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Freer Gallery's "Chinamania" Reveals Whistler's Love Affair with Blue and White

WASHINGTON, DC.- "Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White," a small thematic exhibition on view at the Freer Gallery from Aug. 7 until Aug. 2011, explores the significance of Chinese export porcelain in Victorian England, where it began as an object of serious aesthetic inspiration but soon proliferated as a popular status symbol.

The exhibition features 23 works of art: eight wash drawings of Kangxi porcelain produced by the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) for a collector's catalog; related examples of blue and white from the Freer Gallery's "The Peacock Room"; and several paintings, pastels and etchings by Whistler that reflect his interest in Chinese porcelain.

"Although Whistler disdained popular taste, it was his interest in blue and white—along with his knack for self-promotion—that helped catapult blue and white into the English mainstream," said Lee Glazer, curator of American art and organizer of the exhibition. "He was so successful that soon he could no longer afford the very pots that he had helped to popularize."

The blue-and-white porcelain collected by the Victorians was primarily manufactured in China during the late 17th century for a European market. In 1863, Whistler purchased a number of pieces from shops in London, Amsterdam and Paris in an attempt to shed the influence of French realism and develop a more original style, one in which art, not life, was the inspiration. Dressing up in a Chinese robe, amassing a significant collection of blue and white and incorporating the sinuous forms and delicate patterns of Kangxi ware into his own paintings allowed Whistler to construct a public persona and an artistic style that was, as he said, "….as far removed from the joys and trouble of mere humanity as so many pieces of Oriental porcelain."

If blue-and-white porcelain assisted Whistler in his transformation from realist to aesthete, it also marked a transition in English consumer culture, whereby middle-class shoppers sought to "express themselves" through their purchases. Cultural commentators of the time both embraced and mocked the porcelain craze, which the cartoonist George Du Maurier dubbed "Chinamania."

Beginning in March 2011, "Chinamania" will coincide with "The Peacock Room Comes to America," the dramatic reinstallation of "The Peacock Room" as it looked in 1908 after American collector Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) purchased the room and had it reassembled in his mansion in Detroit. During his trips to Asia, Freer purchased more than 200 ceramics to adorn the Peacock Room, selecting predominantly gray, green and turquoise iridescent glazes because of their tonal relationships to the American paintings in his collection. Freer's ceramics collection was as important to his aesthetic development as blue-and-white porcelain had been to Whistler's growth as an artist.

"Chinamania:" will offer visitors a deeper understanding of the cultural conditions that created a taste for Chinese porcelain and inspired "The Peacock Room." The exhibition will be on view in the Freer's ground-floor gallery.

Freer Gallery | "Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White" | Lee Glazer |

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