Short Guide to Tapestry Art (c.800-2000)
Tapestry is an ancient form of textile art which has been practised all over the world for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians and the Incas used woven tapestries as shrouds in which to bury their dead. The Greeks and Romans used them as wall-coverings for civic buildings and temples like the Parthenon. The Chinese rarely used them as wall-hangings - preferring instead to use them mainly to decorate garments and for wrapping gifts.
One of the most expensive and time-consuming crafts, tapestry-making only truly flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, at the hands of French and (later) Flemish weavers. This growth of tapestry art coincided with the era of Romanesque and Gothic art - both part of a religious revival, when architecture, sculpture and stained glass were also harnessed by the Church to illustrate Biblical stories to illiterate congregations.
By the mid-15th century as many as 15,000 weavers and other artisans were working in the tapestry centres of the french Loire Valley alone. Using either a vertical loom (high-warp) or a horizontal loom (low-warp), and a range of no more than 20 colours, medieval weavers produced images of religious stories from the Old and New Testaments, and - from 1500 onwards - secular scenes of battle, Kings and noblemen. For instance, The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was typically joined on his military campaigns by his official painter, who made drawings for later conversion into preliminary designs (cartoons) for tapestries.
The finest European tapestries are considered to have been made by the Gobelins Tapestry Royal Factory in Paris, while major tapestry-making centres existed at Arras, Tournai, Brussels, Aubusson, Fellitin and in the Beauvais factory in Paris.
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19th & 20th Centuries
The use of tapestries in Western Europe - mainly for the decoration of churches and monasteries - was a feature of Carolingian art (750-900) and subsequent Ottonian art (900-1050), although no examples of these early wall-hangings remain. One of the oldest surviving specimens is the famous Bayeux Tapestry (c.1080, Bayeux Museum, Normandy), made during the era of Romanesque art (1000-1200). It depicted the Norman Conquest of England, although it is not a woven tapestry but is a crewel-embroidered hanging, probably made in Canterbury. Fragments of an even earlier tapestry featuring human figures and trees, reminiscent of hangings recorded in Norse sagas, were discovered in an early 9th-century burial ship unearthed at Oseborg in Norway.
14th Century Tapestries
The most famous 14th century tapestry made in Paris is the "Angers Apocalypse" (Musee des Tapisseries, Angers, France), which was made by Nicolas Bataille (active c.1363-1400) for the Duke of Anjou. This work originally comprised seven tapestries, each about 16.5 feet in height and 80 feet in length. It was based on design cartoons drawn up by Jean de Bandol of Bruges (active 1368-81) - court painter to Charles V, king of France - but sadly only about 65 of the original 100 or so scenes still exist. A slightly later set of tapestries (c.1385) woven in the same craft workshop in Paris is the "Nine Heroes" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, New York). This series does not feature religious imagery but illustrations of the tale Histoire des Neuf Preux ("Story of the Nine Heroes") composed by the early 14th-century minstrel, Jacques de Longuyon.
Flanders, especially the Pas-de-Calais city of Arras, was the other great centre of tapestry production. A long-established medieval centre of textile weaving, Arras' tapestries were so highly regarded abroad that the word for tapestry in Italian (arrazzo), English (arras), and Spanish (drap de raz) came from the name of this city.
15th Century Tapestries
During the first half of the century it was Arras that gained the upper hand due to the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. Duke Philip the Good (1396-1467) had a building specially made to house and preserve his tapestry collection. During the period 1423-1467 as many as 60 master-weavers were working in Arras, but after the French siege of the city in 1477, the city declined. Surviving examples of Arras tapestry include: "The Annunciation" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), probably created from a cartoon drawn by Melchior Broederlam (1350-1411); "Court Scenes" (Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris), derived from the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry illuminated by the brothers Limburg (active early 15th century); the 14th century fragment from the Geste of Jourdain de Blaye, based on a medieval adaptation of the Greco-Roman romance Apollonius of Tyre (Museo Civico at Padua, Italy); and large fragments featuring scenes from the lives of St. Piat and St. Eleutherius (Cathedral of Tournai).
A centre of tapestry art since the 14th
century, Brussels of the 15th century rivalled Arras and Tournai. By 1450,
the city was noted for its outstanding reproductions of religious paintings
by late Gothic Flemish masters, as exemplified by the altarpiece tapestry
of "The Adoration of the Magi" (1466-88), made for the
Cathedral of Sens. Such altarpiece tapestries were designed for
churches or private chapels, where they were employed either as an altar
cloth or antependium or were placed on the wall behind the altar. Generally
speaking, these hangings were made to the same size as the painting they
replicated. As a result, they tended to be much smaller than the mural-type
tapestries of Arras and Tournai. Altarpiece tapestries often included
silk, which was used to obtain the greatest possible naturalistic detail
of the painting concerned.
Probably the best known late Gothic tapestries
were the decorative hangings known as millefleurs (thousand flowers).
Made by Flemish weavers in Brussels and Bruges, or by travelling weavers
in the Loire Valley of France, noted examples include the late 15th-century
chivalric tapestry made for Philip the Good (Historisches Museum, Bern,
Switzerland), as well as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" (The
Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and "The Lady
with the Unicorn" (Cluny Museum, Paris).
16th Century Tapestries
Military sieges and other activities during this time caused Brussels to become the leading tapestry centre of Flanders - a status that remained unchanged until the 17th century, not least because of papal patronage, the support of the imperial courts of Spain and Austria, and the exemplary skill of its weavers. Run by a coterie of rich merchants, tapestry making in Brussels became so lucrative in the period 1510-1568 that protectionist laws were introduced to guard against forgeries.
Renaissance era Brussels tapestry is perhaps most eminently characterized by the designs of the Flemish painter Bernard van Orley (1492-1541). He endeavoured to combine the traditions of late Gothic realism and the idealism and monumentality of Renaissance art, with the forms and artistic potential of the tapestry medium. Earlier paintings by Van Orley, such as "The Legend of Our Lady of Le Sablon" (Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels) and "The Revelation of St. John" (Patrimonio Nacional, Spain), were still grounded in the traditions of medieval Flemish art. Later, under the influence of tapestry-cartoons created by Raphael (as mentioned above) and his follower, the Mannerist painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Van Orley introduced Italian monumentality and modelling in sets such as "The Battle of Pavia" (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), and "The Hunts of the Emperor Maximilian I" (Louvre, Paris). Other talented artists who produced designs for Brussels' tapestry industry included Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-50), Jan Vermeyen (c. 1500-59), and Michel Coxcie (1499-1592). The most famous Brussels weavers of the day were Pieter van Aelst, Pieter and Willem Pannemaker, and Frans and Jacob Geubels.
Other Tapestry Centres in Flanders and France
Other smaller tapestry producers of 16th-century Flanders included Alost, Antwerp, Bruges, Enghien, Grammont, Lille, Oudenaarde, and Tournai. The most unique type of tapestry made in these cities was the verdures of Enghien and Oudenaarde.
The French tapestry weaving industry owed
much of its eventual status and achievements to royal patronage. This
arose in the 17th century by way of two state-run manufacturing concerns
- the Gobelins and Beauvais factories. However the first royal tapestry
works was the factory set up by Francis I in 1538 at Fontainebleau,
to create tapestries for his palaces and royal residences. Here, Flemish
weavers worked from design-cartoons painted by two Italian Mannerist artists,
(1504-70) and Rosso Fiorentino
(1494-1540), who were official artists to the King. The workshop at Fontainebleau
was active for some 12 years, until 1550.
In England, the major textile art was embroidery.
If and when tapestries were needed, they were imported from the Continent
- usually Flanders. Although textile historians have discovered English
references to Arras weavers dating back to the 13th century, it wasn't
until the middle of the 16th century that tapestry works were first established
in England. The first noteworthy workshops, manned by Flemish craftsmen
and producing cushion covers and small tapestries featuring heraldic and
ornamental subjects, were set up in Bercheston (Warwickshire) by William
Sheldon (d.1570). A later speciality of these weaving workshops, from
about 1580 onwards, was a series of topographical tapestries, based
on maps of the Midland counties, which depicted views of hills, trees,
and towns, bordered by Flemish-styled edges of architectural and figural
17th and 18th Century Tapestries
It was the French King Henry IV, who took
the decisive steps in establishing a French tapestry industry. In 1608,
by way of official recognition, he installed the French high-warp
workshop of Girard Laurent and Dubout in the Louvre Palace,
and also began to encourage the immigration of Flemish weavers practicing
the low-warp method to help Paris compete with the dominant tapestry
centres in Flanders.
Royal Gobelins Tapestry Factory
It was at the Comans' works in 1667 that the famous Gobelins brand was officially founded in 1667, receiving the title Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furnishings to the Crown). To begin with, the factory included almost all the royal craftsmen and artisans (goldsmiths, silversmiths, tapestry weavers, cabinetmakers etc.) who made furnishings for the Palace of Versailles and other royal chateaux. Additional skilled staff were recruited from the de La Planche and Comans workshops and from the old Louvre enterprise, permitting the operation of both high-warp and low-warp looms. The first director of the Gobelins complex was the painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90), the former head of another earlier royal tapestry works set up in 1658 at a chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. Le Brun's major designs included "The Elements," "The Seasons," "The Story of Alexander," the "Life of Louis XIV" and the "Royal Residences" (Mobilier National, Paris).
On his death, Le Brun was succeeded as
director of the Gobelins by the French painter Pierre Mignard (1612-95).
After he died, a lighter type of design cartoon, signalling the coming
Rococo style, was introduced into tapestry design by the decorative creations,
notably the grotesques, of Claude Audran III (1658-1734), who designed
such pieces as "The Grotesque Months" and "The Portieres
of the Gods." A little later, the new French King Louis XV (1710-74),
was lauded in a series of "Hunts" by the Rococo painter Jean-Baptiste
Oudry (1686-1755). Oudry became director of the Gobelins from 1733
until his death in 1755, when he was succeeded by the great Rococo painter
Francois Boucher (1703-70),
the most talented artist-director of the 18th century. Boucher along with
Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752), a painter, produced the designs
for many of the popular alentours tapestries, in which the main
subject - depicted as a painting bordered by a frame simulating gilded
wood - is overshadowed by the surrounding embellishment. Boucher's "Loves
of the Gods" were also alentours and proved to be extremely popular,
especially with English customers. Another important tapestry cartoon,
"The Story of Don Quixote" (Mobilier National, Paris),
was designed by Coypel and woven nine separate times between 1714 and
The Gobelins factory managed to survive the French Revolution, after which Emperor Napoleon commissioned a set of tapestries (1809-15; Mobilier National, Paris) to commemorate his reign. Also, during the early years of the 19th century, paintings by notable French Neoclassicist artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Carle Vernet (1758-1836), and Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) were woven into tapestries to express the heroic mood of the time.
Beauvais Tapestry Factory
Meanwhile, traditional French tapestries continued to be woven in the communities of Aubusson and Felletin (north east of Limoges), which were permitted - from 1665 onwards - to use the royal Aubusson mark. This was essentially a small cottage industry, in which weavers independently produced inexpensive tapestries on their own low-warp looms for well-to-do customers. In due course, tapestry led to upholstery fabrics, and later carpets. The most popular type of 18th century tapestry produced at Aubusson was the chinoiserie, or genre fantasy set in China and the Orient, as exemplified in designs by Jean Pillement (1728-1808). Aubusson architectural-style tapestry panels tend to imitate those of the Gobelins and Beauvais factories, sometimes with the addition of more complex elements and animals.
The dominant 17th century design influence
on the Brussels tapestry industry was the great Antwerp painter Peter
Paul Rubens, whose most famous cartoon set was the "Triumph of
the Eucharist" (1627-28). Imitations of Rubens' style were everywhere.
Another much copied painter was the Dutch Realist painter David
Teniers the Younger (1610-90) whose genre paintings proved to be highly
The first significant German tapestry factory was founded in Munich in 1604 by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Its designers and weavers were all Flemish. Although it remained in operation for less than a dozen years, the quality of its workmanship was exceptional. After the loss of religious freedom in France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, many French weavers, particularly from the Aubusson factory, sought sanctuary in Germany as had their 16th century predecessors. Another workshop in Berlin, founded in 1686 by the Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg (1620-88) employed a large number of these refugee Aubusson weavers. Its tapestries were produced mainly for the Elector's son, King Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713), after whose death the factory closed. In the 18th century, tapestry centres were established by French weavers in numerous towns and cities across Germany, including Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Wurzburg, Schwabach, and Erlangen.
19th and 20th Century Tapestries
England: Arts & Crafts Movement
Scandinavia and Central Europe
Although there are a small number of individual designers working on their own looms in the United States and Canada, most large-scale American tapestries are European imports. In Latin America the revival of indigenous folk crafts has aroused interest in tapestry making in Mexico and Panama, while other centres of tapestry design have emerged in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.
20th Century Tapestry Revival
Following World War I, coinciding with
the avant-garde ideas emerging from Germany's Bauhaus, France instigated
and then led the 20th-century revitalization of tapestry as an art. Many
of the great modern artists - Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque
(1882-1962), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Georges
Rouault (1871-1958), and Joan Miro (1893-1983), to name but a few - gave
permission for their works to be reproduced in 1932. These reproductions
were executed with exceptional fidelity under the direction of Marie
Cuttoli. The Aubusson tapestry factory, which was chosen for this
important weaving, once again became a great centre of activity. At about
the same time the French painter and tapestry designer Jean Lurcat
(1892-1966) - under the influence of Gothic tapestry, especially the 14th-century
"Angers Apocalypse," and in conjunction with Francois Tabard,
master weaver at Aubusson - formulated the basic principles that were
to make tapestry a collaborative art in its own right. Under Lurcat, tapestry
rediscovered the coarser texture and bolder if more limited colour palette
that characterized original medieval tapestries.
This renaissance in European tapestry may
be associated with the austerity of modern architecture. Not unlike medieval
castles, the often vast expanses of bare wall surface in contemporary
buildings provides highly suitable settings for large-scale wall hangings.
The modernist Swiss-born architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965),
known as Le Corbusier, often described tapestries as "nomadic
murals", highlighting their importance as movable decorations.
Computerised Jacquard Looms
Since the 1990s, tapestry has confirmed its status as a form of fine art, following the computerisation of the Jacquard process by artists such as the innovative portraitist Chuck Close.
Tapestry is different from all other forms of patterned weaving in that no weft threads are taken the full width of the fabric web. Each unit of the pattern is woven with a weft, or thread, of the required colour, that is carried back and forth only over the section where that particular colour appears in the design or cartoon. Like in the weaving of ordinary cloth, the weft threads pass over and under the warp threads alternately, and on the return go under where before it was over and vice versa. Each passage is called a pick, and when finished the wefts are pushed tightly together by a variety of methods or devices (all, read, batten, comb, serated finger nails).
The thickness of the warp determines the thickness of the tapestry fabric. In Medieval Europe, the thickness of the wool tapestry fabric in works like the 14th century 'Angers Apocalypse' tapestry was roughly 10 to 12 threads to the inch (5 to the cm). By the 16th century the tapestry grain had become finer as tapestry began to imitate painting. In the 17th century, the Royal Gobelins Tapestry factory in Paris used 15 to 18 threads per inch and 18 to 20 in the 18th century. The other royal tapestry workshop at Beauvais had as many as 25 or even 40 threads per inch in the 19th century. These exceptionally fine grains make the fabric very flat, like the surface of a painting. In comparison, the grain of 20th century tapestry approximates to that used in 14th and 15th century tapestry. The Gobelins factory for instance now uses 12 or 15 threads per inch. The grain of silk, of course, is much finer than those made of wool. Some Chinese silk tapestries have as many as 60 warp threads per inch.
European tapestry is woven on either a vertical loom (high-warp, or haute-lisse) or a horizontal loom (low-warp, or basse-lisse). Of the two methods, low warp is more commonly used. Among the great European tapestry factories, only the Gobelins has traditionally used high warp looms. Several weavers can weave simultaneously on either kind of loom. According to the complexity of the design and the grain or thickness of the tapestry, a weaver at the Gobelins can produce 32 to 75 square feet of woven textile a year.
Tapestry Designs & Cartoons
In European tapestry-making the Medieval cartoon, or prepartory drawing, was usually traced and coloured by a painter on a canvas roughly the size of the tapestry to be woven. By 1500, the weaver usually wove directly from a model, such as a painting, and therefore copied not a diagramatic pattern but the original finished work of the painter. By the start of the 17th century there was a clear distinction between the model and the cartoon: the model was the original reference on which the cartoon was based. Cartoons were freely used and often copied.
More than one tapestry can be woven from a cartoon. At the Parisian Gobelins factory, for example, the famous 17th century 'Indies Tapestry' set was woven 8 times, re-made, and slightly changed by the baroque painter Francois Desportes (1661-1743).
The border of a cartoon was frequently redesigned each time it was commissioned, as each customer would have a different personal preference for ornamental motifs. Often, borders were designed by a different artist from the one who designed the cartoon. As an element of design, however, borders or frames were important only from the 16th to the 19th century. Tapestries from the Middle Ages and the 20th century rarely used a border, as the latter merely serves to make the tapestry resemble a painting.
Because a fully painted cartoon is very time-consuming, 20th century designers have adopted a range of alternative methods. The cartoon is sometimes a photographic enlargement of a fully painted model, or merely a numbered drawing. The latter type, conceived by the famous French tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) during the Second World War, is a numbered system where each number corresponds to a precise colour and each cartoonist has his own range of colours. The weaver refers to a small colour model provided by the painter, and then makes a selection of wool samples.
Where a high warp is used, the weaver has the full size cartoon hanging beside or behind him. While the low warp weaver places the cartoon under the warps, so he can follow it from above. In both cases, the main outlines of the design are laid out with ink on the warps after they have been attached, to the loom.
Wool is the most widely used material for making the warp, or the parallel series of threads that run length-wise in the fabric of the tapestry. The width-running weft, or filling threads, are also most commonly made of wool. The advantages of wool are wide-ranging. It is more available, more workable and more durable than other materials, and in addition can be easily dyed. Wool has often been used in combination with linen, silk or cotton threads for the weft. This mixture of material is ideal for detail weaving and for the creation of delicate effects. Light coloured silks were often employed to create pictorial effects of tonal gradation and spacial recession. The glow of silk thread was often useful for highlights or to create a luminous effect when contrasted to the duller woollen threads. Silk was increasingly used during the 18th century, especially at the Beavais factory in France, in order to achieve subtle tonal effects. The majority of Chinese and Japanese tapestries have both warp and weft threads of silk. Pure silk tapestries were also made during medieval times at Byzantium (Constantinople) and in parts of the Middle East. Pure linen tapestries were woven in ancient Egypt, while Egyptian Christians and Medieval Europeans sometimes used linen for the warp. Both cotton and wool were used in Pre-Columbian art to make Peruvian tapestries as well as some Islamic tapestries during the Middle Ages. Since the 14th century, along with wool and silk, European weavers have also used gold and silver weft threads to produce a sumptuous effect.
Dyes commonly used in Europe included: (1) Woad, a plant similar to indigo, which yields a good range of blues. (2) Madder, a root from which reds, oranges and pinks could be obtained. (3) Weld, an English plant whose leaves produce yellow. (4) A mixture of weld (yellow) and indigo (blue) was used to concoct green. For more about colour, see: Colour Pigments.
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