Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Exoticism in the Decorative Arts

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European interest in non-Western art was first stimulated by trade with the East in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (17.190.2045). By the nineteenth century, with the advent of the railroad and steamship, lands that were little known to Westerners became easier to access. As more Europeans traveled beyond the established routes of the Grand Tour, their experiences abroad began to influence their tastes at home. Other influences were a result of England's massive imperial control over lands in China, India, Africa, and the Pacific. By mid-century, many non-Western forms and ornamental motifs had found their way into the vocabulary of European decorative arts.


Like Orientalist subjects in nineteenth-century painting, exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of opulence and "barbaric splendour."

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Like Orientalist subjects in nineteenth-century painting, exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of opulence and "barbaric splendour," in the words of the English explorer, linguist, and writer, Sir Richard F. Burton (1821–1890). The arts of the East were also considered quaint and uncorrupted by industrial capitalism. While English critics complained about the lack of integrity and poor design in the utilitarian goods that were being produced in their factories, they exalted the arts of preindustrialized nations and held them in great esteem as supreme examples of good design. Because of their purity of design, Islamic ceramics, Indian textiles, and Japanese prints were considered aesthetically superior to European goods, which aimed for commercial novelty. Ironically, the introduction of non-Western motifs into the European design vocabulary was equally novel and became an alternative to the historically based designs associated with various revivalist styles in the nineteenth century.

Not only were non-Western societies thought of as being untainted by industry and capitalism, they were also perceived as morally superior and more devout than their European counterparts. Owen Jones (1809–1874) described objects from India that were considered exemplars of good design as "the works of a people who are still faithful to their art as to their religion, habits and modes of thought which inspired it. … We find no struggle after an effect; every ornament arises quietly and naturally from the object decorated, inspired by some true feeling, or embellishing some real want." In an attempt to provide principles of design along with an encyclopedic compilation of design motifs, Jones published the Grammar of Ornament in 1856. However, rather than appreciating non-Western design for its sense of "otherness," he analyzes it based on stylistic merits alone, stripping away its cultural context.

The fascination for exotic styles was fueled by significant displays of non-Western art at many of the international exhibitions from 1851 onward. Publications of archaeological finds and collections also fed the nineteenth-century passion for the exotic. For example, the Egyptian style, popularized following Napoleon's campaign in Egypt in 1798, was promoted throughout the nineteenth century by such publications as Vivant Denon's Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte (1802) (26.168.77) and Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). John Gardner Wilkinson's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837), which illustrated domestic furniture found at Thebes, continued to influence the style of chairs and other furniture made by artist-designers through the 1880s.

Non-Western designs influenced ornament, form, materials, and techniques. The complexities of geometric design associated with Islamic decorative arts and architecture became a source of inspiration. Jones, a proponent of Islamic design, stressed the visual importance of stylizing forms inspired by nature. The motifs and luster glazes of Turkish ceramics influenced English (23.163.2ab), French (1985.225), and Hungarian ceramics, while North African architecture and materials inspired the furniture of Carlo Bugatti (1856–1940) in Italy (69.69). Persian decorative arts were a frequent source for the enamelwork of the French jewelry firm Falize (2002.258) as well as for Christopher Dresser (1834–1904) in England (1996.94). Looking to the Americas, Dresser also took inspiration from Precolumbian artifacts (1988.30).

Throughout the nineteenth century, the arts of China and Japan were an inexhaustible source for design ideas. Chinoiserie, a pseudo-Chinese decorative style popularized by Europeans in the 1730s, reappeared during the Regency and continued into the nineteenth century (69.193.1-.11). However, by the 1880s, Europeans—such as the Austrian chemist A. Bünzli and the French potter Joseph-Théodore Deck (1985.225)—were producing ceramic glazes stained with metallic oxides in imitation of the Chinese sang de boeuf (ox-blood) glaze. Copper-oxide could produce other colors such as variant shades of green, blue, and violet, which were labeled flambé (2003.280). Chinese stoneware with incised decoration also influenced artist-potters in France at the end of the century (23.31.1).

Following the opening of Japan to trade with the West in 1854, the influence of Japanese arts resonated in nearly all media. The simplicity of Japanese craft, design, and construction found favor among the Gothic revivalists—the architect William Burges called the Japanese display at the International Exhibition of 1862 the "true medieval court"—and the abstract and asymmetrical approach of Japanese design greatly affected the Aesthetic movement. Japanese prints influenced porcelain designs (1996.161.1-3), and Japanese fans, parasols, and blue-and-white porcelain became de rigueur accessories for the fashionable interior. Following his extensive travels in Japan in 1877, Christopher Dresser drew upon Japanese design in his work. He also imported Japanese goods to England, as did the merchant Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843–1917) in London, and the art dealer Siegfried Bing (1838–1905) in Paris. Even Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera of 1885 The Mikado (with costumes supplied by Liberty's), capitalized on the West's fascination with Japan.

By the end of the century, the exotic, as appropriated by the West, had become a mass-produced commodity in itself; exotic images were used to sell everything from cigarettes to candy. However, the exotic continued to influence the appearance of the decorative arts as it fused with the organic whiplash curves of the avant-garde style known as Art Nouveau.

Sara J. Oshinsky
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum/Parsons School of Design, New York