Great art is one of the most important aspects of who we are culturally as a nation and, on a personal level reflects our individual spirituality at that point nineteenth century art critic and author John Ruskin described so succinctly… where the heart, head and hand of man comes together.
Currently the Getty Museum three hundred years after the death of France’s great King Louis XIV (1638-1715), is showcasing fourteen monumental tapestries from the French royal collection until May 1, 2016 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the city of Angels.
This exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the Mobilier National et les Manufactures Nationales des Gobelins, de Beauvais et de la Savonnerie. With crispness of execution, wonderful depth of tone, superb richness and exquisite gradations of colour, tapestries in the seventeenth century in France became wonderful backdrops for dramatic performance.
People like me who love textiles would view this exhibition as an glorious expression of perhaps dying and going to heaven. It includes rare international loans and presents a selection of grand tapestries that evoke all the brilliance of King Louis XIV of France’s so-called Sun King’s court.
Textiles were, and in many ways still are transmitters of both wealth and status and a measure for the development of our culture and society from early beginnings in ancient times.
Tapestry is a thick textile fabric in which weft threads are woven (originally by hand) into warp threads fixed lengthwise onto a loom to form pictures or designs.
Adding in gold and silver thread as it was developed, made them dazzle.
Pictures were created as the weaver progressed, woven out of their imagination or by the documentary evidence we have, from the fourteenth century in the form of a cartone.
Some of these were by now famous artists, such as much admired Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520), and are still in existence.
From the fifteenth century onward manufacturing skills were passed from father to son, each having to possess skills of weaving but also of dying using natural pigments. The two skills were interrelated, and knowledge was necessary if you were to bring a successful conclusion to a tapestry design.
King Louis XIV of France realized that images projected through art was how society gauged his importance and perceived his ideals. The stunning beauty and rich imagery of these great woven works fulfilled many of his criteria.
They presented with decorative appeal and domestic usefulness for many centuries, reinforcing and extending status, power and influence. They also perfectly showcased pomp and ceremony while celebrating great historical occasions or more modest public and private occasions.
France’s King Louis XIV set out to show the world that he ‘could surpass the best of whatever was being done elsewhere’ by championing great works of art. His first minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert founded the Royal Factory at the Gobelins around 1660 under the name Royal Workshop of Crown Furniture, renaming it Beauvais in 1664.
Under the protection of Louis XIV more than 800 painters and tapestry makers at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris were producing goods for the Chateau at Versailles.
Louis XIV’s great building project ultimately influenced the evolution of all the arts of the western world.
The Royal Manufactory (Manufacture Royale Des Meublesde La Courrone) provided everything needed for the fitting out and furnishing of a royal palace.
It was under the brilliant direction of Louis’ designer Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), whose idea was to group the artists according to their various talents.
It is not unusual to find tapestry cartoons signed by several artists in this age when the perfection of the tapestry weavers reached its pinnacle with these all-telling threads of our society achieving a maturity of execution never before attained.
Having one by Charles le Brun himself on display is very special. It depicts a youth, part of the study for the tapestry entitled The Entry of Alexander into Babylon, about 1664 completed with red chalk heightened with white chalk on beige paper. It has been lent by Le Musée du Louvre at Paris.
The force, purity and elegance of the silhouette of each of the images represented on a tapestry had become a priority by this point and nothing vague or indeterminate was admissible.
By the seventeenth century natural dyes were being set by mordents such as Alum, a necessary process in fixing the dye to the wool and imagery.
Their themes included ancient tales of Greek and Roman mythology, aspects of love, as well as contemporary conflicts and revelry, which were exceedingly popular.
The symbolism attached to numbers and animals was of major significance, helping to convey a message, moral or otherwise, about the glory and welcome abundance of creation.
The inventory of the possessions of Louis XIV following his death contained no less than 2155 Gobelins tapestries, woven under the auspicious direction of Charles Le Brun.
During the age of his successors King Louis XV and XVI the more formal subjects of Louis XIV’s age would give way to imaginative compositions.
Tapestry weaving became more romantic with beautiful landscapes in which fallen gods and erotic nymphs danced. The industry now slowly went into decline after centuries of success and during the French revolution all artistic inspiration was abandoned.
J’adore tapestries and the tales they have to tell about the threads of our society and the follies of life. I do live with the representation of one on my living room wall, where it works well with other textiles gathered during my lifetime as a designer of decorative interiors.
It adds another dimension to the room when viewed alongside engravings, prints, an art deco pastel of a lovely lady and some of my collection of books, so I like to think at some level I perfectly understand Louis XIV’s passionate pursuit on an individual basis. He would have enjoyed their warmth as they enveloped the world that he called home.
The scale of the tapestry works from the seventeenth century has to be seen to be believed and I can only but wish that I was visiting the City of Angels soon, where I would also love to attend some of the special events, which are free.
So if you are travelling to Los Angeles put aside a few hours to give yourself a treat, and if you live there, beat a trail to the Getty Center‘s door.
You will be amazed at the skill and innovation of our ancestors and their extraordinary vision.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Wonderful Video produced by The Getty
Watch our Video about Louis XIV at Versailles