How Whistler’s China Grew Into a Craze

Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:49pm

In today’s interconnected, easily traversed world, there is something humorously refreshing about an artist who cared so little about the culture behind the Chinese porcelain he drew that he called his Chinese robe his “Japanese costume.”

Despite never traveling to Asia, James McNeill Whistler made muses of blue and white Chinese porcelain and helped shape a popular craze for them — dubbed Chinamania — in 1870s Western Europe. A collection of his works now at the Freer Gallery, in an exhibit called “Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White,” includes drawings for a collector’s catalog as well as paintings of porcelain and portraits reminiscent of the lanky figures depicted on many of the Chinese works.

Whistler started drawing the popular vases, canisters, dishes and other pieces more for money rather than for creative expression. But he soon realized that reproducing their intricate brushwork and details on a small scale provided a valuable artistic exercise. His finesse and dexterity are on impressive display in the drawings, which shrink one- or two-foot porcelain objects to three- or four-inch images. The skills he honed in these works helped him transition into watercolors later in his career.

The Freer Gallery connects Whistler’s drawings with a permanent part of the museum’s collection, “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.” Whistler painted the room over the course of 1876 and 1877 — the height of Chinamania — under the directive of Frederick Leland, a wealthy English shipowner, to show off Leland’s porcelain. Dozens of blue and white porcelain pieces adorn the gilded shelves and are complemented by open shelving and deep turquoise walls. Spherical lamps grow downward from the ceiling like smooth stalactites, surrounded by circular peacock feather shapes. A spat between Whistler and Leland over how the room looked resulted in Whistler painting a battle between two peacocks on one wall, a whimsical scene that arguably overshadows the shelved china.

Whistler’s body of Chinamania work is curious in a way because of his known displeasure with consumerism; he once said of art’s popularization, “The taste of the tradesman supplanted the science of the artist.” The sharpest twist of irony is that, by the end of the decade, Whistler had helped create such demand for blue and white porcelain that he could no longer afford to buy it himself.

Another paradox was the distaste of Charles Lang Freer — for whom the gallery is named — for Chinese blue and white porcelain. Too shiny, loud and bourgeois for his liking, it appealed to him only in Whistler’s toned-down, subtler interpretations. Neither of them seemed to mind that Whistler’s porcelain — like most of the others in Europe — had generally been made for export and were not considered masterpieces by the Chinese.

The new craze was facilitated by improved international trade. Cheaper porcelain imports came hand in hand with the global convulsions of free-market expansion: the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion.

Though Whistler’s art originated from a turbulent part of the world, it exuded a sense of peaceful isolation. “He was an artist inspired by art,” Freer curator Lee Glazer said, “not by life.”