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Imagining Cathay: 18th- and Early 19th-Century Chinoiserie Textiles and Embroideries from the Collection

December 8, 2007 - December 2008

For Europeans during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China—or Cathay as it was sometimes called—was a magical place. This exhibition includes nine Chinoiserie textiles and embroideries from the Museum's outstanding collection. The Far East had intrigued Europeans for centuries. Starting with Marco Polo's published adventures during the late thirteenth century, the Western imagination had been fueled by both travelers' accounts and Asian imports. The Orient was a source for luxury goods from the earliest days, beginning with precious silks and later fine porcelains and lacquer-work among other goods. The East India trading companies founded during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ensured that Asian goods, including textiles, continued to reach Europe in increasing quantities. The growing vogue for things Oriental and the spread of its popularity to all economic classes stimulated European imitations: as early as the middle of the fourteenth century the silk weavers of Lucca, Italy, the center of European luxury textile production, modeled their patterns after Chinese designs. As the taste for such objects grew, prints were produced which craftsmen used as patterns and inspiration for a Europeanized "oriental" style called by the French word chinoiserie. This new decorative style was popularized during the seventeenth century by the French court and during the eighteenth century by English tastemakers. Chinoiserie inspired ephemeral architecture such as teahouses, landscape design, interior decoration, court entertainments, and operas as well as fine and decorative arts. It continues to be one of history's most enduring and fanciful decorative styles.

Main Building


Dilys Blum • Curator of Costume and Textiles

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