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Tapestries in France

( Originally Published 1930 )



TO establish dates for the Gobelins factory, known as Le Manufacture Royal des Meubles de la Couronne, let us regard the tablets secured to the walls at the present day although little regarded by the usual visitor to the uninspiring industry of today. The first tells us that Jean and Philibert Gobelin, merchant dyers in scarlet and who have left their name to this quarter of Paris, and to the manufacture of tapestries, had here their atelier on the banks of the Bievre at the end of the Fifteenth Century.

The second states that in April 1601 Marc Comans and Francois de la Planche, Flemish tapestry weavers installed their ateliers on the banks of the Bievre. The next date named is September 1667 when Colbert established in the buildings of the Gobelins the manufacture of furnishings for the Crown under the directions of Charles Le Brun.

It was Le Brun who instituted a style distinctly of France by breaking away from diluted styles of the Renaissance and discovering a more natural mode of expression. The style was grandiose, but so was the spirit of the King for whom the style was evolved. We may not like its too abundant masses, its pompousness, its lack of the common human touch. But the style in its first years should be considered not as a high period of art, but rather as a new movement on which a more pleasing art was formed. In this light it can only be considered as of ultra importance to France which from this time to the end of the Eighteenth Century led the world of decoration.

The earlier tapestries of the Gobelins were scenes of ancient conquest and triumph, for the King ever thought himself a parallel to Alexander the Great or one of the Caesars. Sometimes the scene was modern with Louis as the dominant figure, his small stature skilfully magnified by high heels, voluminous coat and preposterous wig. These hangings were of enormous size for large rooms were the mode. Later there were compositions illustrating winemaking or some other occupation of the people dominated by the classic god or goddess appropriate to the occasion—Ceres for the harvest, Pomona or Bacchus for the vine.

Notwithstanding the frequent scenes wherein the myths of Olympus enact their traditions, the method of portral changed utterly from the manner of the Renaissance. The goddesses might well be women of the court at Versailles, so realistic are they, arrayed in jewels and costumes suggestive of the day's mode. An essay was made at tapestries which were entirely located on Olympus, nothing of France about them, and as usual the gods were displayed in frank nudity. During the dominance of the ostensibly pious and modest Madame de Maintenon this was discontinued at her command. She even had completed tapestries of this sort returned to the loom to be dressed with much yardage of heavy drapery. This accounts for the hidden outlines of Psyche, of Hebe and other adolescent beauties who then were lost in ballooning folds.

But as the art of France progressed, these errors passed like a discarded mode, and there grew a greater refinement, a stronger intellectual appeal. A series of Royal Residences is illustrative of this. Earlier the mode would have been to occupy the greater part of the tapestry with a palace or chateau. But with the increasing refinement of the advancing art the architectural gem is placed in the far distance, giving reason for a smaller scale, and all the rest of the picture is occupied with an entourage of garden detail through the shady trees of which the far distant royal residence shines brightly in the sunlight.

One more style of design must be noted because of its effect upon French art as it developed into the bewitching styles of the Eighteenth Century, for it is not all at once that a style crystallizes. Design does not spring full-armed into being like Pallas from the head of Jove, but is a growth, or if you like, a mounting of steps. There was then a fashion that ran parallel to the self-conscious sumptuous mode of the Louis XIV style in tapestries. It was the liberal use of grotesques as drawn by the talented master. Jean Berain. By the word is not meant caricatures or deformation, but those exquisite fancies of the artists of Greece and Rome and of the Renaissance. They serve as detail in borders of Raphael tapestries. Indeed they are but small de-tails, yet Berain's talent could fill with these small objects an entire field. He could build them up into a composition as exquisite and satisfying as a scene composed of human forms.

He became the mode. He was copied all over Europe. His grotesques met the eye in every salon for they were used as wall and ceiling decorations. They even went to Lyons as designs for weavers and were thus translated into silks of the period. It took but the introduction of Chinese eccentric curves to turn them into suitable motives for the rococo of Asiatic inspirations in the style Louis XV. Those who contributed to the development of French art at the end of the Seventeenth Century were the far-seeing artists who questioned the preceding ideals, who selected from among the new, who eliminated, and who modified, and thus a new and distinct style was evolved for France. Its three phases are well known and named for the three kings called Louis.

To return a moment to Colbert the able director, the power behind the throne, he held ever a strong interest in textiles and built up for France an enormous trade in them. To this end he formed a weaver's code which compelled perfection. No inferior fabrics were allowed to issue from the looms.

Tapestries being the highest product of weaving it was but consistent that he should be ambitious to have the tapestries of France superior to all others, as Arras and Brussels tapestries had once been. When the factory called the Gobelins was started the weaving of tapestries was but one of its arts. It was only in later years that it was devoted exclusively to the high-warp looms. It therefore seemed insufficient to the ambitious Colbert who then inaugurated other centers of production. The Beauvais works were founded in 1664. To these we look for the smooth fine furniture coverings in the next reign. In 1665 he caught up Aubusson, shook from it the dust of its ancient history, infused it with new blood, and gave it a prominent place as a new venture. All three of these factories were named as belonging to the crown, and all were in fact supported by the State. Colbert's great genius was supplemented by the coffers of France into which his hands were allowed to dig deeply by permission of the King.

This matter of crown support was the great stroke of genius that developed the art of France. It gave her the position of creator in art, by the simple though costly experiment of freeing the men of talent from the necessity of finding money for daily living. Money was lavishly spent on them, they were given apartments in the Louvre, they saw their works adorn palaces. With this encouragement art developed into the beauties of the Eighteenth Century.

Louis XIV gave one great check to the weavers, both those of the high-warp tapestry and those humbler ones of Lyons and the cloth-producing towns. Deceived as to the status of Protestantism in France he repealed the Edict of Nantes. The effect was deplorable and instantaneous. Protestant artists and workers fled the country for their lives. England then gained such designers as Daniel Marot who paused by way of Holland, and such Lyonese weavers of silk as established in London the Spitalfields looms still existing. As England had been a large market for Lyons silks this re-action injured French trade while it forced on England an advantage she might never have had if foreign silk weavers had not come in numbers to teach her hand new and adept ways.

It is impossible to separate styles in the Eighteenth Century with as neat a date as that which separates the reigns of kings. It was during the entire first half of the century that the style called after Louis XV matured and came to full flowering. Berain and Audran, Oudry, Watteau, Boucher, all contributed their amazing talent. The system being continued of state support of artists, work went on at the Gobelins, and at this time were executed marvelous tapestries. Colbert was no more, Le Brun was dead, but the Gobelins after various vicissitudes was ably directed by Jules de Cotte from 1699 to 1735.

We have to note the Don Quixote series of twenty-eight pieces, even though the opportunity to see an example is rare. Mr. Joseph Widener has part of a magnificent set with cramosie, or crimson, background brought to America by Mr. Pierpont Morgan. Mr. Clarence Mackay has a part set of lighter more neutral color brought here by the late Mrs. John W. Mackay. In England the Duchess of Rutland possesses a few pieces. To describe them sketchily, the scenes from the great romance of the knight are drawn by Charles Coypel, and are in small scale in the center of the tapestry, while the greater space of the hanging is filled with decorative matter that has never been surpassed in the assembling, a wide field of color in two tones lying between the smallish picture and the decoration. This decoration is the quintessence of delicacy, of naturalism combined with fantasy, and illustrates the perfection of an art that was truly French. Although this famous set was composed in the time of Louis XIV, it is illustrative of the style attributed to his successor, showing how early that style began its development.

We should remember that while Coypel drew the cartoons, Audran and Lemaire composed the surrounding decoration in which centers most of the interest. Also that the artists' work would have been marred had the weavers not been men of high talent. Their work is indicative of the times when unreason of design is forgiven for the perfection of technical execution.

The style rocaille, or rococo, which flashes all through the reign of Louis XV is but little seen in tapestries. The hangings in the middle of the century were still hung loosely on the wall, and were better ornament for the rooms and background of the frivolous life led within them when dealing with large scenes of mythology. But the borders give the clue to the tendency of the moment. They had shrunk from the wide border of exquisite Renaissance personages and that later one of overgrown fruit and scroll, to a clever copying of a gilded frame. It is in the detail of this frame that one finds the ornament popular until tapes-try borders ceased altogether.

And the reason for their ceasing? The very simple one that the proper tapestry of the ages past was no longer the fashion. They were torn down from the walls and auctioned off with furniture which was no longer of the mode, and thus found their way into the homes of unfashionable folk. The mode was for smaller rooms with paneled walls and much wood-work. So the tapestries were asked to reduce them-selves to the size of these small panels, the carved border of which served as border for the tapestry.

It was the imperious whim of du Barry which introduced the figure of a negro into tapestry cartoons. From afar came a waif, a small black child from Burma the almost unknown Asia. Zamora he was called, and she made of him a pet, as of an exception-ally intelligent monkey. He could speak only with his eyes and smile, but she kept him near her radiant person at fetes and receptions, for his dark skin contrasted piquantly with hers which was of snow and roses. She wore him as an accessory to her toilette, one might say, and gave him the privileges sometimes accorded a lap-dog.

But Zamora passed the age of holding parasols over his mistress, and when her power fell he joined those who robbed her retreat of "Louveciennes," and aided all he could to throw her to the mob who eventually sent her to the guillotine a few months after the decapitation of the King, Louis XVI. But he was the negro as a motive in decorative drawing.

Before the time of reduction in size many hangings had been made. There was a series of the Hunts of Louis XV showing the monarch slim and youthful, smartly arrayed, and elegantly posed in a charming stretch of woodland with allees leading to distant enchantment. Almost a verdure tapestry it seems, and in strong contrast to the "History of the King," executed for Louis XIV where he ever appears as the self centered monarch but also as the head of a great national movement or interest of state.

The young Madame de Pompadour flashed piquantly through those woods where Louis XV was portrayed as huntsman. From that time on she may be called the Queen of the Gobelins factory. As she had a passion for accumulating houses, and a strong decorative instinct coupled with the courtesan's disregard of expense, the works were ever busy with her commands.

Such men as Oeben and Caffieri supplied her with furniture and bronze ornament. Such men as the Coypels drew tapestry cartoons. The Gobelins factory executed all, and the state paid the bills—but with ever increasing dissatisfaction. This was the time when Boucher was creating a world of amorini, pink fleshed and piquant, ever gamboling in clouds, but with a sophistication not given to infants born away from the influence of a false gay court. These were sprinkled into scenes which were named for the gods, scenes in which the personages looked suspiciously like court beauties taking advantage of their mythological pseudonyms to frolic in questionable ways.

The greatest change in the tapestries of this time was in this, that whereas in former times they were decorative hangings of a limited color scale, they now became paintings in silk and wool. This necessitated an enormous increase in the number of colors necessary to the tapissier. If he must depict the flush on Chloe's cheek, and the olive skin of her lover, there must be threads of a thousand tints for the portrayal. And so from the Gothic scale of fifteen or twenty colors with which to weave magic, we come by hasty increase to twenty thousand. The matter to be deplored in this connection is that with these fine graduations of tones the sun plays tricks. Such subtle distinctions and shadings were made that the slightest fading of the colors altered them. Thus much of the original tender beauty is gone from the finest tapestries of the reign of the Pompadour.

Verdures of the Eighteenth Century must not be forgotten. They were composed with the skill of him who loves the forest, who like the Chinese painter ruminates for days among green trees, studies flowers and yields to bird-enchantment. Going to his studio full of the spirit of the wood he records impressions with inspired hands. If he is truly inspired he sketches in blue-greens rather than in yellow-greens, and re-places the modest birds of the home woodland with gorgeous parrots or mackaws.

Styles changed again with Louis XVI, but they cast their shadow before. The Pompadour in spite of her talents, her steady head, her political ability, in spite of her resources in entertaining a dull and weary king, she was deposed, and du Barry reigned in her stead until the King's death in 1774. Although she too used lavishly the tapestries of France, she had a more modest wish in regard to the number of residences than had du Barry. Her influence on the change in style was less than that of the young Dauphiness Marie Antoinette for whom the classicism that followed was in part adopted.

In a reign dominated by the two great courtesans La Pompadour and du Barry, able though they were, it is refreshing to think upon the advent of a new influence, one simpler, cleaner, if less inspired than its predecessor. The marriage of the grandson of Louis XV to Marie Antoinette necessitated notice in the world of decoration and as Louis XV died but four years after this mating, the style introduced for the Dauphiness was taken as the keynote for the style named for the new King Louis XVI. It was inspired by those liberal excavations at Pompeii which were then proceeding with enthusiasm. From this Greco-Roman gem was drawn the designs of the new mode. It was the same old source—Italy.

The classic was revived in tapestries and there came from the looms of the Gobelins some sets which pictured the Olympian gods in a purely classic way. These tapestries though formal were exquisite, and though innumerable figures were treated were never crowded as the personages were ranged in rows, each with its niche or pedestal and its symbols, a delightful presentation of mythology. Only the manual adroitness of the long-trained weavers were capable of executing such designs.

But, alas, the day of tapestries was finished. The in-spired work of a century of brilliant production was over. Just as Gothic tapestries after reaching bewildering beauty were blotted out, and as the intellectual perfection of the high Renaissance was overcome by loose methods of artists and weavers, so this last great period of tapestry weaving, the Eighteenth Century fell before the fickleness of fashion aided by conditions in the political world.

The fashion was for smaller rooms than those in which the tapestries of twenty to thirty feet in length had been extended. Not only that but the walls were so decorated with paneling of carved wood that tapes-try was no longer a necessity. Men from the royal factories executed the exquisite boiserie that filled all decorative needs. So tapestries grew smaller and ever smaller. It is enough to illustrate their change in decorative importance to remember that the exquisite hangings of the classic type described above were used only as protection from the draughts of doorways, and were humbly named the "Portieres des Dieux."

Some charming bits are left us of simple composition and high color, children or young peasants of high sophistication playing at rustic tasks. These were woven without border, for filling in the panels of painted rooms where the woodwork consisted of moldings, not of carvings. Incidentally these bright rectangular pieces which are not fragments but complete in themselves are delightfully sympathetic with our Twentieth Century habitations.

At last they vanished from the wall, the woven pictures, and sank to the level of coverings for furniture. Marie Antoinette with her love of simulating the simple and bucolic life, favored the designs that illustrated the Fables of La Fontaine. Full of animals, birds, peasants, these simple subjects pleased her in her hours at the Trianon and at the Hameau where she played at dairy-maid.

Another favorite subject for furniture coverings was the history of Don Quixote, but not fit to be compared in design or execution to the great set of Audran and Coypel woven by Cozette and other men of talent. Other coverings, purely decorative and carrying no story were the exquisite scrolls of the acanthus —the rinceau—combined with dainty flowers.

At this time the factory at Aubusson was furnishing many of the floor-coverings. To Beauvais was confided the execution of the furniture coverings, which were woven on low warp looms. At Beauvais also were woven many of the. Boucher hangings. Both factories it will be remembered were under the patronage of the State, which supplied the funds.

The last note one can record in old tapestries is the brief revival in Beauvais tapestry furniture coverings after the rise of Napoleon as Emperor. These in execution were as fine as any ever woven by that factory, perhaps even finer than any other furniture coverings. In design they copied antique vessels and amphora: with much use of Roman medallions in the borders.

With this last bright flash the art of tapestry making lapsed.

And today? This is not a time when the weaving of tapestries is an impulsive expression of art. It is a time of the strongest appreciation of the work of the artists and weavings of other days. We acquire but we do not create.

Highest in our present appreciation stands the Gothic in its best moment. There is scarcely an interior which is not appropriately decorated by the marvelous creations in silk, wool and gold of this greatest of all tapestry periods. But they are practically unobtainable, all having found permanent haven in museums and in great collections which will become the property of museums.

Next we love the Renaissance with its skilfully drawn pictures, its fascinating verdures and its borders born of erudition. These suit our greater houses and can still be found to the infinite satisfaction of those who can acquire. Indeed I can scarcely think of a large country house of great hall and generous rooms as complete without one.

The third great period of tapestries, the Eighteenth Century, gives innumerable alluring pieces, of not too large a size, and on these we fall with delight. The best examples of the times for a century after the establishment of the Gobelins are exceedingly rare, but those of lesser quality have great charm and with it the qualities that make them appropriate to Twentieth Century homes.

Each age had its bad examples, hangings made of poor materials by clumsy workmen. There are no bad tapestries, only some are better than others, is the shibboleth of the enthusiast.

The factory at Aubusson, notwithstanding its claims of long descent, put out acres and acres of coarse verdures, and in this purely commercial effort forgot all traditions of art and conscientious weaving. In one of those fascinating hunts for the antique which take one through the labyrinth of the Latin Quarter, these are almost all the small dealer has to offer, and they are usually in fragments. On this rough diet must the appetite for tapestries most frequently be fed, although a scrap of Renaissance verdure may some-times be had.

Yet for all our distaste of poor dull color, rough wool and bad weaving, we seize these bits with eagerness because with them we can give an air of elegance and distinction to our rooms by covering with them chairs of ancient make and cushions for sofa or floor. In these days old tapestries are used down to the last scrap, for the supply is almost exhausted.

It would seem that hanging a tapestry in a modern home required no imagination whatever, merely a workman who could mount a step-ladder. But there is a word of reminder-tapestries were not made to lie too flat against the wall. A little looseness, not actual folds but an easing, adds charm. This suggestion is perhaps unwelcome to one who has paid extravagantly for a tapestry. Let him try it both ways then, stretched flat like a painting, or elegantly easy, and he is sure to like the latter way better. Small pieces and fragments must perforce hang like any narrow ornamental textile.

In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries a lord's tapestries were suspended from great hooks. That method becomes well the stone or rough-plastered room or hall of today, especially if the hooks are made a matter of ornament, finished with an iron fleur-de-lis, for example. The effect is more than harmonious, it is one of those little matters which help to give the proper atmosphere to a room of old-world fashion.

If no mention has been made of tapestry looms out-side of Arras, Brussels, Paris, France, and Italy, it is only because we have reviewed but the three high points of tapestry history, and the three great centers of production. Most of the cheaper tapestries obtainable today which are not a poor quality of Aubusson, come from these outside factories, and but for the scarcity of good hangings would never receive the attention that now is theirs.



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