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