“Chinamania,” Now Open at the Freer Gallery

"It's getting harder and harder every day to live up to my blue and white china," lamented 19th-century Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray). Renowned as an elite aesthete in Victorian society, Wilde was famous for collecting the Chinese blue and white porcelain that was rapidly becoming phenomenally popular.

The china craze, satirically labeled "Chinamania" by media of the time, was powered in large part by Wilde's friend, the London-based American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who became infatuated with blue and white Chinese porcelain in the early 1860s. Whistler's work from this period is the subject of the Freer Gallery's new exhibit "Chinamania," which opened on August 7, and will be on display through 2011. The exhibit features Whistler's ink drawings and paintings inspired by Chinese porcelain, and cases of porcelain from the museum's collections.

Ironically, the porcelain wave that swept Western Europe in the 1870s was a bit more calculated than anyone at the time may have wanted to admit. Produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in the Jingdezhen region of southern China, the shiny cobalt blue-decorated porcelain pieces were manufactured specifically for European export.

Still, "At first, Chinese porcelain was a serious source of aesthetic inspiration because it seemed very exotic and strangely beautiful," says Lee Glazer, curator of American art at the Freer. According to Glazer, the wistfully imaginative look of the china contrasted with Victorian art, which tended to be highly realistic, almost literal, narratives about its subjects.

Whistler, who was looking to break away from his background in French realism, began to infuse his art with Asian elements and techniques, cultivating an image as a painter inspired by the art of the world. In his catalogue drawings, he mimicked the brushwork on the porcelain in front of him. In other paintings on display in the exhibit, he used a primarily blue palate in homage to the cobalt blue of the china he loved. Later in the 1870s, he produced a series of four paintings—three are on view elsewhere in the Freer—which portrayed Western women clothed in Japanese silks and sitting with Chinese porcelain. (Glazer says Whistler, like many other European artists of the time, was not one to distinguish between Asian cultures.)

Whistler's interest in blue and white china spread to his circle of friends, and soon the porcelain became a symbol of high culture and refined taste. By the 1870s, china had moved "from palace to parlor" (as one historian put it), becoming a commodity highly sought after by the Victorian middle classes. By imbuing Chinese porcelain with a desirable elitism, Whistler was, perhaps more than anyone, the impetus for "Chinamania."

"It was something the regular middle class could aspire to, the idea of decorating your home with as many of these pieces as possible," says Glazer. As Oscar Wilde once wrote in his play, A Woman of No Importancenothing succeeds like excess.

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