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Cross-Cultural Influences in Glassmaking in the 18th and 19th Centuries

All About Glass

East Influences West

In Western Europe, the influence of East and South Asian products imported by the English, Dutch, and French East India Companies in the 18th and 19th centuries had a significant impact on style and art. European artists, fascinated by Oriental designs, architecture, and decorative arts, developed a chinoiserie style (characterized by use of Chinese motifs, shapes, and materials) that gained popularity in Europe in the second half of the 17th century.

The allure of the “exotic” and the appeal of materials unknown to the West—such as hard-paste porcelain and lacquer—stimulated the production of glass objects imitating the treasured Eastern imports. Western scientists did not know porcelain was a clay-based substance and mistakenly assumed it must be a vitreous one. Therefore, their efforts to reproduce porcelain resulted in the production of a variety of opaque white “milk glass” objects, as well as the discovery of production methods for hard-paste porcelain—supplying a market that had previously relied on East-Asian imports and glazed European earthenware.

Bowl with cover

At the same time, finely painted and gilded opaque black and red glasses emerged—mainly from glasshouses in northern Bohemia—that imitated red Chinese and black Japanese lacquer objects in style and iconography.

During the 19th century chinoiserie patterns on glass endured, and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the Neoclassicism of the 1810s to 1830s. Increased cultural exchange also led Europeans to collect curiosities such as vessels carved from jade, rock crystal, bamboo, and ivory. Consequently, glasshouses, such as Baccarat (founded in 1764), Escalier de Cristal (founded in 1802), and Thomas Webb and Sons (founded in 1837), and designers, including François-Eugene Rousseau (1827–1890), emulated, in color and form, the carved naturalia imported from East Asia.

Following Japan’s political opening to the Western world during the Bakumatsu period (1853–1867), a Western Japonisme style introduced elegant ornamentation that was less playful and more sober than the theatrical chinoiserie designs.

West Influences East

In East Asia, the arts of hardstone carving, bronze casting, and porcelain-making enjoy a long history and are noteworthy for their widespread influence. By contrast, the East Asian tradition of glassmaking, which dates back at least to the Warring States Period (475–227 BC), was less inventive and more dependent on Western techniques and styles.

Tea bowl

In the 18th and 19th centuries, East Asian glass imitated indigenous stone-carvings and porcelain, but began to use European glassblowing and cutting methods. European Christian missionaries brought to Asia glassmaking formulas and skills that revolutionized the local manufacturing practices in China. One such missionary and scientist, Kilian Stumpf, organized a glassworks in Beijing in the 1680s.

Glass produced during the Qing dynasty in China (1644–1911) and Edo dynasty in Japan (1603–1868) shows unique characteristics reminiscent of the cultural influence the Western Jesuits had on East Asian glass technology. Chinese opaque white glass from this period resembles porcelain and also shows the tradition of decorating vessels with enamel colors presenting landscapes, flora and fauna adopted from scroll paintings.

Carved pieces of glass incorporated the highly developed Eastern traditions of stone and lacquer carving, as well as the translucent and multicolored overlay techniques used in Europe. Ruby glass, for instance, which entranced princely collectors in the West, led in the East to an array of finely executed objects using the deeply colored and yet translucent material and employing the meticulous cutting, grinding, and carving methods long practiced on nephrite stone.

Influenced by imported Western brilliant cut glass and pressed glass, Japanese glasshouses adopted Western practices during the second half of the 19th century. High-quality tableware from the Satsuma Clan factory, for example, gained a reputation for its high-content lead glass and its cut geometric patterns which were reminiscent of English and American “cut crystal.” Japanese glass also explored the possibilities of pressed glass, and imitated their own cut glass by pressing more economically produced and thinly executed domestic objects with floral and arabesque patterns.

Technological exchange and stylistic influences continued into the 20th century, with ongoing global influences in glass design and the emergence of an international scene of glass artists who skillfully employed traditional techniques and newly interpreted historic craft traditions.

Florian Knothe

Published on October 3, 2011