[Click to enlarge. All images posted with permission from the Freer Gallery of Art. Details follow below.]
Self-marketing in art and design may be more intense than ever but the concept isn't really new. The American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) had great flair for self-promotion. In 1863, long before Tony Duquette donned exotic silk robes, Whistler embarked on a new artistic path that would ultimately launch blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain into the English mainstream. Anxious to shed the influence of French realism and develop a more original style, Whistler turned to Chinese decorative arts for inspiration. He began buying ceramic pieces from shops in London, Amsterdam and Paris, and dressing up in Chinese robes.
[Elinor Leyland, James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Drypoint on paper, 1873, Freer Gallery of Art.]
According to the Freer Gallery, adopting the fashion, amassing a serious collection of blue and white, and incorporating the sinuous forms and delicate patterns of Kangxi ware into his own paintings allowed Whistler to construct a distinct public persona and artistic style. But ironically, the artist who looked down on popular taste caused a new shopping phenomenon among the English middle-class: the self-expressive porcelain craze, dubbed "Chinamania" by cartoonist George Du Maurier.
[Detail, doors in The Peacock Room.]
In August, a small show, Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White, opens at the Freer Gallery. Visitors will see 23 works of art: eight wash drawings of Kangxi porcelain produced by Whistler for a collector's catalog; related examples of blue and white from the Freer's Peacock Room; and several paintings, pastels and etchings by Whistler that reflect his interest in Chinese porcelain. This exhibit will also lead into a major reinstallation of The Peacock Room in 2011.
Since the Victorian era was on my mind, I wanted to quickly mention Secret Victorians: Contemporary Artists and a 19th-Century Vision. This exhibition explored what seemed to be a "Victorian sensibility" and intellectual curiosity flourishing in British and American art in the late 1990s. Artists including Elliott Puckette, Sally Mann and Kara Walker were represented. I stumbled across the catalog here.
From the top left: Baluster vase with lid, Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign 1662 - 1722; Detail view and full view, vase, Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign 1662 - 1722; A Chinese porcelain square canister by Whistler, 1878, pencil, ink and wash on cream wove paper. Also shown, a small detail of The Peacock Roomand Linda Merrill's book, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography.
[©Michael S. Smith Houses by Michael Smith and Christine Pittel, Rizzoli New York, 2008. Rendering by Mark Matusak.]
Click here for a past post that shows Michael Smith's take on The Peacock Room.