I slipped into New York last week to see both my sister and the exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, at the Met. Friends who had seen the exhibit told me that I would flip for it, and they were right. The clothes, the blue and white porcelain, the film clips...it was a feast for the eyes. But for all of the dazzling dresses and the mesmerizing projected scenes from Anna May Wong movies, it was two inconspicuous-looking pieces that especially enchanted me: a pair of late 18th-century, Chinoiserie-style etchings done by Anne Allen. According to their identification labels, the designs of both etchings were "after Jean Pillement."
Not being familiar with Allen, I Googled her once I returned home. I learned that Allen, who was British by birth but a resident of France, was not only a skilled etcher but also the second wife of Jean Pillement, the artist whose fantastical paintings and illustrations of Chinese scenes captured the fancy of a Chinoiserie-mad Europe. During the 1790s, in what must have been a joint-effort to market Pillement's work to a wider audience, Allen created etchings based on her husband's paintings, and by using the à la poupée style of printmaking (click here if you wish to learn more about it), she was able to bring these delicate etchings to colorful life. The prints were then assembled into a series of books, or cahiers, which were eagerly purchased by Pillement-fanciers and, most especially, porcelain, textile, and wallpaper manufacturers, who enthusiastically incorporated Pillement's capricious scenes into their own work.
Allen's etchings can be found in the collections of numerous museums, which is hardly surprising considering that her etchings, and the cahiers, were printed in volume so as to accommodate a large audience. When you look at the images of her work below, you'll see that there are minor differences between the museums' classifications, although I think these differences are a matter of style rather than substance. And, you'll also notice that in addition to the Chinoiserie scenes, Allen also etched her husband's floral renderings, which are just as colorful as their Chinoiserie counterparts though a lot less fanciful.
Image at top: Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Arabesques Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers de Dessins Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Arabesques Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ornamental Design from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Chinois no. 3, after 1775, in the collection of Cooper Hewitt
Title page from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Chinois, after 1775, in the collection of Cooper Hewitt
Chinese Arabesque with man kneeling beneath a double-roofed tent, from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers chinois, no. 2, 1798, collection of Princeton University Art Museum
Chinoiserie Flowers, from Nouvelle suite de Cahier de Fleurs idéales, late 18th c., collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Fantastic Flowers, 1790s, in the collection of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College