Dennis Carr, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Desk and bookcase front, mid 18th century, Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund
Asian-style art became tremendously popular in Europe in the 17th century, as commerce between Asia and Europe boomed, and intellectuals and tastemakers became increasingly interested in the East. Chinoiserie — French term meaning “in the Chinese taste” — spanned both the baroque style of the late 17th century and the fanciful rococo style of the 18th century. This Asian-inspired aesthetic first developed as a decorative style in the European courts and quickly spread among Europe’s gentry, reaching its apogee of popularity in the mid-18th century. Chinoiserie freely adapted a broad range of Asian prototypes and infused them with whimsical, inventive and romantic visions of the East. Pagoda temples sprang up in formal English gardens; Chinese birds took flight on elaborately carved chimneypieces, gilded mirrors and wallpapers; and painted Asian-style figures glided across the fronts of cabinets among flowers twice their size, in a playfully incongruous menagerie.
It was only a matter of time before this fashion spread to Europe’s colonies in the Americas. Those colonies had been directly receiving imported luxury goods from Asia on a vast scale, in some regions for more than a century. This style manifested itself in the Americas, as it had for Europe’s gentry, in lavishly painted and decorated interiors, ornate furniture, sartorial embellishments and ceramic objects created in the style of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Trees of life took root on palampores from India, while Copley’s depictions of Boston merchants lounging in banyan dressing gowns.
Non-Christian chinoiserie even found an ecclesiastical context in Catholic Latin America and Nouvelle France, although not in Protestant North America. Interior church architecture and furnishings in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala incorporated Asian-style designs. Chinoiserie appeared in the embroidered textiles of the Ursulines of Quebec.
In the 17th century, one aspect of this exotic importation of ideas disseminated an enlightened intellectual culture of China. By the 18th century, chinoiserie promoted a luxurious material culture that was filtered through prevailing European tastes in architectural, interior and furniture design. For example, the fashion for japanning, a painted imitation of of Japanese lacquer work on furniture and wall paneling, spread throughout New England, New Spain, the Caribbean and parts of South America. Dennis Carr will present objects made in the Americas while exploring their European sources, as well as the innovative materials utilized in the Americas, such as japanning in Boston, varniz de pasto in Colombia and maque resin in Mexico, to imitate Asian styles.
This decorative style went hand in the English-speaking world with the popularity of drinking imported Chinese tea, and developing a panoply of tea equipage, which was all the rage in the 18th century. By embracing this distinctly European and globally oriented social practice, residents of the colonial Americas both celebrated the global reach of their respective mother countries and asserted their own position within the worldwide market for Asian goods and ideas.
Dennis CMr. Carr obtained a master’s degree from Winterthur’s program in early American culture. His training as a traditional “Americanist” led him, as a graduate student in art history at Yale, to work with Patricia Kane on a major study of Rhode Island furniture (subsequently published in 2016).
A seminar in pre-Columbian art at Yale took Dennis Carr in another, broader, direction for understanding of American culture. When he needed a topic for a class paper, his fascination with a 16th century map of Mexico City hanging on the wall of the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library led him to Mexico to meet local experts. He also took intensive Spanish language courses in Guatemala, where he met his future wife, Olga Vanegas. After earning a graduate degree in the history of art from Yale, Dennis Carr became the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mr. Carr’s publications include Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830 (2016) with Patricia Kane; Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2015) with Janet Comey; Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia (2015) with Gauvin Bailey, Timothy Brook, Mitchell Codding, Karina Corrigan and Donna Pierce; Painting a Map of Sixteenth-century Mexico City: Land, Writing and Native Rule (2012) with Mary Mills and Barbara Mundy; and A New World Imagined: Art of the Americas (2010) with Elliott Davis. His contribution to The Magazine Antiques is “Recent Discoveries in Rhode Island Furniture” (2014) with Patricia Kane and Jennifer Johnson. Antiques and Fine Arts (2016) published Mr. Carr’s “In Search of Japanning in the Colonial Americas.” His contributions to the Chipstone publication American Furniture include “Early Rhode Island Turning” (2005) with Erik Gronning (May’s speaker), and “The Account Book of Benjamin Baker” (2005).