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The Overlooked Asian Influence on Art of the Colonial Americas

Japanned high chest by John Pimm (1730-1739), soft maple, black walnut, white pine, mahogany, brass (Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Japanned high chest by John Pimm (1730-1739), soft maple, black walnut, white pine, mahogany, brass (Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The Asian influence on arts and crafts of the Americas goes back centuries earlier than most people think. On August 18, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston opens Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia with over 90 objects demonstrating how aesthetics and art traditions of China, Japan, and other Asian countries influenced the colonial-era Americas.

John Singleton Copley, "Nicholas Boylston" (about 1769), oil on canvas (bequest of David P. Kimball, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
John Singleton Copley, “Nicholas Boylston” (about 1769), oil on canvas (bequest of David P. Kimball, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) (click to enlarge)

“We tend to think of globalism as a recent phenomenon, but it had its roots in the 15th and 16th centuries, the same period when Europeans first colonized the Americas,” Dennis Carr, the exhibition curator and MFA curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, told Hyperallergic. “Columbus was in fact looking for a western route to China in 1492, but instead he ‘discovered’ the Americas.”

Made in the Americas was conceived in the planning stages of MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, opened in 2010, and coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Galleon trade that started in 1565 between the Philippines and Mexico. “Our new galleries explore art from across the Americas, and I was amazed by the many objects from such far-flung places as Mexico, Peru, Canada, even Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, that all revealed signs of Asian influence,” Carr stated.

One of the stunning pieces from the MFA is a late 17th to early 18th-century Peruvian textile. Inspired by imported Chinese embroidery, it mixes Asian imagery with Andean flora and fauna. In Made in the Americas, it will be exhibited alongside an imported Chinese embroidery, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cover (Peru, late 17th to early 18th century), wool, silk, cotton, and linen interlocked and dovetailed tapestry (Denman Waldo Ross Collection, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Cover (Peru, late 17th to early 18th century), wool, silk, cotton, and linen interlocked and dovetailed tapestry (Denman Waldo Ross Collection, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Many people are aware of the China Trade story of the 19th century, but in fact the history of direct trade between Asia and the Americas goes back much further, to the founding of the colonial Americas in the 16th century,” Carr explained. “The United States had its own moment of direct trade with Asia just after the American Revolution, but in places like Mexico or Brazil, the connection goes back centuries earlier.”

Examples of this exchange include porcelain imported to Peru in the 16th century, and an Indian embroidered bed cover that arrived in Boston in the 18th century. In a 12-foot Japanese screen entitled “The Southern Barbarians Come to Trade,” Portuguese traders disembark in Japan, their tight leggings leading up to billowing pants exaggerated in the detailed painting.

"Southern Barbarians Come to Trade," attributed to Kano Naizen (Japanese, Edo period, about 1600), ink, color, gold, gold leaf on paper (courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
“Southern Barbarians Come to Trade,” attributed to Kano Naizen (Japanese, Edo period, about 1600), ink, color, gold, gold leaf on paper (courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) (click to enlarge)

There are also objects that, like the Peruvian textile, reflect a collision of influences. A towering desk and bookcase from Mexico has a dense geometric inlaid pattern on the exterior, and its doors open to reveal painted maps of a Veracruz, Mexico, hacienda that are similar to indigenous maps of Mexico with an Asian aesthetic. There are also the “enconchado” paintings that emerged in 17th-century Mexico with mother-of-pearl inlays similar to lacquers imported from Asia, “chinoiserie” in the 18th-century that favored the blue and white of Chinese ceramics, and a portrait of Nicholas Boylston by John Singleton Copley, showing the merchant modeling a South Asian coat. The painting may be familiar to MFA Boston visitors, but Made in the Americas frames it and these other objects within centuries of global trade.

Desk and bookcase (mid-18th century), inlaid woods and incised and painted bone, maque, gold and polychrome paint, metal hardware (Ann and Gordon Getty Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Desk and bookcase (mid-18th century), inlaid woods and incised and painted bone, maque, gold and polychrome paint, metal hardware (Ann and Gordon Getty Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Desk and bookcase (mid-18th century), inlaid woods and incised and painted bone, maque, gold and polychrome paint, metal hardware (Ann and Gordon Getty Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Desk and bookcase (mid-18th century), inlaid woods and incised and painted bone, maque, gold and polychrome paint, metal hardware (Ann and Gordon Getty Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Desk on stand by José Manuel de la Cerda (18th century), lacquered and polychromed wood with painted decoration (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Desk on stand by José Manuel de la Cerda (18th century), lacquered and polychromed wood with painted decoration (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Plate with the arms of García Hurtado de Mendoza y Manrique and Teresa de Castro y de la Cueva (1588-1593), porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Thomas Lurie Collection, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Plate with the arms of García Hurtado de Mendoza y Manrique and Teresa de Castro y de la Cueva (1588-1593), porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Thomas Lurie Collection, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Nicolás Correa, "The Wedding at Cana" (1693), mixed media with encrusted mother-of-pearl on panel (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Nicolás Correa, “The Wedding at Cana” (1693), mixed media with encrusted mother-of-pearl on panel (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Portable writing desk (about 1684), wood, varniz de pasto, silver fittings (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Portable writing desk (about 1684), wood, varniz de pasto, silver fittings (on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in NYC, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Dove of the Holy Spirit altar frontal (about 1700), embroidery with silk, wool, and gold and silk metallic threads, trimmed with needle lace (Collection de Monastère des Ursulines de Québec, Patrick Altman, MNBAQ, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Dove of the Holy Spirit altar frontal (about 1700), embroidery with silk, wool, and gold and silk metallic threads, trimmed with needle lace (Collection de Monastère des Ursulines de Québec, Patrick Altman, MNBAQ, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Teapot by Jacob Hurd (Boston, about 1730–35), silver (Gift of William Storer Eaton in the name of Miss Georgiana G. 
Eaton, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Teapot by Jacob Hurd (Boston, about 1730–35), silver (Gift of William Storer Eaton in the name of Miss Georgiana G. 
Eaton, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Bedspread (about 1700–50), cotton embroidered with silk (Gift of Mrs. Frank Clark, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Bedspread (about 1700–50), cotton embroidered with silk (Gift of Mrs. Frank Clark, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston) on August 18 and continues until February 18, 2016). According to the MFA, the exhibition marks the 450th anniversary of the beginning of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade between the Philippines and Mexico, which was inaugurated in 1565 and ended in 1815, two and a half centuries later.

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