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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1600–1800

The sizeable production of the leading tapestry centers in the South Netherlands during the first two-thirds of the sixteenth century was severely impacted by the religious persecution and civil war that roiled the region in the 1560s–70s. During the last third of the century, many skilled weavers and cartoonists migrated to centers in the North Netherlands (such as Delft and Middelburg) or further afield, to England (2009.280), France, and the Germanic states, where they established new workshops or strengthened existing ones.

The South Netherlandish industry gradually recovered during the early 1600s, stimulated in part by support from the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella, who placed commissions with the leading workshops and introduced legislation to discourage further emigration by skilled weavers. Many workshops continued to produce design series conceived during the second third of the sixteenth century, but from the 1610s to the 1630s, new variety was provided by designs created by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), and their pupils. These artists introduced the vocabulary of Baroque style to tapestry design, depicting large figures with billowing drapery engaged in dramatic action, within elaborate architectural borders (Rubens, The Triumph of the Church, Convent of the Descalzas Reales, Madrid). Rubens made few concessions to the particular aesthetics of tapestry painting—indeed, he painted most of his tapestry designs in oil on panel—but during the second third of the century, artists such as Antoine Sallaert (ca. 1580/85–1650), Justus van Egmont (1601–1674) (92.1.9), and Jan van den Hoecke (1611–1651) took a more considered approach to the requirements of the tapestry medium, providing designs that combined narrative and decorative qualities.

Brussels remained the principal center of high-quality production in the Netherlands, with a sizeable volume of lower-quality tapestries being produced in centers like Antwerp and Oudenaarde. These products were exported all over Europe, but the Netherlandish workshops now encountered growing competition from other European centers. The greatest challenge came from Paris, which had a longstanding tradition of tapestry production. During the opening years of the seventeenth century, Henry IV took steps to stimulate the French tapestry trade by legislating against the importation of Netherlandish tapestries (1601) and by providing incentives to Netherlandish master weavers to establish new workshops in Paris (1607). During the following decades, large numbers of tapestries were produced in Paris from designs by artists such as Toussaint Dubreuil (ca. 1561–1602), Henri Lérambert (ca. 1550–1609), Simon Vouet (1590–1649), and Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) (20.44.3). Vouet was especially influential because of the way that he collaborated with artists who specialized in cartoon production, thus ensuring a sustained visual interest over the whole surface of the tapestry.

The example set by Henry IV with the Paris workshops provided a model for the English king, James I, and his son Charles, Prince of Wales, when they established a tapestry workshop in the village of Mortlake (southwest of London) in 1619, staffed with Netherlandish weavers. Initially the weavers copied old master designs from tapestries in the royal collection (it was also for this purpose that Charles purchased seven of the original Acts of the Apostles cartoons by Raphael in 1623). In 1625, Charles appointed Francis Clein (1582–1658) as official designer at Mortlake, and during the following two decades Clein produced new designs in a sub-Rubensian style.

Tapestry production had existed in various Italian towns during the sixteenth century, but the only workshop of size that survived into the seventeenth century was that established in Florence by Cosimo de’ Medici in the 1540s. This enjoyed renewed prosperity during the reign of Ferdinando II de’ Medici (r. 1621–1670), producing designs from artists such as Agostino Melissi (ca. 1615–1683). A new initiative was taken in the late 1620s when Cardinal Francesco Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII) established a workshop in Rome, following a visit to France during which he received Paris tapestries as gifts from Louis XIII. The Barberini works produced tapestries for Pope Urban VIII and other members of his circle, from designs by Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) and Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (ca. 1610–1662).

Lacking the traditions of commercial production and established markets that supported the continued growth and vitality of the Netherlandish and French industries, manufactories like the Medici, Mortlake, and Barberini workshops were dependent on the fortune of their founding patrons. The Mortlake works were severely impacted by the English civil war during the 1640s, and the destruction of the court circle on whose patronage they had depended. Although a number of weavers remained at Mortlake during the third quarter of the century, producing lower-quality products from older designs (36.149.1), others established new workshops closer to the center of London, some of which were to enjoy moderate success during the last quarter of the century. In Rome, the Barberini workshop ceased production in 1683.

As these developments demonstrate, tapestry remained a vital component of European court splendor throughout the first half of the seventeenth century. During the second half, some key workshops, notably those in Paris and Brussels, were to attain new levels of artistic achievement that rivaled the great products of sixteenth-century Brussels. Much of the stimulus to this development came from the patronage and example of the French court. In 1658, the French superintendent of finance, Nicolas Fouquet (1615–1680), created a workshop at Maincy under the direction of the talented painter Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), to produce tapestries for his nearby château of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Following Fouquet’s arrest in 1661, Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert (1619–1683), relocated Le Brun and the Maincy workers to a workshop in Paris known as the Gobelins (in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel), where they were united with weavers from other preexisting workshops, with the express purpose of creating magnificent tapestries for Louis XIV’s palaces. (Subsequently, Colbert added workshops for other decorative arts at the same site.) Working from designs executed by Le Brun and a team of assistants, the Gobelins produced sumptuous history and allegorical subjects that glorified the French king (The Taking of Lille). The product of the Gobelins was reserved for the crown, but in 1664 Colbert established a commercial workshop at Beauvais. He also provided state support to existing workshops in the Aubusson and Felletin regions of France that provided lower-quality goods.

Elsewhere in Europe, patrons continued to obtain high-quality products from Brussels, where the volume of incoming orders ensured that the tapestry production enjoyed something of a second renaissance during the late seventeenth and first quarter of the eighteenth century. From the 1690s, the bombastic figures that characterized the designs of Rubens and his followers were displaced by a taste for more refined illusionistic landscapes in the French style. Scenes of military conflict and mythological gods by artists like Lambert de Hondt II (active 1709) and Jan van Orley (1665–1735) provided the fashionable decoration for the grand reception rooms of palaces and country houses around Europe well into the 1730s, while genre scenes inspired by the paintings of David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) enjoyed enormous success in more intimate settings (41.190.254). For lower-quality products, European patrons often looked closer to home, and during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries workshops flourished in a number of European cities, including London, Dresden, and Berlin. Many of the workers engaged at these workshops were French Huguenots, who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the tapestry industry profited from the shift to a more decorative style that came into fashion at the French court. The Gobelins and Beauvais workshops exploited this shift with decorative designs by artists such as Claude Audran III (1658–1734), Charles Antoine Coypel (1694–1752), and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (1636–1699) (1977.437.1). This style also benefited smaller workshops like those in London and Berlin because decorative motifs were easier, and thus cheaper, to produce than complex illusionistic designs. For example, the workshop of John Vanderbank (active 1683–1717) in London enjoyed especial success producing tapestries with small oriental motifs (53.165.1,.2).

Commercial workshops in the Netherlands and France continued to benefit from the large market for hangings in the decorative Rococo style that dominated fashion during the second third of the eighteenth century. The Beauvais workshops enjoyed great success with designs produced by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) and François Boucher (1703–1770). The latter was especially gifted as a tapestry designer, and the idealized scenes of amorous courtiers and peasants in sylvan settings that he produced for the Beauvais workshops are among the defining elements of the French Rococo style (64.145.3). Boucher’s success at Beauvais led to his appointment as tapestry designer to the Gobelins manufactory in the mid-1750s, where his most notable design was a collaboration undertaken with the artists Maurice Jacques (1712–1784) and Louis Tessier (1719/20–1781). Their tapestry series incorporated trompe l’oeil paintings against a trompe l’oeil damask ground, festooned with flowers and populated by exotic birds. The first weaving of this design was produced in the 1760s for Croome Court (Worcestershire), the country residence of Lord Coventry (58.75.1–.22), and thereafter at least five other sets were commissioned by English patrons.

Tapestry remained a key component of grand court style during the eighteenth century, as reflected by the creation of new workshops under the patronage of various European courts during this era. Peter the Great created a workshop in Saint Petersburg in 1717 in direct imitation of the Gobelins. In Madrid, Philip V established an enterprise known as the Santa Bárbara workshop in 1720, while in Germany, workshops in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich continued to flourish under the patronage of the local courts. Although the Medici manufactory in Florence closed in 1737, the tapestry tradition was maintained in Italy at a workshop in Rome established by Clement XI in 1710 (92.1.15). During the second third of the century, workshops were also established in Naples and Turin by Charles Bourbon and Charles Emmanuel III of Savoy.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, the traditional role of tapestry in grand interiors was increasingly challenged by the growing taste for old master paintings, wood paneling, silk drapes, and wallpaper. Changed living conditions and the high cost of tapestry contributed to this shift in taste, with the consequence that the main commercial workshops in the Netherlands closed during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The tradition for tapestry patronage remained strong, if diminished, in France, but the 1789 Revolution destroyed the clientele on whom the industry depended. Although tapestry remained a traditional component of many of the grand European palaces and ancestral homes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was increasingly relegated to specific tapestry rooms, and it is in this era that many of the greatest antique tapestries that had survived were covered over with paintings and mirrors, burned in order to extract the precious metal threads, or simply discarded. The one center in which tapestry production continued to flourish until the early 1800s was Madrid, where, under the patronage of Charles III and IV, the Santa Bárbara workshop produced a steady stream of genre and courtly designs, of which those by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) are the most striking.