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  The History of Tapestry Wall Hangings

Although the weaving of tapestry has been dated back to the ancient Egyptians, we will begin with the origins of the European tapestry dating from the 11th Century.

The story of the tapestry begins in 1064. The wall tapestry is in reality a hand embroidery on linen cloth using wools of various colors. The tapestry was 70 meters long and 1/2 meters high, and was most probably hand woven in an Anglo-Saxon workshop supervised by Odeon de Conteville, Bishop of Bayeux and half brother of William the Conqueror.

A Bayeux tapestry, portion of the tapestry depicting Harold's last meal on land before embarking to Normandy
to inform William that it is Edward the Confessor's wish that William succeed to the throne of England.

During this period, the wall tapestry was characterized by extreme awkwardness in design, proportion, perspective and detail. The designs translated into the medium of tapestry appear quite primitive and childlike, especially when compared to the tapestry masterpieces of the 16th, 17th & 18th Centuries.

The Les Mois de L'annee - a surviving fragment of a late 12th Century tapestry from Baldishol Church
in Norway is a wonderful example of awkwardness of transposition of 12th Century design into tapestry
and is one of the oldest surviving tapestries in the western world.

The use of tapestry wall hangings at this time was more for practicality than that of artistic, decorative or commemorative value. Kings and Lords traveling from one castle to another were fond of tapestries, for when rolled up, the tapestries could be easily carried and hung on the walls of various residences, for protection from the cold and noise in the large rooms, most of which were damp and noisy as the windows were without glass and the floors were paved with flagstone. Canopy beds originated from the custom whereby tapestries would form small comfortable areas within a room amidst the coldness of stone, and in which it was possible to sleep in warmth. When a guest would arrive, usually in a common hall, the Lord's room was immediately "dressed" - a canopy for his bed was arranged and cross-walls of wall tapestry placed north or south to protect against cold in winter or warmth in summer. Very few tapestries from the 13th century survive today. When the Lords moved into a new castle they would not hesitate to have a wall tapestry cut so as to facilitate a door opening. Whenever the ceiling of a room was too low to hang the wall tapestry at full length, the bottom of the tapestry would be cut off, which was kept and then sewn onto another wall tapestry found too small - even if the theme and colors were different. Such tapestries, a small number which survive today, still continue to puzzle historians.

Up until the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), France was the most important producer of tapestries. Although wall tapestry design had improved from the extreme awkwardness of the 12th Century, the movement, proportion, perspective and composition of tapestries were still cumbersome resulting in a bulky wall tapestry.

Bataille et embarquement: Origins of this tapestry are unknown.
The tapestry is on display in the Cluny Museum, Paris.

Towards the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the pillaging of Arras in 1447 by Louis XI sent the tapestry manufacturers toward Flanders which became the tapestry centre. The tapestry craftsmen, working in family concerns whose manufacturing skills were passed down from father to son, had to possess skills not only of weavers but also of dyers, the two skills being interrelated, and a knowledge of which was necessary in order to bring a successful conclusion to the tapestry. Their secret lay in their skillfulness in extracting colors from various plants and incorporating them into the wool. This method gave them a palate of only 12 colors from which to work, (modern computer screens have 16 million colors). Materials used in the weaving of the tapestries were Arras thread, (aka Picardy wool), Italian silk and silver and gold threads from Cyprus. Tapestry manufacture was slow, taking a skilled worker about two months to weave a square foot (approx. 30cm sq.). Many large tapestries were a group effort, each worker having his own particular portion of the tapestry to weave which would be joined together at a later date. This lead to the weave having different tensions and techniques within the one tapestry - some portions of the tapestry more taut than others. The tapestry makers wove biblical scenes and at a later date, scenes from mythology; taking their inspiration from the translations of Greek and Latin texts. The lives of saints were widely represented and the background was either a temple, palace or simply a solid co lour. The costumes were seldom of the era depicted in the scene, more often borrowed from colorful biblical illustrations. These picturesque anachronisms gave a particular charm to the tapestries of the 15th Century, also known as Gothic and later as Flemish Gothic tapestries. The composition of the tapestries depicted an awkwardness in perspective and landscape backgrounds. It was to be the next Century before the genius of a Raphael was to bring tapestry to the true art of composition. The purchaser of the tapestry usually dictated the subject, size, number of pieces, themes, subject manner and attitudes. Working in close collaboration with the tapestry worker was a painter who created the preliminary designs or paintings, within the restriction of the palette of colors of the threads available to the tapestry weavers.

Suzanne et les viellards - (Marmattan Museum, Paris) is a fine example of a biblical scene.

Mid-Late 15th CENTURY
Towards the end of the 15th Century, continuing into the early 16th Century, the Loire Valley (Southeast France) became a popular place for tapestry makers as it was the favored area of the French Aristocracy for their rural retreats. Rural scenes with freshness and charm, where gentle ladies, lords and peasant folk are depicted on a flowery or "mille fleur" (thousand flower) background of the Loire Valley. The garments of the people depicted in the tapestries were seldom in accord with history and time, often imitating the court garments that were fashionable at the time. The subjects were adorned with gold and their garments were trimmed with exquisite fabrics and furs, even the peasants appear like aristocracy. As most documents concerning tapestries for the 14th - 16th Centuries no longer exist, experts generally refer to the costumes of the subjects to establish the date of execution. At the end of the middle ages, epic subjects became popular. Tapestries illustrated kings and princes in tournament, combat scenes and hunting parties. This period remains the most prolific for unrivalled masterpieces.

At the time of the Italian wars, and with the Renaissance and the arrival of the Italian artists, tapestry radically changed style. Rich borders and arabesques characterized the highly colored style of the Renaissance period. After the Italian wars, the Renaissance radically changed the art of tapestry making. The new aesthetic form was an association of painting and tapestry. Around 1530, Francis I founded the first Royal tapestry workshop at Fontainbleau in France. The great Italian artist, Le Primatice, was the chief painter and director.

WEAVING TECHNIQUE OF THE 16TH CENTURY - THE RAPHAEL CARTOONS: Associating painting with tapestry Raphael introduced the art of composition, order, clarity, perspective and light, and his work was translated into a series of ten very famous tapestries, known as the Acts of the Apostles, for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome. The primary purpose of the paintings produced by Raphael was to be used as templates (or blueprints) by weavers for producing the tapestries and this is why they are known as "cartoons". The Raphael cartoons have become as famous as the tapestries themselves. Raphael was commissioned in 1515 by the Medici Pope, Leo X (1513-21) to produce the works and are the oldest surviving cartoons on paper. In 1517 Raphael's cartoons were sent to Brussels for weaving in the workshops of Peter Van Aelst, and were finished around 1521. The tapestries were woven on a low - warp loom (or basse-lisse technique) whereby the cartoons were cut into strips by the weavers and placed beneath the warp (vertical) threads of the loom, following the design with the colored threads of the weft (left to right). The width of the strips was limited by both the size of the loom and by the arm-span of the weavers; several weavers working side by side, with their cartoon strip placed next to their colleagues. The weavers worked on the back of the tapestry, producing a mirror image of the cartoon, which therefore had to be designed in reverse. Many of the cartoons by celebrated artists were later re-joined and have become valuable artifacts in their own right.

Prominade Medieval - this tapestry is of the style that links between the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance and reflects the manner of life of the period.
The tapestry is a masterpeice of high quality weaving of the 16th Century.

Around 1660, Colbert founded the Royal Factory at the Gobelins, under the name Royal Workshop of Crown Furniture and renamed to Beauvais in 1664, under the protection of Louis XIV. By 1675, more than 800 painters and tapestry makers could be seen at the Gobelins in Paris, under the brilliant direction of Charles Le Brun, whose idea was to group the artists according to their various talents. Le Brun had each artist specialize in that for which he had an affinity and gift. This is why it is not unusual to find cartoons signed by several artists. In this century, the perfection of the tapestry weavers had reached it's pinnacle, the stitch had reached a maturity never before attained. The inventory of the kings furniture, at the death of Louis XIV, contained no less than 2155 Gobelins tapestries, woven under the auspicious direction of Charles Le Brun.

16. Verdure des Flandres. Woven in Brussels (17th C) and
hangs in the Museum of Art and Decoration in Paris.
This is a work of outstanding quality, both by it's perspective and the luxuriance of it's foliage.

After the death of Louis XIV, ( 1638-1715), the formal subjects gave way to more imaginative compositions. Tapestry weaving became more romantic with beautiful landscapes - this style reaching it's peak with Boucher and endured during the entire reign of Louis XV. During this time tapestries depicted sensuality, provocative nudes, voluptuousness - all set in charming landscapes, where fallen gods and erotic nymphs dance.

Mid-Late 18th CENTURY
Tapestry techniques became greatly modified, the composition more mannered and the themes more stylish and elegant. The leading painters of the day continued to compose tapestries as if they were paintings and gone was the practicality of useful function as in the middle ages - tapestries were now strictly for aesthetic and decorative values. J.B Leprince, a student of Boucher, was one of the most well known painters at the start of the 18th Century. He created a new kind of exoticism based on the northern countries. With the Russian Games, six works at the Musee de l'ancien Archeveche in Aix-en-Provence, he introduced for the first time to French Decoration, the people, costumes and picturesque aspects of Russian life.

Sacrifice to Cybele, is reproduced from a painting by Jaan Breughal,
depicting nymphs and peasants making offerings of fruit, flowers and crops
as gestures of thanksgiving to Cybele, the godness of nature.

JACQUARD LOOM: In 1757 Jacques de Vaucanson developed a low warp loom (basse-lisse) that was improved by Joseph Maree Jacquard (1752-1834). This loom was to be the pre-curser of the technique used in the Jacquard looms of today, and increased the speed at which tapestries could be reproduced. Weft yarns of different colours are woven from the back of the fabric, to the face of the tapestry to form the design, the purpose of which was to imitate hand woven tapestry. Today, many forms of jacquard weave of varying qualities are incorporated in the manufacture of jacquard tapestries, their names usually derived from the place of manufacture,eg. Halluin, Gobelin, Louvieres, and Loiselles.

FRENCH REVOLUTION: At the end of the French Revolution, artistic inspiration was abandoned. The Royal Workshops became government institutions managed by civil servants and the group of foreign artists painfully assembled under le Brun was broken up. Vandalism reigned everywhere - pillaging and destruction of some of the most beautiful tapestries were burned in order to extract the small amount of gold and silver used in their weaving eg. "The Chariot of Triumph Tapestry" (the first tapestry depicted under "Hand Woven - Aubusson" on this web site). Others were used as wind-breaks for vineyards or shelter for street peasants and refugees. The First Empire and reign of Napoleon I brought the final downfall of the art of tapestry and no masterpiece was to emerge from this confused era. Beauvais, Aubusson and Fellitin reopened in 1795 and specialized in upholstering chairs. They limited themselves by reproducing tapestries from the old designs of the great artists of the 17th & 18th Centuries, reproducing tapestries in their thousands until the 19th Century.

19 & 20th CENTURIES
Tapestry design and manufacture had once again become the subject of popular decorative taste and many styles emerged during this era. The Elephant tapestry, although first appearing in the mid 19th Century, once again finds popularity at the close of the 20th Century.



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