Qianlong red lacquer box

This exhibition explores the connoisseurs, collectors, and dealers of Asian Art in France from 1750 to 1939. Works in the exhibition come from a multitude of sources, including objects from the royal collections of Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette to the commercial and scientific collecting done in Asia from the 1850s to the 1930s.

Japonism in France

There is also a section of the craze for all things Japanese, that emerged in France, Japonisme, in the late 19th century. Over 300 works, including lacquers, porcelains, ivories, bronzes, screens, prints and illustrated books, silk paintings, and theatre masks, explore the history and diversity of China, Japan, Korea and Cambodia. Also on show is the Coromandel lacquer screen formerly in the collection of the 18th-century Dijon parliamentarian Jehannin de Chamblanc (1722-1707).

These objects, which first noticeably started to arrive in France from the 18th century onwards, filled the collections of museums and the reserve collections. Retracing their history, often long neglected, is to revisit their journey. It is not just the story of the objects themselves, but also the history of the scholars and collectors, dealers, artists and art critics. art, colonial officials, travellers and scientists who interacted with them. The first section of the exhibition deals with the merchants and antique dealers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In France, the haberdashery merchants’ trade brought an inventive transformation to goods brought in from China and Japan, to make them more attractive to the domestic market, for example, adopting porcelain and lacquerware to European taste, often by embellishing them with work done by the Parisian bronze workers and cabinetmakers, adding to the demand for Asian art in France.

The First Collectors of Asian Art in France

The sales organised after the death of the first collectors of Asian art encouraged the circulation of objects from the Ancien Régime, but it was not until the 19th century that the development of a truly specialised market developed during a period of intensification of trade with the Far East, after China and Japan became more open to the West. The field of Chinese porcelain expertise emerged thanks to the major public sales at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s. More broadly, this scholarly approach also fuelled the remarkable career of the merchant Florine Langweil (1861-1958), who helped fuel the growing number of publications and exhibitions on Japonism.

Dealer, collector and patron, Florine Langweil was an important and yet often ignored figure in the Asian art world in Paris in the 19th century. Her shop was frequented by the most keen collectors, including Émile Guimet (1836-1918), a loyal customer, as well as Philippe Burty. She was heavily invested in promoting the arts of Japan and the dissemination of an even more unknown culture at the time – Chinese art. Langweil also facilitated exhibitions in Paris at the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Cernuschi Museum.

During the major sales at the Hôtel Drouot, which had started to materialise, Langweil also established herself as a recognised expert in this emerging field. A major donor to Parisian museums, Florine Langweil was also a generous patron of her native Alsace, where at the very beginning of the 20th century, she founded Asian art sections in museums in Colmar, Mulhouse, and Strasbourg.

Universal Exhibitions and 19th Century Asian Collections

Art critic and inspector of Fine Arts, Philippe Burty invented the word Japonisme in 1872. The term reflects the new craze for Japanese art which then brought together artists and collectors, and among them his friend the writer Edmond de Goncourt. Although he did not travel to Japan himself, Burty met many Japanese merchants, students and diplomats in Paris, particularly during the Universal Exhibition of 1878. Bringing together a collection of nearly 3,000 Japanese objects, which he drew and documented in his notebooks. His scholarly approach was coupled with a pronounced concern for the dissemination of knowledge, allowing his immense collection to be used for exhibitions and publications. The collection was eventually dispersed during a sale in 1891 at the Hôtel Drouot.

Section two explores the private collectors of Asian Art in France during the 19th century. In France, Asian goods became better known and bought by more people from the mid-19th century onwards, this curiosity and demand was encouraged during the 1850s partly through greater exposure to the Far East in general though the series of Universal Exhibitions organised to promoted trade. Part of the Worlds Fairs, the Exposition Universelle was held in Paris in 1855 with combined total of over 5 million visitors.  It was the first of 10 major expositions held in the city between 1855 and 1937. It was a reaction to demand, as exotic objects from the Far East had become accessible and affordable for the general public to collect and decorate their homes.

The West Travelling to the East

‘Asian Collections’ is the theme of the third section, which introduces the idea of the West travelling to the East. The Western view of the material cultures of Asia was transformed by the accessibility of these distant countries. Both diplomatic and commercial missions encouraged the influx of objects brought back from Asian in the mid-19th century. Following the First Opium War (1839-1842), France’s so-called ‘China’ mission was emblematic of the thinking of the time – it combined market prospecting with the signing of one of the unequal treaties between France and China’s crumbling dynastic rule.

This also gave rise to ideal opportunities for private individuals to buy antiques and other objects on the ground in Asia during their short visit and to take them back to France. This can be seen in the experience of the industrialist Charles Varat (1843-1893), whose expedition to Korea to 1888 organised by the ministry of arts and public affairs, was published in the magazine Le Tour du Monde.

Varat travelled from Seoul to the port city of Busan, exploring and collecting all aspects of Korean culture, from everyday objects to religious life. In 1889, these objects and works of art were exhibited at the Trocadéro then, from 1893, at the Guimet Museum, offering the public the opportunity to discover of a then little-known kingdom, which, by force, had just ‘opened up’ to the world under pressure from Western and Japanese powers.

How Objects Were Seen and Collected in Asia

The last section looks at how objects were seen and collected in Asia. At the turn of the 20th century, the first scientific and scholarly field studies were established. These trips differed from the earlier missions and allowed for a prolonged stay in Asia to further broaden the fields of interest, whether it artistic, archaeological. ethnographic or administrative such as the colonial administrators in French Indochina.

This type of experience can be seen in the work of the bibliophile Emmanuel Tronquois in Japan, the colonial administrator Adhémard Leclère in Cambodia, and in the scientific investigations of Édouard Chavannes in China and, later, in the work of André Leroi-Gourhan again in Japan. These personal collections come from a different viewpoint on collecting, and can be seen to be distanced from the luxury and exoticism of earlier collections, however, they still keep the sense of curiosity, delight, and fascination with Asia, which was first ignited in the 18th century. These collections are on a more scientific and academic level, providing a wealth of data and research for future generations.

Near and Far, until 22 January, 2024, Dijon Museum of Fine Arts, France,