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Chinese Themes in Early American Art

Ani Margaryan

Arts & History Writer


Theodore Wores’s art helped to form a positive image of Chinese people in 19th century America. This article is an in-depth analysis of American artist Theodore Wores' contribution to the rise of, coinage and extension of Chinese subject matters in American art history. It is also a rare attempt to represent the complete set of his artworks on Chinese themes. The main challenge to bring this work to the art world, is that the  location of the majority of his Asian-inspired canvases remains unknown, with only photographic records of the pieces in existence

In the first images, we see colourful, realistic and detailed depictions of Chinese people in their folk attires in typically Chinese atmosphere, at their traditional dining table dancing and singing (Pic. 1), celebrating New Year (Pic.2), pouring Chinese tea (Pic.3). Engaged in various actions related to their customs and origin- all of these poignant oil paintings are created by but an American artist at the end of the 19th century. Theodore Wores (August 1, 1859 – September 11, 1939), employed the manners and technique of the European oil paintings of his time, including linear perspective, foreshortening, contrast of light and shadow, reflection of the volume of figures and objects, tints and shades, etc. Moreover, the artist had never been to China, his Chinese protagonists are the inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown.


(Pic 1) Photograph of a painting by Theodore Wores of a standing warrior with musicians in the background, 19th century, California Historical Society


(Pic 2) Theodore Wores, “New Year’s Day in San Francisco’s Chinatown”, 1881, oil on canvas

So we might ask, why was the painter obsessed with the Asian themes? And, why did Chinese motifs particularly play a significant role in his career?

1. Influences of Wores  childhood
Wores grew up in San Francisco, Northern California. He came to know San Francisco’s Chinatown (establishment in 1848, it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America) as a child while walking home from his father’s hat business store through the bustling Asian community quarters.

2. Teaching experience in Asian headquarters
Wores was one of the first American artists to venture into the city’s Chinatown. He is marked as a “pioneer in the exploration of Chinatown subject matter”. While creating his famous paintings of the Asian quarter in 1884, he also taught Western art to a small, enthusiastic group of 12 Chinese students.
3. Artistic tendencies of his time (involving Japanese and Chinese objects in the compositions)

According to the biographers, Wores’s friends included artists, such as William Merritt Chase (see “Spring Flowers (Peonies)”, 1889. Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer, 48 x 48 inches. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.32) who from time to time were turning their brushes towards Asian themes, among them Chinese porcelain, Japanese kimono, partly inspired by French school of Orientalism and Aestheticians. Thus, the entourage and surroundings made a positive ground for growing interest in Asian culture, and Chinese, in particular.


(Pic 3) Theodor Wores, “A Chinese beauty Pouring tea”, 19th century, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm.)

4. Positive responses of museums, connoisseurs and audience

An American local artist noticed Wores’s talent and encouraged him to attend the Royal Academy in Munich. After six years in Munich, Wores returned to San Francisco eager for new subjects to paint and turning his gaze to Chinatown. Among the early Chinatown canvases “Chinese Candy Seller” (Pic.4) was sold to the E.B. Crocker collection, “The Chinese Shop” to Sir Thomas Hasketh. The latter’s wife commented on the picture, saying "so realistic you can smell it." His series brought forth orders from the Earl of Rose- Berry, after viewing the Hesketh canvases. Among these were "Chinese Restaurant"  (Pic. 5) and "Chinese Mandolin Player” or “Chinese Musicians” (Pic.6). To the De Young Art Museum in San Francisco went his "Chinese Boy and Kite."


(Pic 4) Theodor Wores, “Chinese Candy Seller”, medium, dimensions and present location unknown


(Pic 5) Theodore Wores, “Chinese restaurant”, 1884, oil on canvas, Crocker Art Museum


(Pic 6) Theodore Wores, “Chinese Musicians”, 1884, oil on canvas, private collection

“The Chinese Fishmonger” (Pic. 7) was the first painting he completed after returning to America from Europe, and the dark tones, strong highlights, and expressive brushstrokes reflect his Munich training. Wores struggled to convince Chinese people to pose for his paintings until one of his young assistants, a Chinese student named Ah Gai, accompanied him to translate his requests. In this image, Wores captured the glistening, slimy scales of the fish as they slid from the basket onto the tabletops, so that we could visualize the exotic smells and hubbub of Chinatown’s street markets.


(Pic 7) Theodore Wores, “The Chinese Fishmonger”, 1881, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The journal “Californian” on December 1881 wrote, “The absurd excuse advanced by certain artists who have returned from Europe, that there is nothing to paint, has received at Mr. Wores’s hands a crushing retort. In the unique Chinese world, which preserves its Orientalism intact among us, he has found a fresh and picturesque subject. His picture represents the stall of a Chinese fishmonger”. Another critic noted, “The Chinaman together with the Chinese advertisement on the wall, gives the whole picture a local habitation and a name.”

Interest to the Asian themes, born due to the charm of the Chinese districts and interactions with Chinese people in America, motivated the artist to travel to Japan in 1885, where he stayed for almost three years, living among the Japanese and studying their customs, language, and art. (Pic 8). It’s also worth mentioning that throughout the rest of his career, Wores traveled extensively, painting and sketching in Hawaii, Samoa, Canada, and New Mexico as well as California.


(Pic 8) Theodore Wores (American, 1858-1939). Flower Seller, Tokyo, 1886. Oil on canvas laid on masonite. 26-1/2 x 20 inches

Comparative analysis

For better understanding of the current American artists' attempt to expand the Chinese characters’ influence through a Western scope, one needs the direct observation of the artistic settings of independent eras.  Representations of the general image of China, and Chinese people in diverse forms, must be considered through the American art at the time of interpretation and creation. 

At the end of the 19th century, beyond aesthetics, the art had also become a powerful tool to feed a negative sympathy towards Asian residents of the United States, serving the interests and ambitions of certain political aspirations. Caricatures, political cartoons and illustrations for magazines explicitly conveyed the ethnic image of the Chinese,  either as a potential threat for the local “white workers” (Pic 9, 10), able to steal their job opportunities and property, or ugly black collars with the lowest social status, and with physical distortions, deserved to be mocked at ( Pic.11).


(Pic 9) “The Coming Man,” The Wasp, 20 May 1881 in Philip P. Choy, Lorraine Dong, and Marlon K. Hom, Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese, p. 91


(Pic 10) A Statue for Our Harbor was published in 1881. It expressed the fear of Chinese immigrants, which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act 135 years ago.


(Pic 11) 1888 cartoon in the Wasp, a San Francisco magazine, reflecting anti-immigrant sentiment

The evolution of these racist art samples indicated the increase of anti-Asian sentiments all over America. In this context, it is important to mention the Wyoming massacre. On September 2, 1885, 150 American “white” miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, brutally attacked their Chinese coworkers, killing 28, wounding 15 others and driving several hundred more out of town. Widely blamed for all sorts of societal ills, the Chinese were also attacked by some national politicians who popularised strident slogans like “The Chinese Must Go”, and had helped pass the 1882 law (so-called Chinese Exclusion Act) prohibiting the immigration of Chinese labourers. In this climate of racial hatred, art propagandizing violence against Chinese residents became all too common. “The Chinese Must Go” propaganda was so wide-spread and accepted, that it was adopted by “Magie Washer” advertising campaign, featuring Chinese people as fearful and helpless beings, being kicked off or “washed off” from America by Uncle Sam. (Pic.12).


(Pic 12) An 1886 advertisement for "Magic Washer" detergent- “The Chinese Must Go”

Another cartoon symbolically shows China as an American-conquered land of poverty and famine. While America was featured as a developing, progressive country, drawing parallels between the destroyed symbol of China “The Great Wall,” and the American new-built walls of fortress on the foreground. (Pic.13). As for Wyoming massacre, one of the rare illustrations renders a group of Chinese workers, threatened and desperately fleeing the angry crowd of locals. (Pic.14)


(Pic 13) A cartoon titled, "The Anti-Chinese Wall," showing the "American" wall going up even as the Chinese original wall depicted in the background goes down.  Cartoon by Friedrich Grätz (d. 1913) published in Puck, v. 11, no. 264 (29 March 1882)


(Pic 14) An illustration of the 1885 Chinese Massacre appearing in Harper's Magazine. Illustration courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum

Against the background of the anti-Chinese propaganda, even the considerable contribution of the Chinese workers to the Transcontinental Railroad, constructed between 1863-1869 which significantly linked the US from the East to West was ignored or forgotten. Roughly 15.000 Chinese workers had to face dangerous work conditions – accidental explosions, snow, and rock avalanches, which killed hundreds of workers, not to mention frigid weather, yet there few depictions of these monumental contributions of these Chinese workers in the art that was being produced. (Pic. 15) Instead, they are rather additional secondary motifs of the composition (recognized solely by their conical straw hats and traditional hairstyle “Queue”), images that portray the building of the railroad as a pure American achievement.


(Pic 15) "Across the Continent. The snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From a sketch by Joesph Becker." Originally printed in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Vol. 29, February 6, 1870, p. 346.

As it was noted, a number of Wores’s contemporaries influenced by the European waves of Japanism and Orientalism, have portrayed Western women (Pic. 16), either as patronesses or spouses in Japanese kimono on the background of the Asian-style painted or decorated wall. However, the women although depicted as Asian in origin, had Western facial features and hairstyles, with the artists aiming to show the contrast between East and West in the composition. This was perhaps to display the lavish and cosmopolitan taste either of their own or of their commissioners, with Japanese-inspired fashion and design.


(Pic 16) William Merritt Chase, “Study of a Girl in Japanese Dress” c. 1895, Brooklyn Museum

Thus,  Wores work amongst the intolerance towards Chinese immigrants is a progressive, and enlightening crack in the anti-Chinese wall. His view of Chinese culture as its own beautiful subject worth capturing is comparable to the ethnographic and historical significance of Arnold Genthe’s photography, who managed to capture Chinatown lively scenes before the 1906 earthquake. (Pic 17).  Two other artists whom Wores knew personally, had similar views and perspectives to his, Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier, created joint sketches on Chinatown of San Francisco (Pic.18). “Harper’s Weekly” in 1877. The paintings are detailed executions of the interior, objects, and figures in national costumes, with a purity that transcends the political and social dialogue of anti-immigration and intolerance.


(Pic 17) Children in SF Chinatown, around 1900. By Arnold Genthe


(Pic 18) Chinese reception in San Francisco, Harper’s Weekly, June 9, 1877

Some sources claim the visits of these artists to Asian headquarters, were another stimulus for Wores to dive into Chinatown themes. Nonetheless, Wores’s oil paintings are independent artworks, beyond magazine illustrations, and are characterized with greater artistic and aesthetic power and quality than many of his counterparts.

Another American prolific painter - William Hahn’s (1829–1887) work,  corresponded to the vivid reflections of Chinese scenes of San Francisco by Wores. His “The Market Scene, Sansome Street” (oil on canvas, 60 in. x 96 1/2 in. (152.4 cm x 245.11 cm), Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection, 1872.411) with the presentation of Chinese labourers on the left corner is again an aesthetic view of Chinese themes through the eyes of the curious western artist. Hahn’s oil paintings of the Chinese community in San Francisco preceded Wores series, but the images of the current works are unavailable in open sources.


In the current artistic and historical context, the depictions of Chinese in US by Wores was a breath of the fresh air- an expression of the artist’s personal attitude and point of view on Chinese people and their culture. This influence has become a constant source of inspiration, a notably contrast to the intentionally negative denigration of the Chinese identity through pictures. Wores viewpoint is more appreciable, being compared to his contemporaries’ works on Chinese and Asian themes. Wores’s vision of the Chinese world, helped to form a positive image of Chinese culture and people in the United States, taking  Chinese subject matter to new heights. He captured the nature of the Chinese people in their elegance and unique charm, and aesthetically fulfilled life, just like his contemporaries had done with Venice scenes and the Venetians on their European canvases. The American artist turned the simplicity of Chinese daily affairs and leisure into an abundantly-decorated composition (though only ten paintings are known). These paintings are worthy to be observed detail by detail by the American audience of different backgrounds- from art lovers to connoisseurs, commissioners, and amateurs. Wores vision is meant to open American society’s eyes widely to see the Chinese residents in the way they saw themselves, and the pride they felt for their culture.


Discover, Learn & Appreciate.


Chinese Themes in Early American Art

(3 more canvases by Wores not analyzed in the above article)

Theodore Wores, “San Francisco Chinese maiden”, 19th century, California Historical Society

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Theodore Wores (1859-1939) The Old Fisherman 10 x 7 inches, signed, watercolor on paper.

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“Golden Parasol”, attributed to Theodore Wores

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