Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 27, 2008
Thomas P. Campbell, ed. Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2007. 592 pp.; 175 color ills.; 169 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300124071)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 16, 2007–January 6, 2008; Palacio Real, Madrid, March 6–June 1, 2008
Hans Knieper. Throne Baldachin (detail) (1585–86). Wool, silk, and silver and gilt-metal wrapped thread. Backcloth: 9 ft. 1/4 in. x 11 ft. 7 in. (275 x 353 cm). Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Even for the Metropolitan Museum of Art it was impossible to duplicate the revelatory experience and concomitant visitor record of Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, the 2002 precursor of the present show and the first major U.S. exhibition on the topic in twenty-five years. Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor comes just five years later and simply could not be marketed as the same kind of novelty. Yet the faithful, returning museumgoer is rewarded with experiences of rare beauty, historical insight, and displays of astonishing technical virtuosity that are at least equal to those in the Renaissance show.

Impeccably chosen and displayed, forty-five tapestries, almost all from larger sets, easily span the walls of the large galleries; chronologically, as well, they cover the entire seventeenth century and beyond. The examples on view date between 1585 and 1725 and were manufactured in a number of different European weaving centers. The first object on display instantly establishes the central historical event that would shape tapestry production for the next century: a fairly primitive but effective print by Frans Hogenberg, illustrating the Sack of Antwerp on 4 November 1576 by the notoriously brutal Spanish troops. Religious intolerance and the ruthless conquest of the Southern Netherlands quickly caused the collapse of the Flemish market in luxury goods and led to the dispersal of weavers, dyers, and artists who had been concentrated in and around Brussels. These master craftsmen eventually migrated to diverse locations where they began to rebuild their workshops, usually with the help of interested local patrons. Such undertakings were the precursors and seeds for the great tapestry works of the mid-seventeenth century, such as the Gobelins in Paris, the Medici and Barberini manufactories in Florence and Rome, and Mortlake in England. Although there was an eventual reconstitution of workshops in Flanders, never again would the Southern Netherlands regain the same preeminence in tapestry production it had held in the sixteenth century.

Under the heading “Disruption and Diaspora,” the first gallery presents a mixed group of early works from some of the smaller ateliers, most notably a fine pair from the Amadis and Oriane series, made in Delft under the direction of François Spiering in the 1590s (cat. nos. 2, 3). The expanse of the image is dappled evenly with myriad small motifs—floral, vegetal, clothing-related decoration, or purely ornamental—resulting in a pretty, but slightly stilted busyness that tends to subsume the figures of the narrative. A stunning rarity is the slightly earlier Danish throne baldachin produced in the short-lived royal manufactory at Helsingør (cat. no. 1). This exceptionally well-preserved piece, replete with gold and silver threads, allows the visitor to step under it, taking the position of the monarch. From this vantage point one realizes that the baldachin’s imagery is oriented toward those approaching the king, conveying his legitimacy and power through themes of royal authority, dynasty, and the sheer magnificence of the glittering object. Together with the tapestry of a naval battle at Zierikzee, these first works also exemplify the major subject areas of seventeenth-century tapestries: classical or literary mythology, commemoration of historical events, and allegorical or heraldic representations.

Stylistically, these and several tapestries in the next two galleries are closely related to sixteenth-century Mannerism, but the major art-historical point this exhibition makes is how the great innovative painters of the seventeenth-century Baroque were able to revolutionize weaving as well. Foremost among them were Peter Paul Rubens, Pietro da Cortona, and Charles Le Brun, each of whom created compositions that focused on animated human figures in their full three-dimensionality (cat. nos. 11, 35, 44). But they, together with less well-known painter-designers such as Peter Candid, Simon Vouet, or Jacob Jordaens, also pushed weavers to reproduce brushstroke-like gradations of color in a much greater palette, as well as more realistic light and shade (cat. nos. 39, 25). While lush nature in dark blues and soft greens remained in favor (cat. nos. 15), figural scenes brought new levels of energy, drama, and illusionism to tapestry art (cat. nos. 14). Instead of evenly distributed patterning on clothing, for example, one finds contrasts of pink next to azure, or red next to gold, creating sharp changéant effects and all manner of flesh tones that model bodies with greater realism (cat. nos. 8, 40). Border design also evolved—from compositionally separate, picture-like frames (cat. nos. 9, 12, 16) to integrated, often architectural settings that overlapped or participated in the central scene (cat. nos. 8, 21, 54). Seeing painted sketches or modelli, such as Rubens’ design for The Triumph of the Eucharist (1626–27), right next to the executed tapestry provides a unique viewing experience (cat. nos. 19–24), along with the exciting realization that weavers and dyers fully lived up to the painter’s challenges.

The close involvement of great painters brings other insights as well, which are explained in the exhibition and in greater detail in the exhaustive catalogue publication accompanying it. It becomes clear in what high regard tapestries continued to be held by both artists and patrons. The latter, such as Cardinal Mazarin and Charles I of England, did not simply want to possess new works, but were also beginning to collect older pieces prized for their provenance and beauty (331–338). Rubens and Le Brun both oversaw large workshops and were accustomed to the kind of division of specialized labor and collaborative effort that tapestry production demanded. Successful designs were woven repeatedly, even well into the eighteenth century (cat. nos. 9, 39, 58). Paintings and tapestries fed off of each other in the way expansive decorative cycles were conceived and produced to furnish large rooms or state apartments, leading to the apt comparison of the textiles as “woven frescoes” (107). It is worth repeatedly reminding modern art lovers that in terms of monetary value and social status Baroque tapestries far outstripped any painting, as was the case in the preceding Renaissance.

The exhibition devotes a gallery each to the major manufactories or production centers, leading the visitor on a roughly chronological path: Mortlake in England (1619–1649), the resurgent Spanish Netherlands (1625–1660), Medici tapestries made in Florence (1587–1747), the Barberini works in Rome (1627–1680), the Gobelins in Paris (1661–1715), the royal manufactory Beauvais (1664–1715), and late Flemish production (1660–1715). While some works on display have faded considerably over time and are of greatest interest for their fame in terms of design, rarity, or provenance, at least one work in every room is an absolute stunner in terms of color and condition, reminding viewers of the vivacity of these objects in their original state. It is to the great credit of the exhibition’s curator, Thomas Campbell, and the Metropolitan Museum’s impressive powers of negotiation that such a variety of first-rate works could be assembled for what is surely a once-in-a-lifetime venture.

The catalogue follows the same arrangement as the exhibition, with a variety of specialists writing about each of the above-mentioned centers. These contributions are framed and punctuated by additional essays by Campbell that point out comparative themes and provide a broader and uniting historical context. The beautifully designed, richly illustrated book provides a complete monograph on Baroque tapestries, reflecting the latest research on the subject. The only quibble one might raise is that it is extremely difficult to locate the illustrations and entries for the artworks on view—one wants to insert lots of post-it tabs—because the object entries are broken up and integrated into the succession of essays. But this must have been a conscious choice in order to maintain greater visual and intellectual coherence within the book.

The later part of the show leads to the conclusion that from about the 1680s into the 1720s designers and weavers maintained and refined the compositional repertoire and technical mastery established by the middle of the century, but that there were no innovations comparable to the radical changes brought about in earlier decades. Quality and desirability remained high; however, one cannot escape the impression that there was a certain flattening of the excitement surrounding tapestry design and production. As the clientele of wealthy or aristocratic patrons expanded, the sense of tapestries’ exclusivity decreased; the pictured themes and compositions seem less urgent or specific in purpose, as hangings become more like highly priced and prized accessories to finish a particular room. A quick look in the concurrent exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Metropolitan (The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art) is extremely useful. It confirms the relative frequency of tapestries in well-to-do homes during the later seventeenth century and also provides a colorful view of the use and placement of these objects within interiors. Whether the proto-pointillist rendition in the Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670) by Johannes Vermeer or the depiction in the refined Visit to the Nursery (1661) by Gabriel Metsu, the motif of the pulled-back tapestry conveys the sense of entry into a special space of luxury and beauty. One hopes the Met will similarly lift the curtain on the next chapter in this excellent series: tapestry art of the eighteenth century awaits its presentation.

Stefanie Walker
independent scholar

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