Jean Jacques François Le Barbier (French, Rouen 1738–1826 Paris). Workshop of de Menou, (French, active 1780–93 Beauvais). Commissioned for Louis XVI, King of France (Versailles 1754–1793 Paris). Asia from a set of The Four Continents (detail), designed ca. 1786, woven 1790–91. Wool, silk (19-21 warps per inch, 8 per cm.) H. 12 ft. x 16 ft. (365.8 x 487.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow Gift, 1978 (1978.404.4)
By the mid-eighteenth century, Europe's imperial powers had expanded and enriched their empires through conquest and maritime trade. The worldview of powerful European leaders such as Louis XVI is elegantly captured in a set of tapestries and tapestry-covered furniture designed in 1786 and woven a few years later at the Royal Manufactory in Beauvais for the French king. The iconographic program features personifications of the Four Continents—Asia, Europe, Africa, and America. Collectively, the images present Europe—with France at its helm—as the world's economic, military, and intellectual authority. The tapestries portray Asia, Africa, and America as exotic yet inferior places, and as sources of valuable goods readily available for Europe's taking.
Ironically, the tapestries and upholstery, which celebrate the unwavering might of the French monarchy, were completed in November 1791 during the early years of the French Revolution and about fourteen months before Louis XVI was executed. In 1796 the French State gave the set to the merchant Abraham Alcan as a partial payment for the goods he supplied to France's Republican Army.