CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


The Optics of Otherness: Vermeer’s Painted Porcelain

Session 14 The Other and the Foreign: Contact, Curiosity, and Creative Exchange

 University of Amsterdam


One of the West’s most cherished artists, Johannes Vermeer, was interested in a foreign luxury good: Chinese porcelain, that returns in a number of his carefully wrought genre paintings. This paper argues that the representation of porcelain, a foreign material, in the quintessentially European medium of oil paint, posed challenges that went beyond a merely cultural encounter. The many millions of pieces of porcelain imported by the Dutch East India Company ensured that Chinese material culture became a standard feature in all layers of Dutch society – something unique in Europe. Porcelain was such a household presence that the foreignness of East Asia was literally domesticated. According to a similar dynamic, paintings representing porcelain suggest that the Chinese ‘other’ came to be associated with the artist’s ‘self’. Vermeer was in the same guild as artisans experimenting with the recreation of porcelain. Artists and potters were attracted by the optics of otherness: a radically foreign materiality that remained out of their reach, as no European ceramics could rival porcelain’s hardness, sheen, and translucency. Paintings of porcelain became repositories of material and optical knowledge, embedded in epistemological discussions that linked chemistry and medicine to the oil painter’s studio secrets. Thus European artistic identity was articulated in terms of Chinese material culture.


Thijs Weststeijn is associate professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, where he chairs the collaborative project ‘The Chinese Impact: Images and Ideas of China in the Dutch Golden Age’ (2014-2019). He has published widely on seventeenth-century Netherlandish art, most recently in Art and Antiquity in the Netherlands and Britain: The Vernacular Arcadia of Franciscus Junius (1591-1677) (Brill, 2015). He also contributed to the Rijksmuseum’s volume Chinese and Japanese Porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age (ed. J. van Campen & T. Eliëns, 2014). As of Fall 2016, he will take up the chair of Art History before 1850 at Utrecht University.