“Chinese Arabesques” by Jean-Baptiste Pillement and Anne Allen (ca. 1790–99)

Gravity is an intermittent force in Jean-Baptiste Pillement’s designs for “New Suite of Chinese Arabesques”, etched by his wife, Anne Allen. Festoons drape and fishing lures drop within floral microcosms populated by tiny Orientalized figures and fantastical, Boschian critters. But the architectural structures — stairs, pagodas, pavilions, and bridges — seem enchanted, hovering in air or perching improbably on frothy foliage. The garden settings themselves, loosely framed by fantastical botany, float above, or beyond, our own grounded reality. Pillement’s knack for creating visual confections that facilitate intellectual and aesthetic escape sustained his success as a designer and proponent of the rococo decorative idiom, which he popularized far beyond its native France.

The figures and natural elements in Pillement and Allen’s prints have little to do with China as it ever existed. Fascination with imported goods from the Far East grew in Europe throughout the seventeenth century as East India companies expanded their enterprises. Items like lacquerware and porcelain were treasured for their material exoticism as well as the intriguing ornamental motifs they bore. However, the imports remained costly into the eighteenth century, even as they continued to excite popular taste. Imitations abounded, and, as Maria Gordon-Smith describes, European interpretations of East Asian decorative arts drifted further and further from their prototypes and became absorbed into Western visual conventions. One result of this phenomenon was chinoiserie, a quixotic vision of an imagined China, not as an earthly place, but rather as a utopian world of pleasure and caprice that was folded into the rococo style, with its own alluring formulation of nature and fantasy.

In keeping with chinoiserie’s decorative orientation, the human figures in the “New Suite of Chinese Arabesques” are ornamental rather than corporeal. They lounge, admire birds, and chat, but they are not protagonists. While there are plenty of European figures serving similar decorative functions in rococo imagery — for instance the washerwomen in François Boucher’s 1768 painting of the same title — the playful exoticism of chinoiserie seems to abstract human figures to a greater degree. This abstraction reflects the fact that, with little direct access to the Far East, most eighteenth-century Europeans encountered people of these faraway lands not in the flesh, but obliquely, as commodities, fantasies, and notions.

Pillement had a long and successful career painting and orchestrating rococo interiors for a wide array of clients beyond his native Lyon; he worked on sites from Lisbon to Warsaw and produced reams of printed floral and chinoiserie designs that could be adapted to a variety of media, including textiles, ceramics, furniture, painted wall panels, and small portable goods like fans and snuff boxes. His printed designs were popular and he apparently took care to make them appealing as standalone objects on the print market.

The multicolor sheets of “The New Suite of Chinese Arabesques” were — and still are — eye-catching. They were printed à la poupée, meaning that several colors of ink were applied to different areas of the printing surface before it was run through a press in a single pass. This method of printing is a painstaking process that yields at least some variance among the printed impressions as well as fetching coloristic effects. Many of the “New Suite of Chinese Arabesques” display an airy blue background tone that suits the scenes well, the result of residual traces of colored inks on the unetched portions of the copperplate surface. And, throughout the suite, one can spot ombré transitions from one color to another, as adjacent colored inks overlapped slightly on the plates. The prints’ vibrant colors would have appealed to artisans like ceramics painters working in the rococo style, with its candy-colored hues, and also work to materialize the lush environments which can be enjoyed as splendid works on their own.

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