This thesis explores the implications of chinoiserie, or Western creations of Chinese-style decorative arts, upon an eighteenth century colonial American audience. Chinese products such as tea, porcelain, and silk, and goods such as furniture and wallpaper displaying Chinese motifs of distant exotic lands, had become popular commodities in Europe by the eighteenth century. The American colonists, who were primarily culturally British, thus developed a taste for chinoiserie fashions and wares via their European heritage. While most European countries had direct access to the China trade, colonial Americans were banned from any direct contact with the Orient by the British East India Company. They were relegated to creating their own versions of these popular designs and products based on their own interpretations of British imports. Americans also created a mental construct of China from philosophical writings of their European contemporaries, such as Voltaire, who often envisioned China as a philosopher's paradise. Some colonial Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, fit their understanding of China within their own Enlightenment worldview. For these individuals, chinoiserie in American homes not only reflected the owners' desires to keep up with European fashions, but also carried associations with Enlightenment thought. The latter half of the eighteenth century was a time of escalating conflict as Americans colonists began to assert the right to govern themselves. Part of their struggle for freedom from England was a desire to rid themselves of the British imports, such as tea, silk, and porcelain, on which they had become so dependent by making those goods themselves. Americans in the eighteenth century had many of the natural resources to create such products, but often lacked the skill or equipment for turning their raw materials into finished goods. This thesis examines the colonists' attempts to create their own chinoiserie products, despite these odds, in light of revolutionary sentiments of the day. Chinoiserie in colonial America meshed with neoclassical décor, thereby reflecting the Enlightenment and revolutionary spirit of the time, and revealing a complex colonial worldview filled with trans-oceanic dialogues and cross-cultural currents.



College and Department

Fine Arts and Communications; Visual Arts



Date Submitted


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chinoiserie, colonial America, decorative arts, interior decor, eighteenth century, American Revolution, Revolutionary War, patriotism, silk, porcelain, Thomas Chippendale, William Buckland, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, George Mason, Gunston Hall, Benjamin Franklin, William Paca, philosophe, philosophy, Enlightenment, Chinese taste



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