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Sumptuous MFA show traces Asian influences in American art

A mid-18th-century desk and bookcase from Mexico.

In high school history textbooks, Asia seems unrelated to colonial America, but Asian influences were rampant. In Quebec City, Ursuline nuns embroidered images of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain on opulent liturgical cloths. In Mexico, a spectacular writing desk is decorated with Chinese-style painting in red and gold alongside geometric Moorish designs.

In Boston, craftsman Nehemiah Partridge advertised in 1712 in the Boston News-Letter that he did “all Sorts of Japan Work.” He could mimic Asian lacquer work using paint, varnish, and metal powders.

“Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia,” a sumptuous exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, explores Asia’s stylistic — and, it seems, pervasive — spread into the Americas in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.


Europeans desperately wanted to reach China by water; the overland route, the Silk Road, had been choked when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453. They weren’t about to give up the enchanting, exotic tastes and beauty of Asian imports, nor the wealth and status those imports garnered.

The Portuguese got there first, setting up maritime routes around the southern tip of Africa (in time, they detoured to Brazil). At the entrance to the exhibit, we see that strange first encounter from the Japanese perspective, in the screen “Southern Barbarians Come to Trade,” made around 1600, and attributed to Kano Naizen. The circus has come to town: The Portuguese ride atop their masts and parade about, cocky in blowsy pantaloons, as Jesuits and mystified Japanese look on.

The Spanish sailed west, crossed through the Americas, and sailed on to Manila. As that route flourished, they colonized vast swaths of North, Central, and South America. Beginning in 1565 and continuing to the early 19th century, galleons regularly transported treasures between Manila and Mexico: Asian goods to the Americas and on to Europe; silver mined in Bolivia back to Asia.


British and French colonists swooned for Asian style as well — the rage for tea in Britain, and then America, was ignited by Chinese tea — but for folks in the northern colonies, Asian goods often passed through Europe before they got here.

“Made in the Americas” shows off Asian-made works, but the real delight, as the title points out, is in how artists already here synthesized Asian designs with indigenous and European influences. Globalism has been around since trade began, and this show traces its early, rapturous flushes .

Dennis Carr, the MFA’s curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, sagely pairs a few American-made pieces with their Asian counterparts, inviting viewers to examine the imagistic DNA.

A Peruvian textile of the late 17th or early 18th century hangs beside a Chinese embroidered silk textile. Both show traditional Chinese motifs: peonies, paired phoenixes, and a mythical beast called a qilin. The Peruvian weavers added the crowned lions and collared dogs of European heraldry. Then they threw in alpacas and Andes mountain rodents.

The works look like cousins, resplendent and intricately detailed. Where the Chinese piece is mostly silk, the Peruvian one features llama or alpaca fibers, with a good dose of silk for sheen.

While materials differed continent to continent, techniques pollinated and altered things. Mexican earth won’t make clay for porcelain, but Mexican ceramicists made a blue-and-white coating for earthenware. Perhaps at the prompting of Roman Catholic missionaries, who played a mighty role in the spread of European and Asian cultures, artists inspired by Japanese lacquerware manufactured their own versions, chewing, stewing, staining, and stretching native plants into resins to use on platters, bowls, and furniture.


Mexican artist Manuel de la Cerda fashioned a marvelous desk-on-stand with the swells and filigrees that mark Anglo-Dutch design, and covered it with lacquer decoration featuring golden Chinese willows and military scenes. That was around 1760, as Europeans were beginning to put a name to their passion for Asian stylings: Chinoiserie.

Mother-of-pearl gives “Made in Americas” its glitter. Indians, Koreans, and Japanese made shell-inlaid furniture and lacquers. In Peru, they called it “enconchado,” and local makers crafted a breathtaking desk and bookcase almost covered in mother-of-pearl. Centuries later, heiress Doris Duke, perhaps thinking it was an Indian piece, acquired it for her India-themed bedroom in Newport, R.I.

Painters used mother-of-pearl to imbue their work with light. Inlaid mother-of-pearl beneath the paint turns the scene luminous in Mexican Nicolás Correa’s “The Wedding at Cana,” which updates the biblical setting to a well-to-do Mexican household.

I mentioned my favorite pieces first off. The 18th-century Mexican desk and bookcase is spectacle enough on the outside: the Moorish designs (by way of Spain) in inlaid woods and incised and painted bone look at once ancient and modern, starbursts weaving into one another, layer upon layer.

When it opens, the inside glows that warm red the Chinese associate with good fortune, written over in gold, depicting maps of a local hacienda in styles that blend Chinese imagery with indigenous cartography. Emptied of all contents, it’s still a treasure chest.


And the nuns! By 1700, they had set up a convent workshop in Quebec City, making liturgical cloths for local churches. Their extravagantly embroidered altar frontal, “Dove of the Holy Spirit,” with a splendidly radiating dove at its center, prominently features Chinese porcelains overflowing with blossoms. On the porcelains, the nuns stitched Native American hunters and longhouses alongside pagodas. Worlds collide.

Trade interweaves cultures, sometimes in the most unlikely ways. “Made in the Americas” presents a great panorama of trade and its engines, desire and status, as styles crossed the world and met and mingled in the Americas.

MADE IN THE AMERICAS: The New World Discovers Asia

At: Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 15.617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cate
. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.