In this pairing of mini-lectures, scholars John Finlay and Kristel Smentek offer complementary views on arts and intercultural exchange between France and China in the eighteenth century.

Henri Bertin and the Representation of China in Eighteenth-Century France (Finlay)

The role of Henri-Léonard Bertin (1720–92), who served as a minister of state under Louis XV, is crucial to understanding the encounters between China and France in the eighteenth century. Bertin first established his contact with the French Jesuits in Beijing through two Chinese Catholic priests, Aloys Ko and Étienne Yang. When the missionaries returned to China in 1765, they took with them an important set of gifts to be presented to the Qianlong emperor. Not to be misconstrued as tribute from France to China, these gifts were intended to stimulate Chinese interest in French culture and French artistic production.

Disorienting China: Negotiating the Foreign in Eighteenth-Century France (Smentek)

As European trade with the Qing empire accelerated in the eighteenth century, France was flooded with objects from China whose technologies, materials, and motifs challenged European understanding. These ranged from the lacquers and porcelains with which historians are familiar, to scroll paintings, bronzes, and worked jades whose presence in eighteenth-century Europe is far less studied. This talk investigates the display and material alteration of Asian imports in France and the design of new objects in response to them—strategies by which the French negotiated the pleasures and disorientations of China’s arts.

Formerly a curator of Chinese art, John Finlay is an independent scholar based in Paris, affiliated with the Centre d’Études sur la Chine Moderne et Contemporaine (CECMC). He began his academic career studying paintings and prints produced for the Qing imperial court in the eighteenth century. His current research focuses on Henri-Léonard Bertin (1720–92), who served as a minister of state under Louis XV. His passion for all things Chinese placed him at the center of intersecting networks of like-minded individuals who shared his vision of China as a nation from which France had much to learn.

Kristel Smentek
is associate professor of art history in the Department of Architecture at MIT. Her research focuses on eighteenth-century European graphic and decorative arts in their transcultural contexts. She is the author of Mariette and the Science of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2014), co-curator of Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment recently on view at the Harvard Art Museums, and co-editor of its accompanying catalogue. She is currently completing Disorient: Arts from China in Eighteenth-Century France, a book investigating French responses to Chinese imports over the course of the long eighteenth century.
Bard Graduate Center is grateful for the generous support of the Selz Foundation.