Around 1804, a wealthy merchant and ship owner António Pereira ordered an exceptional set of chinoiserie for his noble house in the Janelas Verdes, in Lisbon.
The panels tiles made for the decoration of the flowerbed benches in the terrace, ingeniously located on the top of the warehouses, by the banks of the Tagus, stood out by replicating the pictures of an embassy sent to the Kingdom of China, whose account, written by the experienced secretary Johan Nieuhof, was published for the first time in Dutch in 1665. The work had a profound impact in Europe then, leading to the immediate translation into French (1665), Latin (1668), and English (1669), mostly because of the illustrations, made from drawings of the journey, also from Nieuhof.
The set of images, strongly imbued in the spirit of 17th-century curiosity, describes the geography, the economy, the political and civilizational culture, and also the fauna and flora of the Kingdom of China. They illustrate the profile of cities, riverside and seascapes, the process of manufacturing silk, the typology of different vessels, and also some less common aspects as the clothing of a group of actors or the flagellant practices of the mendicants. This comprehensive and accurate look turned it into one of the leading graphical sources for the chinoiserie, frequently used as a primary source for the work of other European artists.
In the work of the Dutch emissary, text and drawing drink from the same describing spirit, as it is clear if we compare the picture representing the dragon-shaped boat with the description of the celebrations of the Chinese new year. Johan Nieuhof, excited about the party and seduced by the concerts with unheard instruments, by the parades and dances, by the drinks and delicacies, which according to his testimony, exceeded any of the festivals held in Europe, writes: “We saw in this channel, a lot of foreign ships, but the most rare and graceful were two boats, or “caracores” [snails], which the Chinese call Longschon, because they are built with the shape of a serpent, or snakes, but with such accuracy and ornament that I do not believe that the boat offered by Sesostris to the idol he honored could surpass it. The belies of these “caracores” mimic quite well the ones of aquatic snakes: the stern was also attired with a mane of an artistically twisted serpent. It was a pleasure to watch the juggling of a child, hanging from the tail of the vessel. The three masts were crowned with idols, such as the one at the stern, where trapped ducks could be seen being tormented by a Chinese man. At the tail were banners, with silk flags, and long plumes”.
Many of these pictures, as the view from the ports, the riverside, and seascapes, the historical and religious monuments, border on genre paintings, despite not knowing the author’s artistic training.
The relatively recent discovery of a notebook of original drawings by Nieuhof demonstrates that his first editor, perhaps collaborating with the author himself, among other changes, added small figures in the foreground, following the rules in the use of “staffage” in the Baroque scenery.
It was also considered necessary to approach the pictures to the “recognizable” exotic universe, and some elements of tropical flora were added, such as palm trees with coconuts. His own travel experience was enriched by his historical readings, and his narrative follows closely the descriptions of the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese Jesuits.
The Portuguese tile painter resorted not to the “original” engravings, but rather approximate versions which a team of artists, directed by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the young, made for the Histoire Generale de Voyages, edited and translated in France by the abbot Antoine Prévost. The goal of this team of authors was to create, from land and sea travels accounts, a geographic and historical encyclopedia of all nations. The attention with the re-elaboration of the texts, compared against versions of various authors, went along with a new image program, supported by the French Academy, which included the editing of new maps of all continents and regions of the Globe.
With the publishing of Prevost’s work, the pictures of Nieuhof become part of a second stage, no longer attached to the origin of the commercial embassy for the Dutch East India Company, but to the compilation and consolidation of historical and geographical knowledge for the entire Globe. Although many of these images lost the first impact of novelty, there is a striking contrast between this set, which today could be classified as ethnographic, and the image of a civilized, polished, and aristocratic China that justified the presence of the chinoiserie in the architectural spaces of the nobility. Even with all the adaptations, it is also noteworthy the difference between that set of tiles panels with the stereotyped representation patent in the decorative production of lacquered furniture and the 17th-century faience made in Lisbon.
The tiles made to the wealthy merchant António Pereira’s house, currently applied over the benches and flowerbeds flanking the main entrance of the Sobralinho Palace, in Vila Franca de Xira, are one of the best examples of the peculiar way in which images of exotic countries are shaped to adjust to the taste and objectives of their patrons.
CURVELO, Alexandra (ed.). O exótico nunca está em casa? A China na faiança e no azulejo portugueses (séculos XVII-XVIII)/ The exotic is never at home? The presence of China in the Portuguese faience and azulejo (17th-18th centuries). Lisboa: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, 2013. ISBN 978-972-776-455-6.