In a comment on my previous post about famille rose porcelain, Courtney Barnes reminded me of the role of the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) in the cultural exchange between east and west.
Courtney has also mentioned him in one of her previous posts about ‘Europeanoiserie’, or the interest in Europe in eighteenth-century China.
Mirror painting is another technique now associated with China which actually originated in Europe. Like famille rose, it became a sought-after export product that influenced the west’s image of China.
Castiglione is thought to have introduced mirror painting to the Chinese while working in the imperial palace workshops. Because of the Jesuits’ willingness to learn Chinese and to adapt to Chinese customs, they were able to infiltrate the Chinese elite, who valued their technical and scientific knowledge.
According to Graham Child in his book World Mirrors 1650-1900, painting on the ‘back’ side of glass panels was known in Italy in the fourteenth century. In this technique the paint is applied in reverse order, the details having to be put on first and the ground last.
The earliest mention of an English painted mirror is a report of one that was stolen from a dining room in Holborn, London, in 1660, and which had a landscape painted along the bottom. With mirror paintings the area to be painted had to be scraped free of the mirror amalgam first before the paint could be applied.
By the mid-eighteenth-century the Chinese had adopted this technique and made it their own. Once again, the exotic was actually something familiar in disguise.
I am increasingly thinking that Chinoiserie and Chinese export art do not provide us with a window onto a distant world; that instead they show us a mirror, in which we see ourselves reflected.