In comparison to porcelain, furniture, fabrics, bronze, and silver, glass was almost unaffected by the European vogue for the Chinese-influenced decoration which we call chinoiserie.
China made glass and China decorated glass. Chinese artisans have worked in this medium for many centuries, at least since the late Chou period ending in 255 BC In Chinese glass, however, form and texture assumed major importance. Decoration, when used, was principally sculptural in character, consisting of carving in natural forms to produce either small objects- almost in the round, or designs in rather high relief. Very little superficial decoration appears until late in the eighteenth century.
It is not clear whether any of the glass made before the end of the Ch'ien Lung period (1795) was imported into Europe during the period of its manufacture. Even if it was, it would not have appealed so much to the desire for fantasy in decorative effect and lavish coloring as did the lacquered wood, rich silks, and porcelains. At any rate, European manufacturers seem not to have attempted direct reproduction of the simple, carved Chinese glass.
When Chinese influence did appear in Western glass it was in the form of surface decoration adapting and interpreting Oriental motifs, with no concern for what had been native Chinese development. Relief engraving came into full bloom in central Europe at about the time the rococo was capturing the imagination of its artists and artisans, and engravers of glass, like decorators in other media, found that touches of fanciful chinoiserie worked in well with the rococo schemes. Nevertheless, chinoiserie decoration is much rarer on European glass than on porcelain, and much rarer than engraved decoration in other styles on glass.
The oldest piece known in Europe is decorated with a delicate enamel design whose soft colors combine with the gold to produce an unusually pleasing effect. The identical decoration, remarkably enough, occurs on an opal-glass small flask or ‘flacon’ shown in the catalogue of the well-known Berlin collection of Joseph Muhsam, which is now in large part in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. A tumbler from the same collection is classed as a rarity not only because of its chinoiserie decoration of thin silver burned in, but also because of its color. German glass of the early eighteenth century with intentionally added color is quite as uncommon as the richly colored glass of the Stiegel period in America.
Contrast of thin black delineation, with frequent touches of gold, against a clear glass background gives a striking decorative effect, and is found at least more frequently in chinoiserie than either of the preceding techniques. Occasionally it occurs without the gilding and is then often coarser in execution. It is all rather casually attributed to one Ignaz Preussler, the decorator credited also with the brick-red "transparent enamel" reproductions of Callot caricatures on glass, though probably some examples are by his pupils.
The design of dancing figures on wineglasses may well be unique on glass. The glass itself has major interest because the panels on the contracted portion of the bowl appear to have been indented by a hand tool instead of being flat and finished by the usual method of grinding and polishing as on the upper part of the bowl.
England produced Chinese decorative effects in architecture and furniture as well as in ceramics, but little in glass. An unusually large goblet is probably Irish. Its nicely executed engraving shows no rococo unbalanced cartouche-like frame such as is encountered so often in Germanic engraving.
Opal or milk glass was evidently as attractive to people of earlier centuries as it is to the modern collector. For example, some cup and saucer sets are so like porcelain that they have brought chagrin to many a porcelain expert and a good bit of wrath upon the head of the owner for attempted trickery! Such and other milk-glass examples with chinoiserie enamel decoration are of the mid-eighteenth century.
The end of the century, with its classic Greek revival, brought a lull in Chinese decoration on glass. It also brought, at least in the Germanic states, a decline in the quality of engraving on glass. This was the period of prolific production of "peasant glass." In the early nineteenth century there is a revival of fine engraving, and then after about 1820 one finds also a sharp upturn in the number of surviving examples decorated in the Chinese taste. Perhaps less age and less breakage are as responsible as increase in manufacture.
In this later era, from about 1830 to 1870, chinoiserie decoration appears on clear glass and also on colored glass and on glass made with various marbled effects to simulate certain semi-precious stones. It is executed both in gilt and in thin enamel. The latter occurs mostly on clear glass, and so, to some extent, does wheel engraving. This ornamentation, like that of the rococo period, has the fanciful character of what is properly called chinoiserie. It is deliberate fantasy, not an attempt to portray Eastern life but an imaginary conception far removed from reality.
Despite these varied examples, the major question rests unanswered: why so little chinoiserie on glass? We can only guess. Small importation of Chinese glass to serve as models; smaller demand for such decoration on glass than on porcelain, a medium better suited to gaily-colored ornaments; perhaps greater loss by breakage, though porcelain too is fragile - all may be parts of the answer. The objects are still rare and, what is more, delightful collectibles.