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Tapestry in the Baroque

Threads of Splendor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 17, 2007 to January 6, 2008

"The Battle of Granicus" design by Charles Le Brun

"The Battle of the Granicus," from a five-piece set of the History of Alexander, design by Charles Le Brun, cartoon by Louis Licherie, woven in the workshop of Jean Jans the Younger at the Manufacture Royale des Gobelins, Paris, 1680-1687, wool, silk, and gilt-metal-wrapped silk thread, 485 by 845 centimeters, Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna (T V 2)

By Carter B. Horsley

"Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor" is a sequel to the "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence" exhibition in 2002 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Renaissance exhibition (see The City Review article) was magnificent. This exhibition, also at the Metropolitan, is almost as awesome and certainly mandatory viewing for anyone who did not see the earlier show and who has not prowled the 20 miles of tapestries in the Royal Palace in Madrid and visited all the castles and monasteries and the like in Europe.

"This exhibition will provide one of the grandest displays of Baroque tapestry that has been since Louis XIV strolled through the galleries of Versailles," according to Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, adding that "As a visual experience, it will be without parallel for a modern audience."

This exhibition has 44 tapestries and about 20 designs and oil sketches made between 1590 and 1720 from 11 countries. About half of the works come from Flemish workshops.

detail of Throne Baldachin by Knieper

"Throne Baldachin," detail, design by Hans Knieper, woven under the directorship of Hans Knieper, Helsingor (Denmark), 1585-1586, wool, silk, and silver and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, backcloth 275 by 353 centimeters, canopy 403 by 275 centimeters, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Indep 2 LRK 28861, 28862), on long-term loan from the Livrustkammaren, Stockholm

The exhibition is divided into nine sections. The first focuses on what the museum calls "the disapora of weavers from the Southern Netherlands during the civil war of the 1570s and 1580s and the creation of new workshops elsewhere." This section has what the museum describes as "a spectacular throne canopy made by Flemish weavers in Copenhagen in 1586.

"The scale of the Netherlandish tapestry industry during the second third of the 16th century," according to the museum, "has never been surpassed. At its center lay Brussels, which dominated the market for high-quality pictorial tapestry and attracted commissions from patrons all over Europe. However, the complex system of merchants, weavers, artists, and dyers on which this industry depended was to be severely interrupted. In1567 King Phillip II of Spain ordered the duke of Alba to lead ten thousand Spanish troops into the Low Countries to suppress Protestant heresy. Alba's merciless actions resulted in the organization of anti-Catholic forces in the northern provinces, and the ensuing civil war devastated the economy of the Low Countries for the next twenty years. Large numbers of skilled tapestry weavers and designers migrated to Protestant towns in the northern Netherlands or farther afield to the Germanic states and England, where they established new workshops or strengthened existing ones. The most notable of these entreprises was the one set up in Delft in the 1590s by the Antwerp master Francois Spiering, which attracted orders from Protestant courts no longer able to obtain tapestries from Brussels."

"The Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus" by Rubens

"The Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus," sixth panel of an eight-piece set of the Story of Decius Mus, modello and cartoon by Peter Paul Rubens, woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II in collaboration with Jacques Geubels II, Brussels, between 1620 and 1629, silk, wool, and silver and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, 400 by 580 centimeters, Patrimonio Nacional, Embassy of Spain in Washington, D.C. (TA-52/6 100076094)

The second section looks at the revival of the tapestry industry in Brussels in the early 1600s, noting that "Local artists lacked the design experience of their forebears, as evidenced by sets such as the Battles of Archduke Albert and, consequently, 'old master' designs continued to play an important part in Brussels production throughout the first third of the 17th Century."

"During the 1610s," the museum's commentary continued, "new life was introduced to Brussels tapestry design by Rubens' Decius Mus designs (circa 1616), which will be represented by an especially fine weaving from the Spanish royal collection. Rubens painted the cartoons for the Decius series in oil on canvas, rather than the traditional medium of watercolor on paper, with the consequence that the design was conceived in terms of color, light and shadow, which were challenging for the weavers to reproduce in wool and silk."

"The Battle of the Milvian Bridge" by Rubens

"The Battle of the Milvian Bridge," from a six-piece set of the Story of Constantine, design by Peter Paul Rubens, border design attributed to Laurent Guyot, woven in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel workshop, Paris, circa 1623-1627, wool, silk, and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, 470 by 710 centimeters, Kunstkammer, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (T XVIII 3)

The third section looks at tapestry production in Paris where Rubens was commissioned to design a Story of Constantine series that the museum said is "one of Rubens' greatest contributions to the tapestry medium, although it failed to capture the royal appointment for which the artist hoped, partly because Louis III and his courtriers perceived some of the same design flaws in the compositions as those already noted in the Decius series." The museum also maintains that "the Paris ateliers found their true champion with the work of Simon Vouet...[who] produced his cartoons in collaborations with a team of artists, some skilled in landscapes, others in border design, ensuring that the whole surface of the completed cartoons was well drawn, richly patterned, and visually engaging," and the exhibition contains one tapestry from Vouet's Story of the Old Testament.

"Meeting at the Temple of Venus" design by Francis Clein

"Meeting at the Temple of Venus," from a six-piece set of Hero and Leander, design by Francis Clein, woven in the Mortlake workshop, Surrey, circa 1630-1636, wool, silk, and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, 444 by 420 centimeters, The Royal Collections, Drottningholm Palace (H.G.K. 51)

The fourth section looks at England where James I in 1619 founded a workshop at Mortlake on the outskirts of London that was staffed with Flemish weavers "who were enticed to England in great secrecy," according to the museum. Francis Clein developed tapestry series for the English court that were influenced by Rubens and Van Dyck. The museum notes that Mortlake was owned and directed by Sir Francis Crane, a close associate of Charles, Prince of Wales, who in 1623 acquired in Genoa seven of the famous Acts of the Apostles cartoons that Raphael had painted in 1516-1517 for Pope Leo X. "During his reign Charles spent about the same amount of money on Mortlake tapestries that he spent on paintings and sculptures (the aspect of his patronage that has received more attention," according to the museum.

"The Triump of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness" by Rubens

"The Triumph of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness," from a twenty-piece set of the Triumph of the Eucharist, design by Peter Paul Rubens, woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II, Brussels, circa 1626-1633, wool and silk, 490 by 752 centimeters, Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas, Reales, Madrid (TA-D/3 00610325)

In 1626, Archduchess Isabella commissioned rubens in Brussels to create a series of tapestries for the convent of the Descalzes Reales in Madrid and the 20-part series, entitled "Triumph of the Eucharist," became Rubens' most ambitious tapestry scheme that blended biblical and allegorical figures with contemporary portraits. Of the 11 wide tapestries in the series - a number that alludes to the 11 weavings around the Ark of the Covenant -"five show scenes of prefigurations from the Old Testament and six show allegorical triumps related to the Eucharist and as such they illustrate the mystery of Transubstantiation - the actual presence of God in the Eucharist - a central theme of the Roman Catholic Church in countering the Reformation."

The sixth section of the exhibition is devoted to Italy where the Medici manufactory continued to make tapestries for the ducal family and some private clients and the Barberini family established a new workshop in Rome in the late 1620s where designs came from Pietro da Cortona and Giovanni Romanelli.

The seventh section the exhibition concentrates on the Gobelins workshop that was created by Jean Baptiste Colbert in Paris in the early 1660s under the direction of Charles Le Brun for the next two decades and the museum notes that the Gobelins tapestries of the late 17th Century "are as fine as any tapestries ever produced. "During the 1680s a significant portion of the Gobelins production was dedicated to the reproduction of some of the finest tapestry designs of the 1520s and 1530s, as well as various fresco schemes by Raphael and Guilio Romano.

In 1664, Colbert also established the Beauvais manufactory to make tapestries for the commercial market, the eighth section of the exhibition, but its works were more modest and more decorative than those from Gobelins. Smaller workshops in Aubusson and Felletin were created in 1665 to produce weavings for the lower markets.

"A Naval Battle" by de Hondt

"A Naval Battle," from a set of the Art of War II, design and cartoon by Philippe de Hondt and workshop, woven in the workshop of Judocus de Vos, Brussels, circa 1722-1724, wool and silk, 400 by 792 centimeters, Bayerische Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser, Gärten und Seen, Neues Schloss Schleissheim, Munich

At the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th Century, the Brussels workshops rebounded, producing, according to the museum, "exquisite tapestries from designs by artists like Jan van Orley and Philippe de Hondt," including ambitious works such as the "Victories of the Duke of Marlborough" from Blenheim Palace and a "Naval Battle" from Neues Schloss, Schleissheim - "Each is the size of a modern-day cinema and as a dramatic as a scene from a Hollywood epic."

"Maidservant with a basket of fruit" by Jordaens

"Maidservant with a Basket of Fruit," from an eight-piece set of Scenes of Country Life, design and cartoon by Jacob Jordaens and workshop, woven in the workshop of Conrad van der Bruggen, Brussels, circa 1635, wool and silk, 380 by 327 centimeters, Kunstkammer, Kunisthistoriches Museum, Vienna (T C 8)

The museum maintains that a weaver could probably produce only slightly more than one square yard of coarse tapestry each month.

The exhibition was organized by Thomas P. Campbell, curator in the museum's Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, who also has edited the lavish, 573-page catalogue with 344 illustrations of which 175 are in color. The exhibition was made possible by the Hochberg Foundation Trust and the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund with corporate support from Fortis.

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