Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Chinamania and Secret Victorians

[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.


Janet said...

This post is such a breath of fresh air, thank you. I love the concept of the "secret Victorians" !!! I think I am marrying one (though he may not be so secret about it...). Incidentally, there is a great show coming up at the NGA in October: The Pre-Raphaelite Lens (

Style Court said...

Janet -- every time you share a tiny bit about your fiancee, he sounds more interesting :) Thanks for the exhibition tip!

Laura Casey Interiors said...

The peacock room is one of my favorites and so interesting. Love Michael Smith's take on it.

home before dark said...

Hadn't made the leap from Whistler to Duquette, from the Peacock Room to Dawnridge. Amusing to think of them sitting down for a drink or ten and listening to them talk of the magic of art.

Fromt the JCB post, congrats on every front! To the future from the past.

Style Court said...

Thanks HBD!

Washington Cube said...

I used to visit the (old) Freer Gallery on my lunch breaks at times, during summers I worked for the Smithsonian. It was a good hiding place from the tourists on the Mall. They invariably thought the Freer was a post office, so inside the Freer was coolness and calm. The Peacock Room was a favorite, and I got to know the guards. Because the walls were painted over tooled leather, the room is climate controlled, and one day a guard asked me if I would like to see the hidden window in the Peacock Room. Would I? He went to a corner and pulled back a shutter and for once, there was sunlight in there. I still treasure that day. Over the fireplace is another Whistler work, "Princess in the Land of Porcelain," which a former boyfriend gave me a nickname. Mr. Freer collected a lot of Asian art, but also a lot of Whistler. If you are ever in Washington, go to the Freer and see what they have. The foggy "nocturne" series are a dream.