The taste and fashion of the chinoiserie were the direct result of Europe’s interactions with the East, within the framework of building a global trade network. In opposition to America, home of the noble savage, the millennial Empire of China was the example of an evolved society to which Europe could compare.
As is known, the Portuguese, in establishing new trade routes and intense diplomatic contacts, were pioneers in the process of recognition and dissemination of the cultural diversity of the Middle Kingdom. Among the religious orders, the Jesuits were the advanced guard of diplomatic contacts, although subject to the supervision of Rome.
This concrete commercial and political reality seems to be at the antipodes of a good part of the representation of Chinese scenes, where a frivolous and everyday tone prevails. An excellent example of this trend are the panels made for the palace that António Rebelo de Andrade had built in Lisbon, in the early 1760s.
Made by the Great Lisbon Workshop, led by the painters Sebastião de Almeida and José dos Santos Pinheiro, the tiles represent scenes in which a female figure and a child drink tea, have fun ringing bells or fishing with a cormorant. This family environment also includes an old peasant and a young soldier.
To make these panels, the tile painters followed the engravings that Gabriel Huquier, based on the works of François Boucher, composed to assemble a Chinese gallery of characters and traditional customs.
It was also the French painter who produced the cards for Beauvais’ famous tapestry series, where the depiction of an Audience with the Emperor was accompanied by the representations of The Chinese Fishing, The Chinese Garden, and The Chinese Dance.
As highlighted by several historians, in the elaboration of these cards, François Boucher represented several aspects of Chinese culture mixed with references to the helical columns of St. Peter’s Baldachin of Rome or characters with Persian turbans. On the other hand, the careful thematic elaboration works as an exotic double of musical concerts, dance, or picnics in the gardens as cultivated by the French aristocracy. With a seductive fantasy atmosphere, it was a kind of promising invitation, without major impediments, to a commitment to the Celestial Empire.
The origin of the engravings seems to confirm the idea that, in Portugal, these images of China are an imported phenomenon, influenced by European artistic production, with little contact with the heart of the history of Luso-Chinese relations.
In fact, with a familiar and naive intimacy, these tile panels are one of the best examples that this new cultural relationship project is also within reach of a new commercial enterprise launched by the Pombaline reforms. Furthermore, after the Chinese Rites controversy and the consequent expulsion of the Christians from China in 1724, it is no longer thought possible to establish a compromise through the religion.
CÂMARA, Maria Alexandra Gago da. “A arte de bem viver”. A encenação do quotidiano na azulejaria portuguesa da segunda metade de setecentos. Lisboa: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2005. ISBN 972-31-1128-4.