Chinoiserie refers to a recurring theme in European artistic styles since the seventeenth century, which reflects Chinese art and is characterized by the use of fanciful imagery of an imaginary China, by asymmetry in format and whimsical contrasts of scale, and by the attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain and the use of lacquerlike materials and decoration.
Chinoiserie entered the European repertory in the mid-to-late seventeenth century; its popularity peaked around the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was easily assimilated into rococo, then declined somewhat, for it seemed to European eyes the very antithesis of neoclassicism. Chinoiserie is expressed entirely in the decorative arts of Europe, and its expression in architecture was entirely in the field of whimsical follies. By contrast, the serious transformations that Chinese models effected in the eighteenth century, on the plain style of Early Georgian English furniture, notable in the cabriole leg, or on the "naturalistic" style of English landscape gardening, are not considered instances of "Chinoiserie".
From the Renaissance to the 18th century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. Direct imitation of Chinese designs in faience began in the late 17th century, was carried into European porcelain production, most naturally in tea wares, and peaked in the wave of rococo Chinoiserie (ca. 1740-1770).
Earliest hints of Chinoiserie appear in the early 17th century, in the arts of the nations with active East India Companies, Holland and England, then by mid-17th century, in Portugal as well. Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century. After a book by Johan Nieuhof was published the 150 pictures encouraged chinoiserie, and became especially popular in the 18th century. Early ceramic wares at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain naturally imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and tea wares. But in the true Chinoiserie décor fairyland, mandarins lived in fanciful mountainous landscapes with cobweb bridges, carried flower parasols, lolled in flimsy bamboo pavilions haunted by dragons and phoenixes, while monkeys swung from scrolling borders.