Under the reign of Louis XIV, the art of tapestry was esteemed higher than painting, prized for its power to impress the masses with royal power and wealth.
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The carpets of Turkey and Persia were surpassed at the Savonnerie. The tapestry of Flanders was inferior to that of the Gobelins; which vast enclosure so called, was filled at that time with above eight hundred workmen; and of these, three hundred were lodged in it. The best painters had the direction of the work, either from their own designs, or those of the ancient masters of Italy…. Besides this fine manufactory of tapestry in the Gobelins, another was set up at Beauvais. The first manufacturer had six hundred workmen in that town; and the King made him a present of sixty thousand livres.”
So wrote Voltaire in The Age of Louis XIV in 1740, 25 years after the Sun King’s light had gone out. Such esteem for the workshops rehabilitated and created during the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715) was not unwarranted, for the Gobelins, Beauvais, and Savonnerie received international renown by the mid-18th century. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister, had taken over the Gobelins in 1662, eight years after the King’s official coronation. Colbert installed the painter Charles Le Brun as its director under the new title of Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furniture to the Crown), which provided commissions in marquetry, silver, gold, bronze, and tapestries for the King’s residences, as well as royal gifts. Two years later, Colbert established the Beauvais factory. The prestige of both manufactories was such throughout the 17th and 18th centuries that even in a time of extreme financial stress, when the King was forced to melt his silver to help finance the wars of Charles I, the Gobelins, which had closed in 1694, reopened a mere five years later for the express purpose of supplying tapestries to the Court.
As a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum stresses, Louis XIV’s public persona was in many ways quite literally tied up in the Gobelins’ warp and weft. “Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV” (through May 1), curated by Charissa Bremer-David, associate curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Getty, examines in three sections the King’s role as history’s most important collector, inheritor, and patron of tapestry (rivaled only by Henry VIII before him) and, to a lesser extent, carpets. The impressively researched and gloriously illustrated exhibition catalogue includes two essays on the collecting and decorative employment of tapestries, and 12 entries devoted to the production, acquisition, and histories of each of 12 series of hangings in the collection. The ravages of the French Revolution have meant that not all the 2,600 weavings listed in the posthumous 1716 inventory of Louis’s collection survive. However, its remaining contents give a very good sense of its quality, as the 15 hangings currently on display in Los Angeles, most of which are on loan from the Mobilier National (the successor entity to Gobelins), demonstrate.
With 2015 marking the 300th anniversary of his death, Louis XIV has been the
subject of numerous recent exhibitions, including Versailles’ aptly titled Le roi est mort! Just as some of these shows look at Louis’ impact on future rulers—Versailles’ current show considers his death as an influential moment in the postmortem pomp accorded kings and queens over the following two centuries—“Woven Gold” is a testament to Louis XIV’s legacy as monarch and collector. Although the catalogue instead focuses on the period during and immediately after his lifetime, his influence (and his provenance) are strongly evident in the tapestry holdings of the Who’s Who of the 19th century, from the English royal family to J. Pierpont Morgan.
The exhibition is also the second in the last year that the Getty has devoted to a medium that was, until about 10 years ago, sadly overlooked in favor of painting and sculpture. Woven Gold and the 2015 show Spectacular Rubens are the most recent in a string of blockbuster exhibitions focusing on these monumental—in both size and execution—weavings. Rubens’ notable place as a tapestry designer is felt in this show, as well, where Constantius [I] Appoints Constantine as his Successor has made its way to the Getty’s galleries. Nevertheless, we should not forget how the estimation of tapestry has changed since the 17th and 18th centuries, when the value of paintings paled in comparison to that of weavings. While the best canvases would have sold for as much as 4,000 livres in Louis XIV’s time, a set of tapestries might have in fact fetched over 20 times that amount, not just for the use of precious materials such as gilt metal-wrapped threads but also for the specialized, skilled labor and the time involved in their fabrication.
By the time of Louis XIV’s reign, it was well understood that a ceremony would have been incomplete, and in some ways ineffective, if not augmented through decoration with these ultra-luxurious and arguably even excessive textiles. In that sense, Louis followed in the footsteps of the Bourbon and Valois kings before him who understood the implications of using textiles as a representation of wealth and power. One need only think of King Francis I’s very public (and very expensive) attempt in 1520 to ally himself with Henry VIII, aptly known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in which pavilions of rich gilt silks dotted the landscape of Calais. Louis XIV’s material ambitions had been visible early on, as we can gather from the representations of his coronation at Reims Cathedral in 1654, in which tapestries figured prominently. The painter Henri d’Avice recorded the event in drawings published the following year as a set of three engravings by Jean Le Pautre. In his catalogue essay, art historian Pascal-François Bertrand does due diligence in unraveling the pictorial embellishments in the prints on the parts of d’Avice and Le Pautre, but he is also careful to note that the tapestries, which are depicted as enveloping the nave and apse and nearly reaching up to the clerestory, were nonetheless still among the most conspicuous elements in these important visual documents. This effect is only heightened when you imagine the vibrant hues and the reflectivity of the gold filaments against the flickering candlelight and stained glass in the church.
By the end of the 1660s, the royal collection of tapestries had grown exponentially. Louis XIV sought to represent the zenith of creativity, from the most beloved
painters of the Florentine Renaissance to court artists in contemporary France. Moreover, the monarch wished to showcase the artistic merit of his appointed artisans at the Gobelins as equivalent to and even surpassing that of the Flemish weaving workshops a century earlier. Louis accordingly acquired numerous versions of the same tapestry series, including, for instance, an astounding six sets of The Acts of the Apostles designed by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel and executed on looms in Brussels, Surrey, and Paris over the course of nearly 150 years.
These various sets of images bear an iconographic sameness, but their distinct, illustrious provenances reveal that the reasons for acquisition could also go beyond simply adding to the royal collection. The glory that Louis sought for France through the tapestry medium might have been, in some cases, as informed by the ancestral or foreign arms emblazoned on a weaving’s borders as by the central story depicted. What is more, a particular series of tapestries could carry political weight thanks to its place of manufacture. One such example is the set of The Acts of the Apostles woven at the Mortlake Tapestry Works in England, which had been patronized by King Charles I. By 1665, the year when Louis obtained the set, Charles II, the first son of Charles I and the French princess Henrietta Maria, was already in power, making the acquisition all the more politically strategic in forming a dynastic alliance between France and England.
The Mortlake workshop is represented at the Getty by a scene from the series “The Story of Vulcan,” titled Neptune and Cupid Plead with Vulcan for the Release of Venus and Mars. Unlike The Acts of the Apostles, though, the planned Parisian version of The Story of Vulcan never came to fruition. The temporal and geographical breadth of the tapestries in Louis’s collection is made apparent in “Woven Gold” in a variety of other hangings, as the exhibition also includes weavings as early and Italianate as The Triumph of Bacchus, from the series “The Triumphs of the Gods,” designed by Raphael’s astute pupil Giovanni da Udine and executed in Flanders around 1560 (its Baroque mate is found in Louis’ collection in the reinterpretation designed by Noël Coypel and executed at the Gobelins in about 1702), as well as The Story of Alexander, which has been paired in Los Angeles with a copy of Charles Le Brun’s cartoon (or working model for weavers) for the scene. Here it is also worth mentioning a particularly interesting and politically significant image not on view but reproduced in the catalogue. It depicts not a historical or mythological scene but rather Louis XIV’s visit to the Gobelins Manufactory in October 1667, from the series known as “The Story of the King.” In it, we the viewers watch, opposite Le Brun (who designed this series, as well) and the King himself, as workmen haul a veritable procession of Gobelins products in marquetry, silver, glass, and silk, to name just a few.
Louis XIV’s image directing the artisans and laborers signals a high point in the Gobelins’ production and defines the king’s reign as one of opulence and accumulation but also of the highest standards in the practice of the recently formed guild system. Louis XIV thus combined patronage, collecting, decoration, and political power in ways that would come to epitomize the centrality of tapestries in spectacles throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from the time of the coronation of his great-grandson Louis XV in 1722, seven years after his death, to long after the Sun King’s collection had been burned by those sporting Phrygian caps. “Woven Gold” gives visitors a taste of the command and overwhelming presence that these textiles would have had at Reims or in his bedchamber at Versailles, for instance.
Even today, one cannot help but be awestruck by the absolute transformation of any room when it is hung from floor to ceiling with these marvelous wools and silks. This impact is still apparent over 300 years after the creation of these works, and even after dyes have faded significantly and wefts have suffered from age. In the catalogue, Bremer-David quotes the 17th-century French art historian and critic André Félibien when he referred to tapestry as “the most assured way to preserve long-term, and even disseminate paintings by the most talented men.” Likewise, in “Woven Gold,” tapestry perpetuates the taste and political aspirations of the Ancien Régime at the height of its power.
By Martina D’Amato