Exhibitions/ Art Object
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Europe, from a Suite of Tapestries Depicting the Four Continents

Designer:
Jean Jacques François Le Barbier (French, Rouen 1738–1826 Paris)
Maker:
Workshop of de Menou (French, active 1780–93)
Manufactory:
Beauvais
Patron:
Commissioned for Louis XVI, King of France (French, Versailles 1754–1793 Paris)
Date:
designed ca. 1786, woven 1790–91
Culture:
French, Beauvais
Medium:
Wool, silk (19-21 warps per inch, 8 per cm.)
Dimensions:
H. 144 x W. 180 inches (365.8 x 457.2 cm)
Classification:
Textiles-Tapestries
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow Gift, 1978
Accession Number:
1978.404.2
Not on view
This work is from a suite of four remarkable tapestries with coordinating upholstery was commissioned by Louis XVI, perhaps as a diplomatic gift to George Washington. The suite's survival is miraculous, given the upheaval of the French Revolution and the fact that they were made for the French king, who was guillotined in 1793. In the sixteenth century, Europeans began portraying the Four Continents as human figures surrounded by details that marked their status relative to Europe. By the time these tapestries were made, the Four Continents iconography was well established. In the Beauvais tapestries, Asia basks amid precious spices, tea, pearls, porcelain, and silk. Africa accepts trade goods in exchange for ivory and ostrich feathers as she reigns over a wilderness of dangerous beasts. Europe, seen here, is surrounded by symbols of the arts and war as well as commerce, marked by the barrels, a bale, and a sail in the lower left corner. The depiction of America as a demure young woman sets this iconographic scheme apart. In earlier representations she is a scantily clad, spear-toting, armadillo-riding, cannibalistic warrior princess. Here she appears modest and dependent on the protection of Liberty and Minerva, the goddess of war and wisdom whose shield bears France's fleur-de-lis. In addition to this iconographic shift, the Indian princess, who had originally stood for the entire Western hemisphere, here represents only the United States. This reworked concept of America defended by France (Minerva), symbolizing France's support during the American Revolution, was suggested by none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Inscription: (on bale at lower left corner) Designer's monogram BAL No. 160
(on globe at lower left) EUROPE
Commissioned for Louis XVI, King of France ; possibly Garde Meuble de la République (delivered to Versailles, February 20, 1793) ; Abraham Alcan (from September 24, 1796) ; Private Collection, France (from May 18, 1852; sold in Paris to de Béarn) ; Prince de Béarn (1852–at least 1886) ; Gaston Menier (purchased in 1893) ; Possibly Private Collection, USA (from 1939 or 1942) ; [ Sotheby's, London , December 13, 1974 ] ; [ Artemis S. A. , in 1975 ] ; [ E. V. Thaw & Co. , 1978; sold to MMA ]
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