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A historical perspective of styles and techniques

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To a modern sightseer, the great stone castles of the Middle Ages may seem cheerless and uncomfortable settings for daily life. But they should be imagined as they were in earlier days, the high walls of their principal rooms hung with brightly colored tapestries. Durable, flexible and portable, these hangings were carried from castle to castle with the peripatetic noble households and conveyed an impression of familiar warmth in each setting.

Somewhat paradoxically, modern architecture, with its preference for plain walls, has brought about a revival of interest in the decorative potentialities of tapestry. Artists and designers today are creating such hangings in the contemporary style, and, by the same token, tapestries from the past now preserved in the museums of Europe and the United States are winning increased appreciation.

Tapestries played an important role in Gothic Europe from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The medieval castle was not only a dwelling but a fortress, and even the residential quarters show a concern for security: their thick stone walls are broken only by the necessary chimney breasts, a few narrow doorways and small, high windows. It was to cover the great bare surface of such walls that tapestry came into being. Panels could be woven to the dimensions of the walls on which they were to hang; that this was usual is borne out by surviving inventories of great estates and the miniature paintings of the time, and it explains differences in size among panels from the same set.

What made tapestry even more practical was the ease with which it could be packed up and moved about. Kings and other important persons, making rounds of visits to their vassals and even going off to war, were accompanied by these prestigious furnishings, loaded on wagons or pack animals. The accounts of Duchess Anne of Brittany record payments to "the driver of the beast bearing said Lady's tapestry." When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V met defeat at Metz in 1553, he was forced to abandon his baggage, which included the great suites of tapestry made for his family a century before.

As we should expect, tapestries were also made for the decoration of churches, but in considerably smaller quantity. The walls of Gothic churches, rising to new heights, began to be pierced with large glazed windows. Tapestry, as a consequence, was relegated to side aisles, suspended between pillars, or, in the form of long, narrow bands, hung above the choir stalls to fend off drafts. Although they were originally less numerous, these ecclesiastical tapestries have survived in greater proportions than any other class. Whether they were more gently used or less vulnerable to changes of fashion, many of them have been preserved in the same churches for centuries.

The production of tapestry calls for few and simple materials. In the Middle Ages the chief requirement was wool, easily obtainable in most parts of Europe. Wool threads were stretched vertically to form the skeleton (warp); crosswise threads (weft, also called woof and web) were woven under and over the vertical threads, back and forth across limited areas, until the skeleton was filled and the jigsaw of color became a picture. In some workshops wefts were enriched with silk, or with threads wrapped in thin strips of silver or gold. The range of colors in the medieval tapestries is not great; no more than twelve or fifteen have been counted in the seventy-some surviving panels of the celebrated Apocalypse series of Angers, France, a work of the late fourteenth century. Obtained for the most part from natural substances like the bark and roots of plants, such hues have lost much of their brightness with the passage of time.

Tapestry weavers followed more or less detailed designs, called cartoons, and supplied by artists. In later times, when the great workshops of France and the Low Countries were at the peak of their fame, the most eminent artists might be called on for cartoons; Raphael carried out one such commission for a Pope. We know all too little about the earlier cartoon makers, though some of them seem to have been attached to the courts of kings and powerful nobles, and we cannot say how much they left to the judgment of the weavers who interpreted their designs.

The "revolution in aesthetics known as the Renaissance," occurring around the turn of the fifteenth century, produced important changes in tapestry and tapestry production. Along with kings and their courtiers, a growing and prosperous middle class was interested in every aspect of culture and became eager buyers of works of art, including tapestries. But in the new ideas of the time, it was painting that enjoyed pride of place, and tapestry yielded to its sway, sinking to the level of mere imitation. The weaver, no longer free to interpret an artist's sketch in the traditional techniques, was required rather to apply his skill to reproducing the subtle modeling and gradation of colors of a finished painting. The new Renaissance spirit, originating in scholars and artists that migrated west from Greece as the Fall of Constantinople in 1543 was imminent, soon penetrated Flanders, where important weaving centers had grown up in the cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Enghiem, Valenciennes, Lille, Ghent, Tournai and Brussels. The new manner, with its accurate rendering of nature and its concern with perspective, was to be exemplified in the series of large tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X from the workshop of Pietr van Aelst in Brussels. The subject was The Acts of the Apostles, and the cartoons were supplied by Raphael. This was the first project for which Flemish weavers were asked to copy rather than to create, and it may be evidence of the persisting spirit of independence that they embellished with flowers the robe of Christ, which they felt the model left too plain.

By this time, European princes and noblemen had begun to abandon or remodel their feudal castles and take pleasure in more comfortable and luxurious residences. Tapestries with a wide variety of secular subjects - pastoral, exotic, historic and literary - decorated their walls and enhanced their status. Other woven scenes in the staterooms and galleries of royal residences glorified the rulers and commemorated their military or other achievements. Louis XIV of France made many gifts of tapestries to the courts of neighboring countries for the avowed purpose of impressing the recipients with his magnificence.

Fairly swamped with orders, the Flemish industry fell away from its high standards as the century progressed. Further affecting production, many weavers, harassed by the anti-Protestant policies of their Spanish rulers, chose to emigrate. Some sought asylum in the neighboring states of Orange, others found employment in Bavaria or the Palatinate. Flemish weavers were employed at the Mortlake workshop in the Soho district of London. This enterprise was very successful in the reign of Charles II. Italy had long attracted weavers from the north, many of whom congregated in the city of Mantua. In Florence, Duke Cosimo di Medici sponsored workshops operated by Flemings; Bronzino was at one time official painter here, and cartoons by Rubens, Raphael and Andrea del Sarto were also followed. Venice, an active market for tapestries, probably supported some looms.

But it was in France that tapestry realized its greatest artistic and technical achievements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Looms were operating in Paris, where the great medieval Apocalypse of Angers had been woven, in several northern centers, and in Aubusson - the city that gave the craft one of its best-known names. Itinerant weavers moved up and down the valley of the Loire, settling wherever some provincial lord wished to add to the comfort of his chateau with warm wool hangings and following the reigning monarch and his court from town to town. Francis I, finding these sources inadequate for his needs, decided to create an industry that would work exclusively for him and on which he could impose the new Italianate style he favored. To this end he had weavers, probably from Tournai, brought to the palace of Fontainebleau, where his ambitious building projects were to inaugurate the artistic Renaissance in France. Beginning in 1539, the royal factory was active for twelve years or so and created a number of masterpieces, copying in one instance the frescoes of Francesco Primaticcio, the Italian artist Francis employed on the decoration of Fontainebleau.

At the end of the century. Henry IV undertook to revitalize the weaving trade as a sort of "pilot project" in the planned industrialization of France. He brought in three master workmen from Audenarde, in Flanders, and purchased a large building for their use from a family named Gobelin. The Gobelins were not weavers, but dyers, long established on a bank of the Bievre, a little stream that runs into the Seine, and which has now been built over by modern Paris. The Gobelins' name, however, persisted in the neighborhood and has come to seem almost a synonym for tapestry. The new enterprise enjoyed what amounted to a monopoly; its finances were assured by the crown and its work force enlarged by weavers from other French cities.

The output was large and of high quality. Among the tapestries woven here were The Story of Diana and The Story of Psyche, from cartoons by Rubens. Models provided by Simon Vouet, a French painter just returned from Italy, whose brilliant use of color and detail was reinvigorating the style of the rime, were used for The Loves of the Gods and The Story of Reginald and Armida.

The next chapter in the history of French tapestry, in some ways its most glorious, opens with the reign of Louis XIV. Colbert, this monarch's able minister, had found the industry in decline, the workshops in futile competition with each other. In 1667 he brought together at the Gobelins site low-warp and high-warp operations employing several hundred workers, and made the establishment a part of the Royal Furniture Manufactory, which also took in cabinetmakers, goldsmiths, mosaicists, enamelers and other craftsmen supplying the crown. A large part of the weavers' production was distributed in royal gifts, but the spacious halls and galleries of the Palace of Versailles, that great monument of the reign, were also furnished with splendid tapestries, as were other royal residences. The artistic direction of the Gobelins was entrusted to Charles Le Brun, an accomplished painter and a man thoroughly in tune with contemporary aesthetic trends, but who also understood and respected the traditions of tapestry. For the cartoons, Le Brun called on a large team of artists, each with his specialty - architecture, landscape, figures or whatever. These assistants were expected to give copies, especially adapted for weaving, of the original works to be rendered. Thus the weavers once more enjoyed some liberty in the choice of colors.

Among the great tapestry sequences created at the Gobelins factory under the aegis of Le Brun were The Elements, with wide borders in which are inscriptions and mottoes praising the king; The Seasons, depicting four royal residences (among them Versailles in the spring, with the king and queen on horseback, and St. Germain in the autumn, with the royal hunt); and The Story of the King. In this dramatic sequence, the various panels, filled with figures and detail, represent such events as the coronation of Louis XIV and the visit of the king to the Gobelins factory, where craftsmen present their works for his inspection.

In the meantime, the Aubusson looms had come under state control and a new factory was set up at Beauvais, north of Paris. Panels for the seats and backs of chairs and sofas were woven here as well as larger pieces; among the latter, the Sea Ports suite was especially praised. Jean-Baptiste Oudry, an animal painter, was one of the directors at Beauvais; he naturally preferred hunting or country scenes, as in Rural Pleasures or The Fables of LaFontaine. Francois Boucher, the painter of erotic nymphs, supplied cartoons for the delightful Chinese Hangings, like his own Italian Festivals and the Gobelins' Turkish Costume, a response to the demand for erotic subjects.

Before the end of the 1600s, the exhaustion of the royal treasury closed down the Gobelins factory. When work recommenced, tapestry had a new, less important role to play. It was now primarily a background for the exquisite furnishings of salons where a delicate feminine taste prevailed. The decorative compositions of the ornamentalist Jean Berain (The Grotesque Months) or Jean-Baptiste Huet's Pastorals with Blue Draperies with Arabesques typify the new style. The subtle nuances of painting were again preferred to bolder color contrasts. The use of "unstable" or transient dyes and certain mordants (substances that help the dye to "take") often resulted, unhappily, in fading and discoloration.

During the nineteenth century, the tapestry industry met a period of technical rather than artistic advance. It was not until the twentieth century that tapestry making again became a dynamic art form. Writes Adolf Hoffmeister in The Book of Tapestry: "We are today rediscovering the true worth and meaning of tapestry. Wool, the very flesh and blood of tapestry, not only provides warmth and covering for the bareness of the wall, but it also deadens noise and imparts its own special feeling of comfort and restfulness. Its chief mission, however, is to illuminate man's everyday life with remarkable beauty and a kind of textured poetry."

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