Chinamania in Victorian England

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Chinamania in Victorian England

September 25, 2017 - 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

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Lee Glazer, Ph.D., Curator of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Porcelain has been an object of fascination in the West since its first appearance in the fourteenth century, when Marco Polo returned from China with a small grey-green jar whose exquisite fineness was, quite literally, beyond understanding: the secret of porcelain manufacture would not be discovered in Europe until the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, exploration, trade, and imperial ambitions fed the obsession with china from China, spawning new architectural forms and new terminology: many aristocratic palaces and country houses throughout Europe boasted a Porzellanzimmer (porcelain chamber), a room specifically built for large displays of ceramics, a symptom of the epidemic Porzellankrankheit (porcelain sickness).

Two hundred years later British decorators revived the practice when Chinamania, as it was now termed, spread down the social ladder into middle class parlors. Even as the market for Asian art expanded in the 20th century, Chinamania never vanished from the scene. It has remained a potent force in consumer culture, serious collecting, and new artistic creation.

This enduring legacy formed the basis of the recent “Chinamania” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which paired the work of contemporary ceramic sculptor Walter McConnell with historic examples of Kangxi porcelain from the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. McConnell’s interest in the replication and serialized mass production of ceramic forms began after he visited China more than a decade ago, where the large kilns and busy factories at Jingdezhen prompted him to think more deeply about China as an enduring resource for ceramic production.  This lecture examines the long history of this cross-cultural relationship, situating Chinamania generally and McConnell’s work in particular within a broader narrative of ceramic production, acquisition, and display.


Lee Glazer is curator of American art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and is a specialist in Gilded Age painting and the arts of the Aesthetic movement. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including, most recently, Chinamania and Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, which received the Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Award.  Dr. Glazer received her Ph.D. from the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.  She is the author of Charles Lang Freer: A Cosmopolitan Life, A Perfect Harmony: The American Collection in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and co-editor of East West Interchanges in American Art: A Long and Tumultuous Relationship and Palaces of Art: Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism. Her current research focuses on James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, to be featured in an exhibition at the Freer in 2019.


Kangxi porcelain from the Freer Gallery and 3-D printed replicas. Photo by Robb Harrell.