Figures chinoises et tartares

Entered June 2023

Fig 1

Presumed destroyed

Oil on panel (presumed)

Measurements unknown



Décor du château de la Muette

Décorations du château de la Muette

Decorazione per il castello de la Muette

Diverses figures chinoises et tartares



Michel Aubert after Watteau, Femme chinoise de Kouei Tchéou, engraving, c. 1731.
detail girl
Michel Aubert after Watteau, Viosseu ou musicien chinois, engraving, c. 1731.



François Boucher after Watteau, I Geng ou médecin chinois, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau, Femme de Matsmey  Ia terre d’Ieço, engraving, c. 1731.

François Boucher after Watteau, Kouane Tsaï ou jardinier chinois, engraving, c. 1731.



François Boucher after Watteau, Poï Nou ou servante chinoise, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau, Con Fouï ou femme du palais de l’empereur de la Chine, engraving, c. 1731.

François Boucher after Watteau, Thau Kiene, eunuque du palais à la Chine, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau, Lao Gine ou vieillard chinois, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau, Chao Niéne ou jeune chinois, engraving, c. 1731.

François Boucher after Watteau, Kouï Nou ou jeune fille chinoise, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau,  Nikou, femme bonze ou religieuse chinoise, engraving, c. 1731.


François Boucher after Watteau, Tao Kou ou religieuse de tau à la Chine, engraving, c. 1731.

François Boucher after Watteau, Femme du royaume de Necpal, engraving, c. 1731.



Michel Aubert after Watteau,Habillements de ceux de Soutchovene à la Chine,, engraving, c. 1731.


Michel Aubert after Watteau, Habillements des Habitants de la Province de Hou Konuan à la Chine, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Bonze des Tartares mongous ou mogols, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Femme du pays de Lassa ou Boutan, engraving, c. 1731.

Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Fille du royaume d’Ava, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Mandarin d’armes du Leaotung, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Chef des Samar de Tlevang Raptan, engraving, c. 1731.

Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Talegrepat ou religieuse du Pégov, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Officier tartare du pays des Kuskas, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Femme du Pays des Laos, engraving, p. 1731.

Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Talagrepo ou bonze du Pégou, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Huó Nv ou musicienne chinoise, engraving, c. 1731.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Hia Theo ou esclave chinoise, engraving, c. 1731.

Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Mov Thon ou pastre chinois, engraving, c. 1731.


Michel Aubert after Watteau, Idole de la déesse Ki Mao Sáo dans le royaume de Mang au pays des Laos, engraving, c. 1731.


Michel Aubert after Watteau, La Déesse Thvo Chvu dans l’isle de Hainane, engraving, c. 1731.

Thirty pictures from Watteau’s cycle of chinoiserie decoration at the château de la Muette were engraved for Jean de Jullienne’s Oeuvre gravé. The commission was divided among three artists: Edme Jeaurat, Michel Aubert, and the young François Boucher.

Fig 2

Title page for Diverses figures chinoises et tartares peintes par Watteau, etching.


The history of the suite of engravings is unusual. At first only twelve images were etched. These were issued as an independent set with a title plate in elegant calligraphy naming them the Diverses figures chinoises et tartares. Then, in a second stage, the remaining twelve plates were executed and combined with the first set for the Oeuvre gravé. The full suite was announced for sale in the July and November 1731 issues of the Mercure, pages 1780 and 2623 respectively.


Anonymous Italian artist after Edme Jeaurat, Bonze des tartares mongous ou mogols, engraving.


Anonymous Italian artist after Edme Jeaurat, Officier tartare du pays des Kuskas, engraving.

Crudely executed Italian engravings after some of the Jullienne prints were produced in the eighteenth century and are in the collection of the Civica raccolta di stampe A. Bertarelli, Milan. The figures are set in oval frames and have newly invented landscape backgrounds, but they bear the Jullienne titles.



Paris, collection of Joseph Jean-Baptiste Fleuriau d’Armenonville (1661-1728; Conseiller d’État, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State for Naval Affairs). His tenancy of La Muette was terminated in 1719 by the regent, Philippe II d’Orléans, who gave the château to his daughter Louise Élisabeth.

Paris, collection of Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans, duchesse de Berry (1695-1719). Upon her death, the Regent gave the château to the young Louis XV for his diversion.

Paris, collection of Louis XV, King of France (1710-1774). The Jean de Jullienne engravings of 1731 state that the paintings were “Tiré du Cabinet du Roy au Chateau de la Meute,” “Tiré du Cabinet du Roy,” etc.



Brice, Nouvelle description de la ville de Paris (1725), 1: 175.

Mariette, “Notes manuscrites,” 9, fol. 198.

Dézallier d’Argenville, Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux peintres (1745-52), 2: 424.

Hédouin, “Watteau” (1845), cat. 131.

Hédouin, Mosaïque (1856), cat. 142.

Goncourt, L’Art au XVIIIème siècle (1860), 58.

Goncourt, Catalogue raisonné (1875), cat. 203-232.

Belevitch-Stankevitch, Le Goût chinois (1910), 248.

Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold, Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs (1921-29), I: 24-26, 79, 177; 2: 35, 59, 63, 96, 132; 3: 68, cat. 232-61.

Réau, “Watteau” (1928), cat. 206-236.

Adhémar, Watteau (1950), cat. 18.

Mathey, Watteau, peintures réapparues (1959), 66.

Honour, Chinoiserie (1961),89-90.

Macchia and Montagni, L’opera completa di Watteau (1968), cat. 26.

Impey, Chinoiserie(1977), 80-82.

Roland Michel, Watteau (1981), cat. 33-62.

Roland Michel, Watteau (1984), 279-80.

Washington, Paris, Berlin, Watteau 1684-1721 (1984), 166-67.

Posner, Watteau (1984), 59.

Sullivan, Meeting of Eastern and Western Art (1989), 100-03.

Jacobson, Chinoiserie (1993), 64-65.

Rosenberg and Prat, Watteau, Catalogue raisonné des dessins (1996), cat. 311.

Eidelberg and Gopin, “Watteau’s Chinoiseries at La Muette“ (1997), 19-46.

Scott, “Playing Games with Otherness“ (2003), 189-248.

Michel, Le «célèbre Watteau» (2008), 56, 137.

Glorieux, Watteau (2011), 56-58.

Ziskin, Sheltering Art (2012), 167-68.

Paris, Jacquemart-André, Watteau à Fragonard (2014), under cat. 10-11.

Besançon, Musée, La Chine rêvée (2019), 52-59.

Choi, “Watteau and Boucher Conjoined“ (2023), 138-49.




Unidentified artist after Edme Jeaurat, Fille du royaume d’Ava, red chalk, 18.7 x 12.9 cm. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional.


Unidentified artist after Edme Jeaurat, Talagrepo ou bonze de Pégou, pen and ink, wash, black chalk, 14.9 x 8 cm. Whereabouts unknown.

Two drawings have been related to Watteau’s Figures chinoises et tartares, but neither is actually by Watteau. Both are copies after the engravings in the Jullienne Oeuvre gravé. The Madrid drawing was claimed to be by Watteau himself until a century ago when Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold rejected it as autograph. When the second drawing came up recently at auction in Haarlem (Bubb Kuyper, May 29, 2020, lot 5721), it was rightly recognized as being after the Jullienne print.



The cycle of thirty paintings that Watteau executed for the Château de la Muette, a domain on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, represents one of the most significant monuments in the early history of French chinoiserie. Although documented, its original appearance and significance are much disputed.

The château, originally built or enlarged prior to 1575, supposedly gained its name of “La Muette” from “a mutando,” that is, the place where the hunters’ packs of hunting dogs were changed.

Fig 2

Pierre Denis Martin the Younger, Louis XV Approaching the Château de la Muette (detail), c. 1722-23. Versailles, Musée national du château de Versailles.


As can be seen in a painting by Pierre Denis Martin the Younger, in the early eighteenth century La Muette was a modest building, but it had a reputation as “one of the most pleasant houses in the Paris area.” The main logis de corp was only one story while other parts were two. Although it was a royal possession, it did not have the status of a royal residence. Rather, beginning in the seventeenth century, it had a series of tenants, termed gouverneurs. Theophile Catelan, seigneur de Sablonnieres (d. 1721), was the tenant at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1705 (not 1708 as is often written), Catelan ceded the château to Joseph Jean-Baptiste Fleuriau d'Armenonville (1661-1728). Almost no early eighteenth-century sources discuss La Muette and its chinoiseries. Of the various contemporary guides to Paris and its environs, only the one by Germain Brice mentions the château, calling it "a very pretty house," but even Brice does not refer to Watteau's work there. When Dézallier d’Argenville discussed Watteau’s oeuvre, he wrote, “Les premiers ouvrages de ce maitre consistent en petites figures qu'il a faites dans les plafonds de Claude Audran & en plusieurs Chinois peints dans les lambris du château de la Muette." This sweeping declaration is too generalized (Watteau’s very first works would have been those he executed in the workshops on the pont Notre Dame and with Gillot). But d’Argenville’s placing the figures in relation to Watteau’s stay with Audran and locating them in the woodwork of La Muette are valuable observations.

In the absence of commissioning documents for Watteau's paintings, scholars have wrestled with the issue of dating the cycle. In the past they generally were divided between two possibilities: either 1708 (the erroneously presumed date when the right of tenancy was transferred to Fleuriau) or 1716 (the date of the property's transfer to the duchesse de Berry). Some critics hovered between the two dates. and a few even dated the series later than 1716. Although 1708 and 1716 are only eight years apart, they represent two opposite poles in Watteau's short career.



Michel Aubert after Watteau, La Déesse Thuo Chuu dans l’Ile de Hainan (detail), engraving.


Watteau, L’Hiver (detail), oil on canvas. Paris, Musée Carnavalet.

Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin after Watteau, Les Jaloux (detail), engraving.

Today, and with rare unanimity, scholars agree that the La Muette cycle dates to the artist’s very early career. This was the informed opinion of Dézallier d’Argenville, who described the paintings as being among “les premiers ouvrages de ce maître.” This is also evident in the Jullienne engravings. In numerous instances, such as I Geng ou médecin chinois and Tao Kou ou religieuse de tau à la Chine, the characters’ arms and hands hang down inertly, just as they do in the artist’s early fêtes galantes. The tubular neck and head turned awkwardly in profile find counterparts only in Watteau’s early paintings such as the Gillotesque L’Hiver in the Carnavalet Museum and in Les Jaloux, the picture with which he was agrée to the Académie in 1712.

Even without commissioning documents, the circumstances surrounding the origin of the La Muette chinoiseries can be surmised. Some years after 1705 when the château passed into the hands of Fleuriau d’Armeonville, he must have called upon Claude III Audran, the leading decorative artist who then was at the height of his career. He and his large staff of painters, gilders, and stucco workers were busily fulfilling commissions for the refurbishment of the homes of the nobility. One of Audran’s chief assistants in these years was the young Watteau. We are not certain of the exact years Watteau was with Audran, but the period between c. 1709 and 1712 was central to these activities. As I have previously proposed, many of Watteau’s other arabesques were the result of commissions given to Audran and then turned over to Watteau to execute. These include the arabesques owned by Louis Hercule Timoléon, duc de Cossé; Victor Amadée, prince de Carignan; and Germain Louis de Chauvelin, president of the Paris Parliament. In these and other instances, such prestigious clients would not have known of the young, still-unrecognized painter, but they would have been acquainted with Audran who, after all, worked for their colleagues and their level of society.

Dézallier d’Argenville’s remark that Watteau painted the figures in Audran’s ceilings (which has come down to us as Watteau painting the figures in Audran’s arabesques) is an idea that has frequently been reiterated in the literature, even though Watteau’s extant arabesque drawings and paintings now make it clear that Watteau was entrusted with all aspects of such decorative commissions. Nonetheless, one finds critics such as Posner claiming that this is what occurred at La Muette: that the Jullienne engravings record just Watteau’s figures, which was his share of the work, whereas Audran’s decorative enframements were not included in the prints. Neither aspect of such theorizing seems likely. Likewise, Scott has suggested that there were surrounding arabesques and that they were not engraved because they were not by Watteau. There is no evidence that this is how either Audran or Jullienne’s engravers worked.

Rather, Watteau painted the Figures chinoises et tartares against  black, faux-lacquered backgrounds. As Seth Gopin and I previously demonstrated, this explains why the engravings show the figures posed on small islands, floating against an essentially flat, empty ground. There are small plants and trees, low walls, sporadic clouds, and occasional suggestions of pools of water, but the land does not recede into deep space. This is a format common to Far Eastern lacquer and one that would have been familiar to Audran and Watteau.

In the late seventeenth century, as the importation of Eastern wares increased, there was a stimulus to recreate them in Europe. Just as the imitation of blue and white wares proliferated—though the secrets of true porcelain remained hidden for several decades more—so too, imitation lacquer was attempted even while the formula for true lacquer remained obscure. The Dagly Brothers of Spa, Belgium, were among the leaders in the field, and in 1713 Jacques Dagly came to Paris. He took control of the Ouvrages de la Chine workshop at the Gobelins, and also entered into an agreement with Audran and a third partner, Pierre de Neufmaison, to patent a new type of lacquer that became known as "vernis de Gobelins." Describing this material in 1717, Dubois de Saint­ Gelais claimed that "it passed for being the true lacquer of China" and that Dagly and Neufmaison "very well understand Chinese designs, so much so that the pieces from their hands are entirely in the Chinese taste."

Fig 2

Claude III Audran, Design for a Harpsichord Lid, black ink, gold paint, 24 x 59 cm. Stockholm, Nationalmuseum.


In the cache of more than 3,000 Audran drawings in Stockholm, a design for a harpsichord lid is noteworthy because it shows gold figures against a black background. This coloration, of course, indicates that the design was intended to be executed in black lacquer. Also, we should remember that lacquered panels intended for a carriage door, undoubtedly created and decorated by the Audran workshop, were re-employed by Watteau for his Sérénade italienne and L’Accord parfait. These panels remind us of the two artists’ common concern with the lacquer medium.


Antoine Watteau, La Villageoise, oil on lacquered panel, 38 x 29.5 cm. Paris, private collection.


Pierre Alexandre Aveline after Watteau, La Villageoise (reversed), engraving.

Highly important evidence about the use of lacquer at La Muette is found in another Watteau painting, La Villageoise. This small panel, showing a peasant woman crossing a stream, was recorded in the Jullienne Oeuvre gravé. It constitutes concrete, physical evidence of Watteau painting on black lacquered panels made with Audran’s vernis de Gobelins. Not only that, but its provenance is startlingly cogent. When this panel was engraved by Pierre Aveline for the Oeuvre gravé it was owned by the comte de Morville, son of Fleuriau d’Armenonville.  In other words, La Villageoise, though not part of the chinoiserie cycle at La Muette, must have originally been in that same house. The ownership of La Muette had been surrendered to the duchesse de Berry in 1719, and since the chinoiserie paintings were a physical part of the house, they must have remained in place when the ownership of the building was transferred to the new landlord. When La Muette underwent major rebuilding around 1737, the chinoiserie decoration, as well as other parts of the house, were apparently removed and destroyed. But La Villageoise, as an independent picture not attached to the building, had already been taken away—probably in 1719—and it remained with the Armenonville family.


Michel Aubert after Watteau, Viosseu ou musicien chinois, engraving.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Talegrepat ou religieuse du Pégou, engraving.

François Boucher after Watteau, I Geng ou médecin chinois, engraving.

Further evidence about the lacquer ground of the La Muette chinoiseries can be found in the Jullienne engravings. As it was a large project, the work of creating the thirty engravings was divided among the three artists cited above: Edme Jeaurat, Michel Aubert, and François Boucher. While their individual engravings form a cohesive whole, still there are significant differences among their approaches to the literal sizes of the engraved images and their way of rendering the sky. These differences largely stem from the unaccustomed problem of imitating the lacquered decoration. Restricting ourselves to the twenty-six smaller engravings, we find that their physical sizes differ. The two by Aubert are the largest, the twelve by Jeaurat occupy a median position, and the twelve by Boucher are the smallest. More significant for our inquiry are the differences among the three engravers' approaches to recording the images. Aubert shows the most complete compositions: as in Viosseu ou musicien chinois, the figure is drawn proportionately large in relation to the overall field of the engraving, and the grassy foreground and clouded sky are rendered with great detail. By contrast, Jeaurat's engravings such as Talegrepat ou religeuse de Pégou and Huó Nu ou musicienne chinoise have proportionately smaller figures and the foregrounds are less precisely defined. Jeaurat's clouds are restricted to the upper edges of the sky, creating backgrounds that are almost empty, and in three engravings the backgrounds are nearly blank. Boucher's plates, such as / Geng ou médecin chinois and Tao Kou ou religieuse de tau à la Chine, show still smaller figures, diminutive trees, and more rudimentary foregrounds. His skies are the least defined, often with only the slightest suggestions of clouds.

Throughout the engravings the forms of the clouds and their arrangement differ from artist to artist, and none are particularly close to Watteau's manner. These variations represent more than merely the personal idiosyncrasies of the three different engravers, especially given the evidence that Jullienne's engravers generally fulfilled their obligations as faithful reproductive printmakers. When there are discrepancies between Watteau's other paintings and the Jullienne engravings, they are explicable in terms of specific problems posed by those pictures. In this instance, the variations among Aubert's, Jeaurat's, and Boucher's renderings result from Watteau having painted his figures against a dark background with little or no indication of sky or clouds, and against a monochromatic ground that could be enlarged or reduced at will because it contained nothing. Exactly the same situation prevailed when Aveline engraved La Villageoise. Here too, as has been noted, Watteau had painted a single figure and a fragmentary landscape, all set against a black background. While Aveline reproduced Watteau's figure and most of the foliage with fidelity, he reduced the peripheral areas of blank background, inserting foliage in the lower corners and adding clouds at the top. Aveline thereby created a richer, more compact, and rectangular image to accord better with the format of the other Jullienne engravings. (Ironically, similar liberties were taken in 1950 when the publishers of Adhémar’s monograph reproduced La Villageoise and eliminated some of the black background.) Were the visual effect of La Villageoise multiplied some thirty or more times we could imagine something of the appearance of Watteau’s chinoiseries at La Muette: a room filled with colorful, suavely executed Chinese figures set against a glistening black ground.

Until now, though, the prospect of a black-lacquered room has not been welcomed by most scholars, some of whom have written that such a room would have seemed oppressive and claustrophobic. These are predictable reactions in a post-Bauhaus world where large expanses of plate glass windows are the norm, but in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries such intimate, dark chambers would have offered exciting, wondrous glimpses into an exotic world. Given the rapid shifts in taste then and in subsequent centuries, both in France and throughout Europe, few such black rooms have survived, but those that are extant bear eloquent testimony to that vogue.

Discussions of French pseudo-lacquer interiors depend primarily on textual references rather than physical remains. Even small examples from the Ouvrages de la Chine and other Parisian lacquer workshops are rare. Far more exceptional would be an entire room such as the one we envisage at La Muette. Perhaps the most notable example of a French lacquered room is the one once in the palace of Louis XIV's brother, Monsieur, at Saint-Cloud. It was described at great length in 1698 by the visiting British physician, Martin Lister: "At the end of the Apartments of Monsieur, are a fine Seit of Closets: ... and the sides of the Rooms are lined with large Panes of Looking-glass from top to the bottom, with Japan Varnish and Paintings of equal breadth intermix'd." This room, which was finished by 1690, had "a marvellous pretty effect" according to Lister.

We have reports about other such rooms. In about 1704 the financier Jean Thevenin (1647-1708) decorated the lambris of an antechamber in his splendid Parisian hôtel with panels removed from a Chinese black lacquer screen. In 1714, Louis Antoine de Pardaillan de Gondrin, duc d' Antin, directeur géneral of the Bâtiments du Roi, undertook the decoration of a sumptuous cabinet de la Chine that included black lacquer panels and mirrors. Also pertinent are the drawings prepared in 1716-17 by Robert de Cotte of wall paneling inset with lacquer; conceived in a fashionable French Regency style, they were intended for a bath in the Elector's palace at Bonn.


Chinoiserie room of Amalia van Solms-Braunfels, before 1695. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.


The Lacquer Room, Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

Several black lacquer rooms from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European palaces have survived intact, but from sites outside of France. The Netherlands, due to its vigorous trade with the East, often led the way with respect to publications, collections of Chinese and Japanese wares, and imitations of Eastern designs and materials. The lacquered room brought together by Amalia van Solms-Braunfels of the House of Orange, now in the Rijksmuseum, typifies the type of regal room paneled with real Eastern lacquer panels. Two other such lacquered rooms, one with true Japanese lacquer and the other with European imitations, are in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. German examples from Nymphenburg and Bamberg should also be considered, as well as the red and black lacquer study in the Peterhof in St. Petersburg, which stayed intact until World War II. While costly and thus not plentiful, these rooms, whether fabricated from Japanese screens, European pseudo-lacquer, or mixtures of the two, would have been highly valued. Fitted with mirrors and carefully arranged assemblages of Asian ceramics, such cabinets de la Chine help us imagine and understand Watteau's paintings at La Muette.

Much has been written, especially in recent years, about the room in which the Figures chinoises et tartares were displayed. According to Dézallier d’Argenville, our primary source in this matter, the paintings were in the wainscotting of a room: “les premiers ouvrages de ce maître consistent . . . en plusieurs Chinois peints dans les lambris du château de la Muette.“ It should be noted that he does not specify the room. Indeed, despite what some modern scholars have written, nowhere is the specific room designated much less described, by Watteau’s contemporaries. When Jullienne’s engravings were issued in 1731, the captions employed phrases such as “tiré du Cabinet du Roi.” This does not mean that the paintings were located in a room called “The King’s Cabinet.” Rather, they were in the king’s art collection, this because by then La Muette had been transferred to Louis XV. “Cabinet” meant nothing more than “art collection.” This was common usage. When Watteau’s Amusements champêtres was engraved for the Jullienne corpus, it was described as “du Cabinet de Mr Dejullienne.” Similarly, when Camp volant was engraved, it was declared to be “du Cabinet de M Gersaint.” Countless more examples from the Oeuvre gravé could be offered, but all to the same end. Thus, the title of Crozat’s grand publication of engravings after Old Master paintings in France, the first volume of which appeared in 1727, was titled Recueil d'estampes d'aprés les plus beaux tableaux et d'aprés les plus beaux desseins qui sont en France dans le cabinet du Roy, dans celuy de Monseigneur le duc d'Orléans, & dans d'autres cabinets. In these many instances “cabinet” refers to the concept of a collection, not the name of a specific room.

Katie Scott is one of today’s chief proponents of the still surviving claim that Watteau’s chinoiseries were in a room specifically designated the “Cabinet du Roi.Although aware of Gopin’s and my prior explanation of the term, Scott has obstinately rejected it, claiming that “cabinet” means “a space, a room, and not a collection.” Other contemporary scholars have reiterated Scott’s view; Holmes and Rimaud, for example, have misguidedly followed this etymological wrong turn.


Katie Scott’s Reconstruction of the Chinoiserie room at La Muette (detail).


Claude III Audran, Design for a Chinoiserie Ceiling (detail), red chalk. Stockholm, Nationalmuseum.

Venturing still further, Scott attempted to reconstruct the room and its painted decoration, even though there is no evidence about the chamber’s shape and size. Obviously the horizontal panels were overdoors or set over windows in accord with normal usage of the day. But were there two or more rows of superposed panels? Were they grouped in pairs or in threes or fours? Moreover, she would have us believe that an Audran drawing in Stockholm with an arabesque design that includes a Chinese figure was intended for the ceiling of this Chinese room. Were this so, though she does not state it, the square format of the drawing would imply that the room was square. Yet there is no evidences to tie this ceiling to La Muette other than its inclusion of a Chinese figure, and this character is really not Chinese but, to judge from his costume, a French actor in theatrical garb. Many of Audran’s other arabesques include Chinese figures and motifs. Chinoiserie as a theme was not unique to La Muette. Without more convincing evidence, all such attempts at reconstructing La Muette’s chinoiserie room remain just idle flights of fancy. To mix metaphors, Scott is building castles in Spain.

Likewise, despite Scott’s attempt to position certain panels in relation to each other, there is no supporting evidence to justify any such scheme, much less hers. Scott proposes that Watteau intended a program of playing with “otherness,” but such an interpretation reflects modern critical concerns and does not seem germane to Watteau’s era. Far from than being playful, the La Muette cycle was a serious attempt at portraying the East.

Watteau’s paintings at La Muette were created in the specific context of France’s growing interest in the appearance of life and culture in the Celestial Empire. Unlike many light-hearted, frivolous French paintings with chinoiserie themes—from Audran’s designs for ceilings to Jacques Vigoureux Duplessis’s painted screens—Watteau’s designs for La Muette represent a sober inquiry into the real Orient. His cycle of images displays a concrete knowledge of China and the surrounding areas: their architecture, dress, music, language, and botany. In portraying the Far East, Watteau sought to emulate the peoples’ fashions, even their postures, in very specific ways. There may be errors but overall the intent is serious.

A notable aspect of the La Muette chinoiseries is that the figures are not generic Chinese men and women. Rather, they are from specific regions including regions outside of China proper. Moreover, many of these men and women have specific professions. A good example is the representation of a monkin Talagrepo ou bonze de Pégou (Pegou or Bago is a port in southern Burma, now Myanamar). The man’s notched staff and shaved head are accurate and are the type of visual data that must have come from an informed source. Moreover, as Bellevitch-Stankevich recognized more than a century ago, the names on some (probably many) of the Jullienne engravings are not personal or family names but, instead, designations in Chinese of their respective ranks or trades. Thus, I Geng, médecin chinois is not a particular doctor’s name but, rather, a transliteration of “yisheng” which literally means “doctor.” Similarly, Nikou, femme bonze ou religieuse chinoise is a transliteration of “Buddhist priest.”

That the other titles cannot be similarly deciphered is probably due to the manner in which the names were first recorded and deformed, and how they were set down in eighteenth-century French. Would most Parisians have understood these designations in Watteau’s era? Probably not. But these terms show that Watteau had access to some pictorial source that was exceptionally well informed. Not all scholars agree on even this point, however. Writing about a set of the Jullienne engravings recently acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and that records the state before the names were engraved, Stein came to the curious conclusion that this proves that the inscriptions were just a later addition, as if unrelated to Watteau’s endeavor. But lettering generally is one of the last stages in production. If these titles were not original and pertinent to Watteau’s program, how, post facto, could an outside scribe have known and added such Chinese names on their own? The titles makes sense only if the images and titles were conjoined from the start.

Whereas a century ago some scholars claimed that the buildings and plants depicted in the La Muette paintings were images borrowed from the decoration on Asian ceramics and lacquered screens, this cannot have been the case. Watteau’s buildings and plants are remarkably precise and accurate, far more so than the generalized decorative motifs that could have been found on decorative wares.


François Boucher after Watteau, Femme du royaume de Necpal (detail), engraving.

François Boucher after Watteau, Femme de Matsmey à la terre d’Ieço (detail), engraving.

As Gopin and I have shown, a sense of Asian architecture is seen not merely in the slender pagodas with sloping roofs, a motif common to most European chinoiserie, but also in unusual structures such as the one seen in Femme du royaume de Necpal—a stupa topped by a pennant streaming in the wind.So, too, some of the plants in Watteau’s compositions reveal an exceptional knowledge of Eastern flora. Beyond the ubiquitous palm trees, which are common in chinoiserie scenes, and the umbrella pine trees that belong more properly in Watteau’s Italianate landscapes, a telling inclusion is the musa or banana plant that appears in Femme de Matsmey à la terre d’Ieço. While it might seem to be a dwarfed palm tree, its shaggy bark reveals it to be a banana plant. These are small but telling indications that Watteau had some sort of specific guide to the East.



Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Huó Nu ou musicienne chinoise (detail), engraving.


Edme Jeaurat after Watteau, Mou Thon ou pastre chinois (detail), engraving.

Watteau also demonstrates notable accuracy in the rendering of many Chinese musical instruments. The type of stringed instrument in Huó Nu ou musicienne chinoise, with its distinctive, pear­shaped sound box, crooked neck, and four strings corresponds to the Chinese p'i-p'a. Likewise, the wind instrument played in Mou Thon ou pastre chinois is an accurate rendering of the so-na, which has a distinctive reed, bell, and stem with seven fingerholes and a thumbhole. There is a regrettable lapse in Viosseu ou musicien chinois, where Watteau depicted a vielle, a distinctly European instrument, but this error does not undercut his ethnological correctness in the other instances.

Many of the other attributes that Watteau depicted demonstrate a similarly remarkable knowledge of the East. For example, the type of folding fan called che-shan is depicted in Talegrepat, ou religieuse du Pégou. A rigid type of fan called pien-mien appears in Tao Kou, ou religeuse de tau à la Chine and in Habillements des habitants de la province de Hou Kouan à la Chine.In addition, the type of long-handled, rigid ceremonial fan known as t'uan-shan is seen in La Déesse Thuo Chuu dans l’isle d’Hainane. Similarly, while the action of the woman holding an umbrella in Fille du royaume d’Ava would seem to be a relatively natural gesture, the way Watteau depicted her balancing the shaft of the umbrella in the curve of her neck and her hand draping over the lower portion (rather than grasping it) accords with Eastern practice.

As exceptional and well-informed as Watteau’s chinoiserie cycle at La Muette may appear, it also is closely tied to French traditions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Its closest parallel is the great tapestry cycle woven at the Beauvais factory, the Première tenture chinoise. There, too, we find views of life in China that, however fanciful they may seem, manifest a well-grounded knowledge of Chinese dress and architecture. The Beauvais tapestries often are analogous to and borrow from the illustrations in the standard travel books of the period, such as those by Jean-Baptiste du Halde and Atahanase Kirchere, but it is unlikely that Watteau’s source was any of these well-known publications. Not only would they not have shed light on outlying regions such as the Philippines and Tibet, they would not have supplied the Chinese-language titles that Watteau employed. What might his source have been? One possibility is that it was a yet-unidentified manuscript account prepared by a European, probably French, traveler.

By the 1730s, the cartoons for the Beauvais Première tenture chinoise were too deteriorated to be used, and designs for new tapestries were commissioned. Fittingly, the commission was awarded to François Boucher, one of the three engravers who recorded the La Muette cycle. Around the same time Louis XV ordered the rebuilding of La Muette, which involved the destruction of Watteau’s chinoiserie cycle there. These two events, though unrelated, mark the start of the next phase of chinoiserie. They also register the continued lure of the East, a fascination which, however transformed from one generation to the next, continues to the present day.



For copies of Figures chinoises et tartares CLICK HERE