle, as part of a playful embrace of disguise.

Similar suggestions of disguise and play occur in another panel of the La Muette series, titled Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao. In this image, a local ‘Chinese’ deity, the goddess Ki Mao Sao of the title, sits atop a withered tree stump, flanked by two worshippers suspended on platforms beneath her. One worshipper, dressed in loose robes and a conical hat, prostrates himself before the goddess, turning his face away from the viewer. The other is also robed, and has a long, exaggerated, wispy moustache. Rather than worshipping, however, this attendant has been caught in a moment of distraction. He looks up toward his bowing colleague with a smile on his face: hardly the attitude of a believer before a fearsome deity! This figure, like Huó Nu, is simply dressed in Chinese garments, not worshipping, but engaged in a delicious game of prostration. The goddess figure herself, elevated above the worshippers, holds a parasol and feathered fan with outstretched arms. Despite the imposing triangular structure created by her body, she is not an awesome figure, given the way that she stares sweetly down at her attendants. Her fine features and ringlets once again suggest that, rather than portraying the goddess Ki Mao Sao herself, this image depicts a French woman dressing as a Chinese character. In both Huó Nu, Chinese Musician and Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao, the combination of chinoiserie accessories and what appear to be French bodies creates an ambiguous play of identity.

Slippage between aristocrats and exotic personae in painting replicated the mimetic play occurring in the masquerades at court. Roger Caillois, in his categorization of types of play, borrows the term mimesis to describe those games involving the imaginative suspension of reality which may serve to evade the behavioural codes of daily life.[5] The mimesis play of the French nobility is one aspect of the social practices that informed the creation of chinoiseries. In the declining years of Louis XIV, masquerades and their attendant mimetic games had begun to occur on Chinese themes. These developments paralleled increased importation of Chinese artefacts and the integration of certain Chinese developments into artisanal practice.[6] Following the arrival of the Siamese ambassadors in 1684 and 1686, a fake Siamese King’s reception occurred where the court dressed in exotic regalia and indulged in drunken carousal.[7] In 1700 the King held a Chinese masquerade at Marly, and a Chinese collation at Versailles.[8] The actions of the figures in Huó Nu, Chinese Musician and Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao parallel the behavioural liberties and games of disguise implicated in such court events. Huó Nu’s sinuous posture and loose robes suggest a momentary respite from the rules of etiquette that would otherwise have governed her (French) body, just as the ‘Chinese’ court spectacle facilitated an escape from restriction. In Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao, the worship of what appears to be an exotically dressed court lady exaggerates and parodies the flirtations at court in an ebullient, playful fashion.

Mimetic play is not a practice of deception, and it requires the complicity of fellow players and spectators to sustain the fantasy.[9] Just as the Duchesse of Bourgogne, who consulted the Jesuits on the details of her Chinese costume,[10] would never wish to be taken for anything other than an aristocrat, Huó Nu and Ki Mao Sao invite the spectator to recognise, and delight in, the partial nature of their disguise. Such an invitation requires certain knowledge, for although games need complicity, they also exclude those to whom the rules are unknown. Masquerade affirmed class position through the act of disguise. Status accrued to those who were recognisably in disguise, as the practice indicated their knowledge and power through manipulation of etiquette and sartorial code.[11] Watteau’s works do not simply reflect the Chinese masquerade, but re-state and re-situate the dialogue of invitation and complicity. The knowledgeable viewer recognises the identity ambiguity of the ladies of the garden as replicating games of elite disguise at court.

Watteau’s artistic mode corresponds to Anna Nardo’s concept of the ‘playful author’: one who deliberately invites a playful engagement with the subject matter by embracing uncertainty.[12] These games of hinting and subterfuge were intended for a particular spectator, the honnête homme.[13] The honnête homme was an ideal aristocrat whose very person had been transformed into a work of art by the cultivation of pleasing modes of speech, dress, manners and adornment.[14] Honnêteté was a mark of status in that, beyond the innately pleasing qualities of the honnête homme, it attested to the hours spent in abstention from productive work acquiring the artfulness of the person.[15] It thus had an evidentiary function – as the marker of a leisured existence.[16] Disseminated through literary handbooks, honnêteté was initially concerned with behaviour at court, later focussing more on the salon aristocrat.[17] All arts and graces possessed (or acquired) by the aristocrat were to appear effortless and natural. This was aligned with criticism of the pedantic manner of the scholar: the aristocrat was to transmit information by suggestion, persuasion and subtlety. Mary Vidal likens this to a conversational mode of communication rather than a didactic one.[18] The playful author therefore has particular resonance in the visualisation of honnêteté, as the games of attraction and frustration correspond to the indirection and sophistication of communication according to the conventions of honnêteté.

The values of honnêteté are also manifest in the style of the art. Nicolas Faret, a prominent writer on the topic of honnêteté, emphasised the need for negligence, understood as the continual appearance of ease, on the part of the honnête homme.[19] Negligence had direct implications for the painter, as Faret impugned those painters whose work showed too much diligence and effort, arguing instead for natural grace even in the pursuit of art.[20] As a result, Watteau, like other painters concerned with honnêteté, rebelled against the rules of composition, developed from classical antecedents by the previous generations of court painters, in favour of the cultivation of a more nonchalant style. In Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao, the gazes of the figures are oblique rather than showing legible expressions through which the viewer can structure the composition. Instead, the eye follows the curving lines, from the scalloped fabric beneath the men, up to the elegant torsion of the tree trunk. The trunk’s twisted slant indicates an interest in imperfection, rather than cool harmony. The engraving’s style suggests that Watteau’s brushwork was fluid and light, indicated by the profusion of delicate lines showing the fall of the clothing, and the brief strokes used for the sprouting leaves. Such a style affected a loose bravura in order to minimize the impression of precision and planning conveyed by the detailed nature of the image.[21] Finally, in an assault on classical idea of vraisemblance,[22] or the reasonable believability of the subject matter, the composition is deliberately fantastic. The tree trunk hovers in mid air, and the worshippers’ platforms are equally unanchored. What could be a conventional arrangement, based on triangular structure and symmetry, is deliberately subverted.

Honnêteté was of particular significance for the likely patron of the La Muette chinoiseries: Joseph Jean Baptiste Fleuriau d’Armenonville, the Minister of the King’s Treasury.[23] Fleuriau was a member of the professional nobility, a class despised by the nobles of blood.[24] Appropriation of the values associated with honnêteté was a form of upward class mimesis, an aspirational strategy that consolidated class position through the adoption of older aristocratic codes.[25] For the eighteenth-century French aristocrat, class-consciousness was manifested partly through the aestheticisation of domestic space according to a particular type of taste.[26] Thus, while the chinoiserie scheme at La Muette was, formally and in terms of subject matter, implicated in the discourse of honnêteté, it had a further specific function as a decorative scheme. Mimi Hellman writes that furnishings and decorations not only gave form to social values, but could also elicit behaviour and meaning through how they were used and experienced kinetically.[27] Watteau’s work was specifically intended to discourage a particular type of reading: one of deep, introspective scrutiny. This is already evident from the elusive gazes of the figures and the vertiginous lines used to shift the eye. In a room where a sequence of such panels was set into the wainscoting,[28] the effect would be to produce a general state of alert receptivity. This was exactly the type of behavioural manner expected of the aristocratic salon hostess.[29] Similarly, as it was ill mannered to stare for a prolonged period at a work of art,[30] the panels are engaging, but ultimately produce frustration through their inability to be read in a narrative manner. The frustrated gaze is then propelled to the other panels in the sequence or other parts of the room, producing the appropriate sweep of the eye.

That the images are chinoiseries is crucial to establishing this type of reception experience. Chinoiserie was an opportune source of motifs in an alternative tradition to previous court painting. It can thus be understood as part of the tendency of early eighteenth-century French decorative painters to draw motifs from the vernacular or exotic sources, in order to differentiate themselves from scholarly painters, who frequently worked on classical themes.[31] David L. Porter understands chinoiserie as therefore implicated in an ‘aesthetic of illegitimacy,’ as it was used to evoke types of viewing and visual experience marginalised in the prevailing academic discourse.[32] The relative novelty of the characters in the chinoiserie repertoire also meant that there was less temptation to seek a narrative or even allegorical reading, than when the motifs were based on classical, or even pastoral, figures. Chinoiserie could therefore be made eminently suitable for the aesthetic experience appropriate to the social salon. Porter describes this reception experience of chinoiserie as ‘radical illegibility.’[33] In Watteau’s work, the radical nature is compromised, as chinoiserie is integrated with a representation of the French body at play. The relative lack of information that the viewer would have had, however, about Huó Nu and Ki Mao Sao, would still have produced a viewing experience of partial illegibility. It is also possible that the motifs had a background of Chinese-inspired black pseudo lacquer.[34] Lacquer is a significant choice, as through its attractive sheen and high finish, it insistently pushes the viewer toward the experience of surface. This troubles the transparency of the Albertian window:[35] works on lacquer facilitate the sensual pleasure of looking at, more than the cerebral pleasure of looking through. Once again, the use of chinoiserie is designed to facilitate the ideal perceptual environment for the honnête homme in a social setting.

Chinoiserie had a further particular virtue related to Fleuriau’s class status. In an environment where the aristocracy was in a state of flux and consumption was an indicator of status,[36] the possession and use of chinoiserie indicated that the owner was in the vanguard of fashion. With reference to chinoiserie artefacts, Porter notes that chinoiserie could also act as a claim to cultural legitimacy, as the objects were associated with ancient traditions of China. Chinoiserie could therefore combine the virtue of novelty with a suggestion of pedigree.[37] In the case of decorative schemes, the images, deriving from a tradition outside the European or classical, were not strongly implicated in any previous discourse of French aristocratic power. Thus, the use of chinoiserie could reconcile for the new aristocrat the seemingly irreconcilable status claims of consumer power through novelty, and cultural legitimacy through (borrowed) tradition.

The relative novelty of the taste for chinoiseries also meant that its meaning and position were highly variable, and it was susceptible to continual re-appropriation and transformation. Chinoiserie decorative schemes were not only commissioned by the new nobility, but by those in an extremely different, even opposed, section of the aristocracy.  In 1735, the Duc de Bourbon commissioned the Grand Singerie and Petit Singerie for the chateau at his rural seat of Chantilly.[38] The members of the Condé branch of the Bourbons were prominent nobles of blood, and the Duc de Bourbon’s immediate forebears had been instrumental in the Fronde conflict.[39] Condé power had been challenged by the absolutism of Louis XIV, especially by the appointment of a noble class of state functionaries,[40] and was also subsequently threatened by the appointment of the Regent, the Duc d’Orléans, from the rival branch of the Bourbons. At the time of the Singerie commissions, the Duc de Bourbon was exiled from the court at Versailles, having been replaced in his position as Prime Minister by a member of the King’s coterie.[41] As a result, the Chantilly scheme uses chinoiserie motifs to affirm his class position and contest this marginalisation.

While still in the Arabesque genre, the style of the panels of the Grand Singerie is significantly different from those by Watteau. Huet has explored the genre’s capacity for fantasy and irrationality. In The Apothecary, the decorative elements are robust, emphasised by the gilded frame, which was a remnant of an earlier decorative scheme.[42] The solid curvilinear forms of the frame are echoed in the representation of the folly structure, creating an impression of profusion. The Apothecary is part of a suite of Singerie panels, each with an exotic central character, engaged in some kind of occupation.[43] Accounts differ as to the nature of the allegorical scheme: it has been variously called an allegory of occupations, of the arts and sciences, and of the senses.[44] The many objects scattered about the panel, such as the mortar and pestle, cauldron and bellows, seem ripe for an emblematic interpretation.

Yet everywhere, the panel contrives at the instability of its own meaning, through the intrusion of absurdity, exotica and fantasy. The snake, a symbol of medicine, is coiled and hanging beneath a parasol, while a squirrel sits above the apothecary’s botanical press, itself suspended in mid-air by a flowering garland. The apothecary’s assistants are dressed-up monkeys, wearing little Chinese-inspired caps. Rather than a traditional scheme, The Apothecary exceeds the conventions of allegory. Potentially symbolic objects and equipment are tumbled together with lizards, birds in hoops, monkeys, tassels and flora. We are presented not with the apothecary at work, but with a carnivalesque parody. Even the alcove in which he sits is suggestive of a fairground stall, open at the front for the passersby.

The suggestion of a fairground atmosphere is an indication of the type of spectatorship expected. Mimetic play is not active here in the same manner as at La Muette. Huddled in the folly, his heavily whiskered face absorbed by his work, the apothecary figure is certainly not a masquerading aristocrat. Rather he is a theatrical player, exotically costumed, whose potential for mockery and disruption the aristocratic viewer is expected to recognise. Chinese characters had been frequently assumed as comic devices, both by the players of the Comédie Italienne and in improvised fairground theatre. A typical instance was the play Les Chinois.[45] It featured Harlequin, disguised as a Chinese doctor, performing all manner of trickery.[46] Anti-authoritarian in sentiment, the aim of the play was to deceive the bride’s restrictive father. Later plays featured Mezzetin assuming a farcical Chinese disguise and Harlequin as an intruder at the court in Beijing.[47] Performances at the Foire St Laurent created ‘Chinese’ parodies of existing ballets, or used the satirical possibilities of a Chinese foreigner at court.[48]

Assuming a Chinese identity was a mechanism for commenting on, mocking or subverting aspects of French society. In this respect, the Chinese character occupies a similar position in theatrical culture to the monkey. Monkeys engaging in anthropomorphic tricks were featured at the fairground, physically performing the parodic mimicry with which they had long been associated in artistic representation.[49] Honour notes that throughout the Grand Singerie, ‘mandarins’ and monkeys are physically similar and could frequently be interchangeable.[50] Despite the unflattering and racist implications of this resemblance, one of its purposes was to indicate a shared comic mode.

Instability was also a feature of the reception experience of the fairground and comic theatre. Often, plays required audience participation and knowledge to furnish the narrative and humour.[51] The style of The Apothecary provides a clue to the sophisticated viewer, encouraging an engagement with the work that operates in the same interactive and chaotic manner. The spectator must recognise that what could be a traditional allegorical structure has been humorously disrupted. Such a breadth of knowledge, from conventional decorative arrangements to the vernacular, would be expected from the honnête homme. Educated by means of conversation and experience, the honnête homme eschewed the rigid specialisation of the scholar.[52] The spectator is not, however, invited to recognise a fellow aristocrat in The Apothecary. Rather than the mimetic play of partial recognition, players in Chinese costume exploited its mischievous and deceptive potential. The game of status operates by excluding a third party, the subject of the deception, while the spectator and the deceiver achieve complicity. The wit is not in the whimsy of disguise, as in Watteau, but in a kind of dramatic irony.

By implicating fairground culture in the decorative scheme, the Duc de Bourbon made a political statement. Fairground culture was understood as a means for anti-absolutist cultural dissent. In 1697, Louis XIV had banished the Comédie Italienne for its overly satiric performances, and as a result their repertoire was taken up in pantomime and improvised form by players at the fairs.[53] Aristocrats not only attended the performances, but integrated fairground-style theatricality into their own amusements. By 1735 fairs were still popular, though the Comédie Italienne had been restored for over fifteen years[54] and was not the politicised form that it had been. Nonetheless, the position of the Condé family, once again distanced from the seat of power, increasingly resembled their position under Louis XIV. Nobles of blood were sensing that their hopes for greater power would be unfulfilled.[55] In the Singerie commission, the Duc de Bourbon was drawing on an already established mechanism for articulating subtly subversive cultural dissent. In doing so, he also followed a family tradition of lavishing money on Chantilly, maintained even during the ascendancy of absolutism,[56] presumably as a bulwark against Versailles’ dominance.

As a decorative scheme, the Singerie prioritises a particular facet of honnêteté, one that best fits the Duc de Bourbon’s claims of status. While the style of the work still reflects many of the values associated with honnêteté, through the light treatment of paint and Arabesque line, The Apothecary does not hold out a behavioural model to the spectator in the manner of La Muette. We do not see the ideal aristocratic body engaged in leisure pursuits. Rather, the satirical scheme at Chantilly creates an atmosphere conducive to the performance and display of wit. Wit was vital to the success of the aristocrat.[57] Unlike negligence of manner, which Faret admits could be affected, or else taught through the example of others,[58] the aptitude for wit was considered natural. Even the physical graces could be taught, and many French aristocratic parents sent their children away to be educated with that specific aim in mind.[59] Wit, however, could not be affected: it always has to be performed. In its manipulation of complex codes, knowledge, and the social boundaries of familiarity and formality,[60] wit was the most masterful demonstration of the ease with which honnêteté was so strongly associated. The special superiority of wit, linked to natural mastery, is homologous to the noble whose position of social mastery is also natural; that is, coming through the blood. Condé therefore claims a privileged position for the nobility of blood by articulating an alternative view of honnêteté to that in the chinoiserie commissions for the new nobility.

The satirical and status implications of the wit displayed at Chantilly are even more explicit in the Ki Mao Sao (Singerie) panel, also from the Grand Singerie.[61] This work is an appropriation of Watteau’s Ki Mao Sao panel at La Muette, turning the prostrated aristocrats into grinning monkeys. The La Muette figures were newly in circulation, having been released in engraved form in 1731.[62] This type of parasitic parody also had antecedents in theatrical comedy, as the Comédie Italienne would frequently mimic performances put on by the more culturally legitimate Comédie Française.[63] Ki Mao Sao (Singerie) takes the irony already inherent in the aristocrats posing as Chinese on the walls of La Muette, and reconfigures the reception experience. The spectator is complicit with the new cast of characters, in their exotic and singerie guises, in the derision of the La Muette figures. The purpose of such a direct reference seems to be the mockery of the cultural pretensions of Fleuriau, and those of his class. While Fleuriau was attempting to consolidate his class status through the appropriation of honnêteté, it was more to claim cultural legitimacy equal to that of the nobility of blood, rather than to actually engage in counter-Versailles cultural dissent.[64] Fleuriau was, after all, a member of the nobility by virtue of the bureaucracy established by Louis XIV,[65] and La Muette was royal property administered by the Batiments du Roi.[66]

Chinoiseries were implicated in a type of ‘work of leisure,’[67] in that the performance of leisure pursuits, and the style of leisure spaces, was crucial to the class status and therefore to the viability of the aristocrat. This example casts an interesting light on the definition of the concept of play, which in Caillois’ sociology of play is articulated through its distinct opposition to work.[68] The particular playfulness of chinoiseries, however, indicates that there is a tension in this strict dichotomy, as decorative schemes had a bearing on the aristocratic ‘work’ of maintaining and manipulating social position. Elite decoration also ‘worked’ for the aristocracy by stimulating a taste for chinoiserie commodities. Chinoiserie schemes were frequently made into engravings and purchased by bourgeois consumers. Initially, the purpose of such designs was for the use of artisans installing other decorative schemes, but by the 1730s the prints had taken on an autonomous life, and were offered by dealers to ‘les curieu.’[69] The taste for chinoiserie artefacts, thus stimulated, was then frequently satisfied by the nobility themselves, who were either involved in the establishment of artisanal commercial ventures, or engaging in the business of international trade.[70] Despite the rhetoric of exclusion from labour, the eighteenth-century nobility had mimetically adopted certain features of upper middle class capitalism.[71] As a result, the idea of play, as excluded from the processes of production, appears untenable. In The Apothecary, it is clear that the chinoiserie commodity has a significant place in the symbolic scheme. Rendered with lucid colour and tactile viscosity, the shelf of bottles, vases and porcelain containers behind the apothecary is clearly conducive to eliciting consumer desire.[72] The Duc de Bourbon had established a porcelain factory at Chantilly,[73] where it is possible that Huet was simultaneously engaged to paint motifs onto vases.[74] The subtle complicity between the images in the decorative scheme and the patron’s commercial interests is indicative of the embedded nature of play, where playful and fantastic elements permeate the sphere of work, status and social interaction.

Rather than by contact with Chinese art, illustration or people, Chinese culture was visually experienced in eighteenth-century France primarily in the realm of the commodity.[75] This may account for the way that, in both the decorative schemes, chinoiserie is a type of ‘shell’, or surface manifestation, to be assumed by a French subject. Such a treatment of cross-cultural material implies imperialist interests as well as commercial ones. Art historical applications of Said’s thesis of ‘Orientalism’ have suggested that the aestheticisation of ‘Eastern’ culture serves as a tool of de-legimitisation, complicit with colonial imperatives.[76] While China was signified by frolicking exotica on the eighteenth-century wall, the nobility was engaging in international trade, sometimes in manifestations with colonial overtones.[77] Porter refutes the Orientalist argument by suggesting that, during the eighteenth-century, due to the severe regulation of Canton, Europe was at a distinct disadvantage by trading with China at all. Power was in China’s hands; thus the relationship cannot be construed as proto-colonialist.[78] But given the varied Asian and Middle Eastern cultural sources that came under the rubric of chinoiserie, such as the diverse elements at La Muette, it seems impossible to locate the phenomenon politically solely by reference to the narrow band of relations between China and France.

According to Mullaney, cultures in the process of expanding their boundaries, whether through colonisation or another mechanism of contact, assimilate new cultural information through ‘rehearsal.’[79] The cultural rehearsal takes the form of performing cultural difference, tied up in a process of theatricality, spectacle and pleasure. This is a very apt characterisation of eighteenth-century chinoiserie, given its presence, and lighthearted manner, in social contexts. It also corresponds well to the reception experience elicited by both the Chantilly and La Muette chinoiseries: both mediate Chinese culture by reference to how it is performed, such as at the masquerade ball and theatre. Furthermore, while the cultural rehearsal is not necessarily imperialist, it has the potential to become so when the pleasure of performing cultural difference gives way to the first-hand pleasure of colonial acquisition.[80]

It has been suggested that the popularity of chinoiseries in early eighteenth-century France was due to their affinity with the vogue for asymmetry and ornamentation that was already in existence.[81] While this was no doubt the case, the appeal of chinoiserie decoration for French aristocrats went beyond the aesthetic into the realm of position and power. The particular social circumstances of the patrons of the La Muette and Chantilly chinoiseries, combined with how the decorative schemes attempted to support or manipulate the patron’s class status through nuances of style, indicate how chinoiserie supported an aesthetic that was far from the Kantian ideal of disinterested, contemplative viewing. Decoration at La Muette and Chantilly was deeply interested, intersecting with a network of class, commercial and cultural priorities. It was put to ‘work,’ in a manner resembling the aristocratic personage, working at position through cultivated play. The principal visual source of Chinese culture was the consumer good and French chinoiserie adaptations treated ‘Chinese’ elements and motifs as a form of costume; a dressing or mantle. Drawing on the socially loaded modes of spectatorship of the masquerade and the fair, artists reconfigured aristocratic concerns through the distancing mechanism of the exotic. The result was the creation of an ideal decorative experience. Drawn in by the lush play of paint, whimsical line and luminous colour, the spectator was compelled to participate in an interactive play of simultaneous recognition and estrangement. This experience was the perfect visual accompaniment to the games of wit, repartee and taste played out in the social sphere.

This article grew out of the honours seminar, Play and Art in the Eighteenth-Century, taught by Dr Jennifer Milam at the University of Sydney. The author would like to acknowledge Dr Milam’s assistance. Phoebe Scott has just completed an honours year in art history and theory at the University of Sydney, for which she is to be awarded a University Medal. She is interested in cross-cultural art, art in modern Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and colonial art. Her honours thesis was on the subject of French and Vietnamese artists practicing in colonial Hanoi.


[1] Adolf Reichwein, China and Europe: Intellectual and Artistic Contacts in the Eighteenth Century (Taipei: Ch’eng,1967), 26.

[2] Certain commentators define chinoiserie as being only the European adaptations of Chinese art, such as Hugh Honour, Chinoiserie (London: John Murray, 1961), at I of Preface; Oliver Impey, Chinoiserie: The Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration (London: Oxford UP, 1977), 9 and Dawn Jacobson, Chinoiserie (London: Phaidon, 1993), 7. However, David L. Porter argues that this distinction is impossible to sustain, given that for much of the time artworks imported from China had been made according to European exotic-inspired patterns, disturbing any neat dichotomy of European and Asian art. David L. Porter, “Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002): 404.

[3] Martin Eidelberg and Seth A. Gopin, “Watteau’s Chinoiseries at La Muette,” Gazette de Beaux Arts 130.6 (July-August 1997): 19.

[4] Eidelberg and Gopin suggest that Watteau drew his material largely from contemporary travelogues, rather than the more rigorous accounts of the Jesuits in China, to which he may not have had access. This would also explain the diversity of cultures fused into his imagery, 36. They also point out the seraglio element, 23.

[5] Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barach (London: Thames & Hudson, 1962), 19-20, 130-1.

[6] Honour, 56-7.

[7] Honour, 57-8.

[8] Honour, 62-3; Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide, “The Reign of Magots and Pagods,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 37 (2002): 179.

[9] Caillois, 21.

[10] Honour, 63.

[11] Julie Anne Plax, Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 129.

[12] Anna K. Nardo, “The Play of and the Play in Literature,” in The Many Faces of Play, Kendall Blanchard, ed. (Champaign: Human Kinetics, 1986), 130.

[13] Plax makes a strong link between honnêteté and the practice of disguise, 126-8.

[14] Domna C. Stanton, The Aristocrat as Art (New York: Columbia UP, 1980), 7.

[15] Thorstein Veblen argued that in all societies where wealth is a measure of value, abstention from productive work will become a mark of status and reputability. As proof of this abstention, members of the leisure class must provide tangible evidence, in the form of distinctions of person, of their time spent engaged in leisure pursuits. Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (1899; repr., New York: Viking, 1931), 41, 43-9. Citations are to the Viking edition.

[16] Veblen, 44, 49.

[17] Stanton, 9.

[18] Mary Vidal, Watteau’s Painted Conversations (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992), 103.

[19] Nicolas Faret, L’Honnête Homme ou l’Art de Plaire a la Cour (1637; repr., Geneva: Skatline Reprints, 1970), 19-21. Citations are to the Skatline edition.

[20] Faret, 21.

[21] Plax, 135.

[22] Katie Scott comments on how ideas of vraisemblance were deliberately absent from the work of certain early eighteenth-century decorative painters. Katie Scott, The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale U P, 1995), 135.

[23] Eidelberg and Gopin argue convincingly that, based on the style of Watteau’s works and the circumstances of the commission, the date for the La Muette chinoiseries is 1709-12, putting the works during Fleuriau’s possession of the house, 27.

[24] Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret, The French Nobility in the Eighteenth-Century: From Feudalism to Enlightenment, trans. William Doyle (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), 8.

[25] Sharon Zukin argues that the formation of class-consciousness is a mimetic process, where elements are appropriated and adapted from both lower and higher classes by the class whose values are in formation. Sharon Zukin, “Mimesis in the Origins of Bourgeois Culture,” Theory and Society 4 (1977): 333-58.

[26] Pierre Bourdieu argues that class distinctions are manifested through the aestheticisation of daily life, in Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984), 5, 56. Scott notes the relevance of this insight in a specifically eighteenth-century French context, 84.

[27] Mimi Hellman, “Furniture, Sociability and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32.4 (1999): 417.

[28] Eidelberg and Gopin mention a suggestion made in 1745 that the panels were set into the wainscoting, though their actual position is unknown, 21.

[29] Hellman, 433.

[30] Scott, 116.

[31] Scott, 129.

[32] David L. Porter, Ideographia: the Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), 134-7.

[33] Porter, “Monstrous Beauty,” 405.

[34] Eidelberg and Gopin make this argument based on inconsistencies in the backgrounds between the engravings of Boucher, Aubert and Jeurat, and a known work on black pseudo-lacquer by Watteau of the same period, 29.

[35] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and Sculpture, trans. Cecil Grayson (repr., London: Phaidon, 1972), 55.

[36] Chaussinand-Nogaret, 2-4.

[37] Porter, “Monstrous Beauty,” 399.

[38] Honour, 90-1.

[39] Jonathan Dewald, Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France 1570-1715 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993), 210.

[40] Chaussinand-Nogaret, 5-7.

[41] Jean-Pierre Babelon, Chantilly, trans. Judith Haywood (Paris: Scala, 1999), 110.

[42] Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo Decorative Style (New York: Dover, 1980), 151.

[43] Honour, 91.

[44] Honour suggests occupations, 91; Ingrid Roscoe suggests arts and sciences, Ingrid Roscoe, “Mimic Without Mind: Singerie in Northern Europe,” Apollo 114.234 (August 1981): 101, and Babelon suggests an allegory of the senses where the The Apothecary represents vision, 114.

[45] Ching-Wah Lam, “Chinoiserie: Chinese Influence on the European Stage in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Chinese Culture 37.2 (June 1996): 51.

[46] Lam, 51.

[47] Lam, 53.

[48] Lam, 55.

[49] Thomas Crow mentions the link between singerie and monkeys in fairground performance. Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985), 59. Ptolemy Tompkins, The Monkey in Art (New York: M.T Train and Scala, 1994), 63-4, 68, is not an academic text but reproduces several instances of the singerie genre over time. Roscoe, however, argues that singerie was without a satiric function in the eighteenth-century.  Her view can be discounted because this assertion seems to be based only on the idea that decoration and satire are by nature incompatible, 96.

[50] Honour, 91.

[51] Crow, 51.

[52] Mark Motley, Becoming a French Aristocrat: The Education of Court Nobility 1580-1715 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 69, 87, 154 and Scott, 133.

[53] Crow, 48-53.

[54] Crow, 53.

[55] Scott comments that the early reign of Louis XV was one of ‘dissipated optimism’ for the nobility, 166.

[56] Dewald, 97, 162.

[57] Motley, 74-7.

[58] Faret, 20-1.

[59] Motley, 123-4.

[60] Motley, 74-5.

[61] This artwork is reproduced, without title, in Tompkins, 68.

[62] Perrin Stein, “Boucher’s Chinoiseries: Some New Sources,” The Burlington Magazine 138.1122 (September 1996): 600.

[63] Plax, 34.

[64] Scott, 153-4.

[65] Scott, 153.

[66] Eidelberg and Gopin, 20-2.

[67] Term comes from Hellman, 415.

[68] Caillois, 5, 10.

[69] Alastair Laing, “French Ornamental Engravings and the Diffusion of the Rococo,” in Le Stampe et La Diffusione delle Immagini e degli Stili, Henri Zerner, ed. (Bologna: C.L.U.E.B, 1979), 115-7. Suites of engravings would also be advertised in the press, 117.

[70] Chaussinand-Nogaret describes noble engagement in overseas trade, 94-7, and in manufacturing, 102-3, including of glass and porcelain wares.

[71] This mimetic adoption of bourgeois capitalism by the nobility is not peculiar only to eighteenth-century France; its workings in the Feudal period are in fact the basis for Zukin’s development of the double-mimesis thesis. Zukin, 344.

[72] Stein makes a similar argument regarding the inclusion of chinoiserie consumer goods in work by Boucher, 604.

[73] John Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth-Century (London: Lawrence King, 1992), 165.

[74] Babelon, 114.

[75] This is not to say that artists could not research China, as Watteau did, but that the principal experience was one of commercial goods. While Jesuit illustrated texts existed, they were of very limited circulation, Eidelberg and Gopin, 36. Honour notes that the arrival of a Chinese boy at court was sufficiently rare to provoke great excitement, 58. Consumer goods, however, were more common, and there had been ‘china mania’ at court since the 1670s, according to Honour, 56. This orientation is reflected in the fact that many books on chinoiserie are principally histories of decorative objects, rather than art histories: for instance Honour, Impey and Madeleine Jarry, Chinoiserie: Chinese Influence on European Decorative Art, 17th and 18th Centuries (New York: Vendome, Southeby), 1981.

[76] See for instance Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” Art in America 71.5 (May 1983): 118-31, 187, 189, 191.

[77] Chaussinand-Nogaret, 96-7.

[78] David L. Porter, “A Peculiar But Uninteresting Nation: China and the Discourse of Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33. 2 (2000): 184. Reichwein also notes that the China trade had devastating implications for French domestic production of luxury goods and was in that respect also disadvantageous, 40. Porter also makes the argument that chinoiseries are not straightforwardly proto-colonial in Ideographia, 3.

[79] Steven Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Representations 3 (1983): 59.

[80] Mullaney, 44.

[81] Kimball, 138-9; Reichwein, 25.