What started as an aristocratic fashion, based on interest in China, Chinoiserie quickly conquered the world of art in the eighteenth century and integrated itself into the lifestyles of many people.
France was the first country in Europe that fell for China’s charms. Coinciding with the popularity of Baroque architecture, the first wave of Chinoiserie hit during the second half of the seventeenth century. In the 1660s, tea was first mentioned in Europe as a “Chinese drink” – this was also the time when tea drinking became extremely popular, along with the usage of porcelain, which was imported directly from China and thus was very rare and extremely expensive.
The second wave of Chinoiserie, which would bring this style into its Golden Age, started in the beginning of the eighteenth century. The dominant style at that time was highly decorative rococo – Asian motifs, ornaments and colors fit perfectly into this style. François Boucher’s artwork is a good example of Chinoiserie in the sphere of painting.
In the eighteenth century, France was still the leader in promoting the Chinoiserie style. The Asian-inspired decor was not only seen in houses of the wealthy and powerful, but ordinary citizens as well. Everyone wanted to have exotic Chinese elements in their homes.
Crossing La-Manche, Chinoiserie soon arrived in England, where it provoked the same level of popularity as it did in France. The fashionistas of the time integrated Chinoiserie in their wardrobe, using exquisite materials like silk and detailed embroidery. They adopted Chinese-style hats, silk fans and tiny shoes, trying to imitate Chinese fashion as best as possible.
In Germany, Chinoiserie fever was even stronger than in other countries. At the time, Germany played a key role in the development of Chinoiserie’s Golden Age, and, in particular, the making of European porcelain. The Meissen factory was the first to produce porcelain in Europe that accurately resembled Chinese brands. This meant that Chinoiserie lovers could purchase affordable decorations. Soon, everyone would be on board the Chinoiserie train.
As a country with a shared border, Russia had built a trading relationship with China long before Chinoiserie was a thing. There are different records of relations between Russia and China, some dating back to the sixteenth century. Russia got to know silk and tea even earlier than Europe, but the integration of the goods never left the trading sector.
With the eighteenth century’s popularity of Baroque styles and rococo, Peter I decided to reform Russia and make it more European. Soon Chinoiserie was sweeping across Russia among other European ideas and inventions. Just like in Europe, Chinese styles first became popular among royalty and the aristocracy. A great example of the era’s Chinoiserie is a Chinese palace in Oranienbaum, which was built for Ekaterina II in 1762-1768.
The popularity of tea drinking also impacted landscape designs across the country, as it was hip to hold tea ceremonies in specially designed outdoor pagodas. This brought additional decorative elements to the landscape, such as “tea drinking pagodas” being complemented with elements like statues and bridges. Today, you can see an example of this in Tsarskoye Selo near St Petersburg.
In the nineteenth century, the style expanded outside of palaces and entered the homes of wealthy citizens and tea industry businessmen. China’s tea culture inspired the Russian samovar (teapot), which was sometimes painted in the Chinoiserie style.
The beginning of the twentieth century brought some changes to Chinoiserie, with modernist-era designs switching to more minimalist ones. The turbulent time following the revolution and the soviet regime brought huge changes to Russian society, and although there were still some Chinese elements appearing in Russia, design wasn’t a strong influence anymore.
While the golden age of Chinoiserie was in the eighteenth century, we can still see an interest in Chinese culture coming through in international design and the modern architecture scene. It will never truly vanish.