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The Chinese phoenix-hunt of Native Americans:
The story of a Chinoiserie masterpiece

In his attempts to define the vague term “hybrid artworks” Jerrold Levinson, one of the prominent art philosophers today, states in the article “Hybrid Art Forms” the following, “Hybrid status is primarily a historic thing, as is, in a way, being a biological hybrid. An art form is a hybrid one in virtue of its emergence out of a field of previously existing artistic activities and concerns, two or more of which it in some sense combines.”[1]
This designation might be applied to the present precious object- wooden, painted and gilded cabinet (Walters Art Museum) that conveys outlooks of West towards East, stylistically and contextually having fused Western ideas and Asian traditions as if floating between the two civilisations (Picture 1).


(Picture 1) Cabinet with Chinese and American Motifs, 1700-1710 (Baroque), wood (pine) with paint and gilding, The Walters Art Museum, US, 65.89, Upper part H: 32 1/2 x W: 37 3/8 in. (82.5 x 95 cm), Netherlands, Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

It was crafted in nowadays Netherlands, at the time when Baroque in certain parts of Europe was conceding its positions to the rising Rococo (1700-1710, ), by European craftsmen-artists with the purpose to imitate the design of expensive and highly-valued lacquered Chinese, as well as Japanese chests imported in great abundance by the Dutch East India Company to satisfy the aesthetic needs of European wealthy classes. These attempts could be viewed within the context of European, including Dutch, craze of Asian ceramics and desire for re-creation of those items and establishment of local productions of Chinese world-known blue-and-white, with the Delftware- as a tangible output of those efforts. 

The Asian influence is obvious in the physical appearance of this wooden object, choice of media, even two massive crimson-hued vases with plants on both sides that catch the viewer’s gaze, are recurring subject in Asian panels, paintings, Chinese hanging scrolls with auspicious “still life” objects referring to the specific celebrations, ancestral worship or luck-charms,. The overall impression from this drawer’s formal qualities, including the implication of golden-coloured decor against the dark background, makes relevant to assume the truthiness of the theory regarding direct borrowing of the essential structural elements and furnishing details from imported Asian objects of the same type. From the point of implementation of the figures-emulations of Chinese descent placed against the Asian-inspired background of imaginary landscape with pine-trees, willows and palm-trees, architectural settings of pagodas, it could be categorised as a characteristic Chinoiserie object- the treat speaking in defence of its attribution to the “hybrid” artworks. Nonetheless, not all the human characters are Chinese or linked with the Chinese art. The ethnicity of some of those who are nude and bare-chested could be revealed through their attributes-weapons, elaborate headgears, woven kilts, typical of Native American tribes (Picture 2).


(Picture 2) Cabinet with Chinese and American Motifs, 1700-1710 (Baroque), wood (pine) with paint and gilding, The Walters Art Museum, panel with Native American figures

Thus, the feature making this artwork exceptional within and beyond its time period, is the juxtaposition of quasi-Native-American figures with Chinoiserie-related scenes and motifs. European interpretations of Native Americans do not get into contrast with the Chinese figures, on the contrary, they are homogeneous, creating in that way a dreamlike, carefree, playful atmosphere reminiscent of the mood and ideas Chinoiserie transmitted in general.
The fashion for Asian art in the West, known as a distinctive style Chinoiserie (meaning “in the Chinese taste”), is not the adaptation of authentic East Asian cultural heritage, but rather the imitation or evocation of Chinese motifs and techniques in Western art, that reached its height by the mid-18th century, primarily within the framework of the ornamental and theatrilised Rococo style (1730s-1780s), involving a wide range of art forms- garden design, furniture, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, theatre, music, ceramics. In the Americas Chinoiserie also manifested itself in lavishly painted and decorated interiors, ornate furniture and ceramic objects inspired by both pictorial language of imported Asian luxurious commodities and European adopted Chinoiserie trends as well. The form, structure and visual properties of Chinoiserie artworks were highlighted over the components, such as subject matter and content. It’s worthy mentioning, that Chinoiserie might also be discussed as the Western willingness of getting familiarity towards distant lands and their inhabitants. That was possible rather through exchange of goods via maintaining international trade of the time, than travelling to the newly-discovered continents. The style and connotations of Chinoiserie thereby was positioned to the part of decorative, aesthetically eye-pleasing and idealised landscapes with their imaginary, delicate figures, as it was created by the artists and draughtsmen the majority of whom hadn’t directly encountered Chinese people and their customs, taking constant inspirations from made-in-Asia objects and commodities, impressions, records, stories of others. Besides, as Chinoiserie reached its apex in the era of Rococo, it absorbed the in-vogue stylised and embellishing nature of the latter. The similar notion was true for the above-mentioned cabinet and claimed in the Walters Art Museum’ s description, “The painter adapted some motifs, such as the pagodas on the drawer fronts, from Chinese porcelains, but the figures are only Asian by virtue of their long embroidered coats with sashes”. Chinese figures aren’t Chinese in terms of facial features, they are not Chinese in terms of true reflections of Chinese history, culture, lifestyle, local traditions, they were Chinese in the eyes of the European beholder. As for the figures who were meant to be perceived as Native Americans, were most likely adapted from engravings of 1584 reporting English explorations of Virginia. The earliest European visitor to the Chesapeake Bay is believed to have been Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano who probably sailed past the Virginia Capes in 1524. By 1560 English and Spanish explorers had visited the area also. The Amadas and Barlowe Expedition was the first of the English voyages to Virginia in the 1580s and was one of Sir Walter Raleigh's attempts (English statesman, soldier, writer, poet, explorer, 1552-1618) to establish a colony in the New World. The expedition, led by Captain Philip Amadas and Master Arthur Barlowe, left England with two ships piloted by veteran Portuguese navigator in 1584. After anchoring, the explorers went ashore in boats to view and take possession of the "lande next adjoyning" for Queen Elizabeth I and their patron, Raleigh. Barlowe's journal provides an almost lyrical description of the land and its exploration[2].

In addition to extolling the natural bounty and beauty of the coastal region, Barlowe sympathetically portrayed the Algonquian Indians whom the Englishmen soon encountered and with whom they began to trade. The wide-ranging information acquired by Amadas and Barlowe gave Raleigh and his associates sufficient encouragement to continue their plans to establish the first English colony in America in 1585. Thomas Harriot (Hariot or Harriott), explorer, navigational expert, mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, participated in the mentioned Raleigh's expeditions to America. Hariot and the expedition artist John White explored and mapped the area around Roanoke, carrying out Raleigh’s request that they present him with both textual and visual depictions of the settlement and its surroundings.
Although Raleigh was principally interested in the types of commodities of Virginia Indians of Tsenacomoco, particularly potentially valuable ones, available in the Virginia colony, he also charged Hariot and White with representing the exotic local flora and fauna, appearance, character, and practices of the Indians they met.
Returning home, Harriot gathered his remaining notes and prepared for publication the first English treatise on the New World. This book, published in February 1588 exists in only eight copies but remains one of the most important early accounts of the country as it was first seen by the English settlers. It attracted immediate attention and in the year 1589 Theodore de Bry (1528-1598), artist-engraver, issued elaborate editions in Latin, English, French, and German, adding plates of twenty-one of John White's drawings of the new land and the Indians, for which Harriot wrote headnotes. It’s important to emphasise, that de Bry had passed away at the time the present cabinet was created, accordingly can’t be considered as one of the authors of that object and its compositions (as was mentioned in the description text provided by the museum website). De Bry’s engravings were circulating across Europe long after his death, subsequently, that was Pieter Schenck the elder (Dutch, 1660-ca. 1718, engraver and cartographer active in Amsterdam and Leipzig, mentioned as an author), who took as the fundament the watercolours of Virginia Indians by Barlowe and White, revitalised by De Bry himself and created composite scenes later using them for the design of the Walters Museum cabinet. This statement becomes obvious through comparative analysis of the cabinet figures and the early English imagery-recordings from Virginia.
The depiction of the “Warrior of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina”- a watercolour painted by John White in 1585 (British Museum) most likely influenced the appearance and posture of one of the human figures from the scene with pagodas (Picture 3), that standing next to the Western-style-dressed figure. The female figure from the same scene who is facing the viewer with her frontal pose, and a child with a toy in his hand addressing to the female figure are interpretations from another watercolour authored by White (Picture 4), that portrays an indigenous woman carrying a jar or a basket with her child from the right (Engraving by Theodore de Bry after John White's watercolour, from Thomas Hariot’s “A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia” (1590)


(Picture 3) A standing Native American figure from the Walters Museum cabinet and “Warrior of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina”- a watercolour painted by John White in 1585, The British Museum, London , Courtesy of the British Museum


(Picture 4) A detail from The Walters Art Museum and John White, “A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years.” (1585) British Museum, London, Courtesy of the British Museum

On the exterior side-panels of the present artwork are the adaptations of another set of engravings, this time recording a French expedition of 1564 to Florida. René de Goulaine de Laudonnière  (c. 1529–1574, a French Huguenot explorer and the founder of the French colony of Fort Caroline) led an attempt in the year of 1564 for establishing Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida. This group of 200 named the area La Caroline after the French King Charles IX and began to construct permanent shelter and infrastructures to develop the colony. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (French artist, c. 1533–1588) made on his trip to Florida with de Laudonniere in the years 1564-1565,  documenting the lives of the Timucua Indians. The works that made Le Moyne famous were engravings published by the artist who previously popularised the English expeditions to Americas- Theodore de Bry. Nevertheless, it’s known that Le Moyne's original drawings were destroyed in the Spanish attack, so he recreated them from memory back in Europe and exactly those re-creations served as the basis for De Bry. Moreover, art historians point the fact that De Bry’s engravings related to Native American tribes carry the heavy stamp of his own artistic style and conceptions; he tended to draw parallels between Indians and classical figures. That’s one of the reasons they look unnatural, canonised in their postures and with their delicate gestures disassociate with their actions of hunting and motions during playing the games.
De Bry’s many prints were important resources for Europeans who sought to better understand the Americas. These often inaccurate images and narratives supported a sense of superiority, with Europeans positioned as more civilised and advanced, and the American “others” as less so.[3] The notion that a number of French expedition drawings of Indians revitalised in the engravings by De Bry were later used in order to create a genre scene in one of the panels, is much evident when comparing the scene from the cabinet to the survived genre scenes  with Florida Indians.
According to Le Moyne's text, the Indians used to take the skin of the largest stag they could catch and stuffed it with all their favourite foods and hoisted it up as an offering. We see the same action with the phoenix involved and hoisted up in the same position, transforming the scene in a somewhat “chinoiserie” vision of Native Indian customs (Picture 5).


(Picture 5) Detail from the Walters Museum cabinet and detail from Le Moyne ’s drawing of the 16th century, harvest offering

Nude archers in the same scene in their contrapposto-related posture might be adopted from another Le Monye’s drawings that demonstrated how the Indians equipped with fire arrows were attempting to burn down an enemy village.
Nude figures with accentuated musculature to some extent reference the Ancient Greek tradition, more precisely executions of the Olympic athletes’ graceful images known from antiquity. They could also be interpreted as remote echoes of Albrecht Dürer’s engravings. They are engaged as if in a hunting game for amusement throwing apples and arrows to the direction of the phoenix. This scene has close parallels with one of the De Bry’s engravings (Picture 6) .


(Picture 6) Detail from the Walters Museum cabinet design and “Native Americans Exercise in Florida”,  after Jacques Le Moyne, De Morgues Poster Print by Granger Collection

The physical features of the figures, their attires, attributes, their relations within the compositional space is quite common, the only difference is the figure of the Chinese paradise bird, which was likely meant to add an Asian flavour to the cabinet panel scene.
The in-depth analysis revealed the input of De Bry in the employment of indigenous Americans’ figures in the cabinet design. Nonetheless, the author or authors meticulously and carefully selected the motifs and scenes from De Bry’s legacy pertinent to the function and purpose of the object, avoiding the representations of those people as “savages” and “cannibals”, as a number of De Bry’s works convey: the lavish was destined to bring positive temper and sentiments to the unknown commissioner.

Chinoiserie pictorials were possibly included in the composition due to the taste of Paul Decker the Elder (German, 1677–1713, mentioned as an author in the description provided by the museum)- one of the outstanding architects of his time, who was in favour of Chinoiserie. The Metropolitan Museum hosts a number of his engravings, among them “First Wall of the Porcelain Room” (from: "Fürstlicher Baumeister Oder: Architectura civilis”, 1711). Regarding this porcelain room design,  he writes that all the shelves have to be gilded, and gilt objects should be placed against a black ebony background to make them stand out even more (like the figures on the Walters Museum cabinet), and the wall panels with Chinoiserie scenes were to be made in lacquer work, following the Asian example and forming the perfect backdrop for a porcelain collection.
Speaking of Chinoiserie motifs, it’s worth to turn our attention once again to the scene of the “phoenix-hunt” (see the detail on Picture 6) with the renderings of the “bird of paradise”- Chinese Phoenix (fenghuang) - auspicious, composite bird rising from ashes, union of male and female origins and symbol of resurrection. As in most Chinoiserie instances, the European artists were unfamiliar with the initial content and employment principles of Chinese motifs, being interested in their appearance and decorativeness, using them thereby in various scenes apart from their original hidden meanings and symbolism; here the phoenix is only a fowl for hunting on.
Among the earliest depictions of multi-storied pagoda-like structure which was later wide-spread in Chinoiserie wallpapers and tapestries commissioned by European monarchs and nobles for their residents and as a diplomatic gift, is the “Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, from "An embassy from the East-India Company" (1665) by Johan Nieuhof (1618-1672)” (Picture 7) Anyway, in the present cabinet composition the artist once again blended Chinoiserie and the Native American culture; the top of the highest pagoda is decorated with a radiating totem-sculpture referencing the peculiarities of worship and beliefs of American Indians, having been reflected earlier in De Bry’s works.


(Picture 7) Early European illustration of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, from "An embassy from the East-India Company" (1665) by the Dutch artist Johan Nieuhof (1618-1672)

The central image of pagoda and a smaller one from the left have multiple windows and are adorned with stylistic bells and plants standing out from the eaves. It’s noteworthy that pagoda, dragons, Chinese flora and phoenix were later to become emblematic for Chinoiserie pictorial vocabulary. The Chinoiserie elements are highly merged with the impressions from the American Indians’ depictions, and as a result keep the tone of the eclectic and sophisticated scenes in the mood of ease and exoticism.
The central panels are of great interest yet ambiguous (Picture 8), the framed scenes most likely represent continuous narrative the content of which remains disputable. Some of the figures are draped into Western-style garments and headgears, others- in Asian attires.


(Picture 8) The central panel of  the Walters Museum cabinet

We may suggest that consequent to the continuation of the Native American narrative of the left and right side-panels and appropriate to the theme of the “race on conquering Americas”, the central part of this cabinet is an illusionistic, collateral picturing of the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) interests and taken steps towards the continent. In 1609, English sea captain and explorer Henry Hudson was hired by VOC in the Netherlands to find an easterly passage to Asia, eventually ending up in the point about where the present-day Albany, capital city of New York State is located. His voyage was significant for the VOC, as it set the base for establishing Dutch claims to the region and to the fur trade, that was prospering there in 1610s. New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island became the capital of New Netherland in 1625, but was taken over by England, soon, in 1664.
This composition supposedly depicts the VOC representatives’ first encounters with Eastern powers. In the late 17th century the Dutch East India Company shifted its attention in East Asia to China: tea, silk, and porcelain were the main exports from China. According to a number of sources, by 1669 the VOC was already the richest private company the world had ever seen.
Or, eventually, the author aimed to imitate scenes of Chinese poetry, tells and legends, that were visualised through imported Chinese ceramics, screens and textiles.
The English and French colonisation of Virginia and Florida is supposedly paralleled with the VOC’s successful and benefited trade with Asia, thus Chinese motifs and compositions, as metaphors of VOC’s triumph, accompany those European interpretations of Native American tribes. And, eventually the cabinet as a whole could be comprehended as an embodiment of broadening of Western horizons during the Age of Enlightenment, discovering of the new lands, discerned in some sense as a paradise with enchanting creatures.
The case of patronage and more importantly the influence of the patron’s taste and interests on the composition and selection of the themes appear to be questionable; the objects of this type undoubtedly had a wealthy commissioner, artists weren’t creating those opulent furniture for their own needs. Made in the Netherlands, by German and Dutch artists, with the scenes related to indigenous Americans associated with the English and French colonial policy, combined with Chinoiserie motifs hinting the Dutch trade to China, this artwork gives a room for myriad possible patronage theses. Without existing written records it’s hard to track the history of its previous owners and the motivation of its patrons whether they were Dutch or English. However, one thing is less obscure so far; the preferences of its creators have shaped its compositional and formal principles, and it’s a product expressing the newborn tendencies and explorations of its time and collaboration of the artists with varying visions.

The work gives us an insight to the Western motivations towards the New World and flourishing international trade, visualisation of those events through the arts and pictorial language of the trendsetting Chinoiserie. Those collocations in the form of a surreal Eden where different ethnicities, reality and imagination coexist side-by-side, might be perceived as incomprehensible for the nowadays spectator, but the intended audiences of this cabinet were meant to be fascinated to attain a piece displaying those people and their world. Chinoiserie is considered a critical term, its boundaries and indicatives remained indefinite so far, so we can’t exclude that there was another set of cabinets and drawers that belong to “Native American Chinoiserie furniture” group, featuring Asian-like figures alongside with indigenous people of Americas. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston showcases a rare, mid-18th century piece of furniture- a desk and bookcase from Mexico, with a dramatic interior displaying Chinoiserie-style painting in gold on a red background. Recalling early colonial maps drawn by indigenous artists, the inside of the doors show views of an extensive hacienda in Veracruz, and, unlike the  cabinet of the Walters Museum, it’s drawn in an emphasised indigenous manner. (Picture 9).


(Picture 9) Inside view of the mid-18th century desk, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

[1] Levinson, Jerrold. “Hybrid Art Forms.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 18, no. 4, 1984, pp. 5–13


[2] Barlowe, Arthur. "Captain Arthur Barlowe's Narrative of the First Voyage to the Coasts of America" in Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906. Pages 225-241


[3] Kim Sloan, ed., European Visions, American Voices, British Museum Research Publication 172 (2009), Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Inventing “America,” The Engravings of Theodore de Bry," in Smarthistory, May 18, 2019, accessed August 4, 2021

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