Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 21, 2001
Guy Delmarcel Flemish Tapestry Harry N. Abrams, 2000. 383 pp.; 350 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (0810933454)

Guy Delmarcel’s recent book is a survey of tapestries produced in what is now Belgium and Northern France from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Flemish Tapestries is a luxuriously illustrated book, including numerous tapestries which have not been reproduced previously. Published almost simultaneously in French, Dutch, and English, the book was financed by the Ministry of Flemish Culture. In contrast to some of his earlier specialized and minutely documented contributions to tapestry history (among many others, his study with Clifford M. Brown, Tapestries for the Courts of Federico II, Ercole, and Ferrante Gonzago: 1522-1563, or his catalogue with Erik Duverger of tapestry production in Bruges, Bruges et la Tapisserie), this book is directed toward a more general reader, providing a synthesis of both his work and that of other studies on this period of tapestry production. The English version of the text, however, suffers from numerous awkward phrases and misused expressions.

The book is organized according to traditional art-historical periods: one chapter is devoted to the Middle Ages, one to the Renaissance, one to Baroque, and one to the eighteenth century. Each chapter presents an overview of tapestry production in individual centers during this chronological span, followed by a more in-depth look at the subject matter, style, and circumstances of the production of two or three tapestry sets. The rather limited footnotes refer exclusively to secondary literature, included in an extensive bibliography. The volume concludes with a useful selection of marks woven into tapestries to identify the town and workshop in which they were produced. This section includes a description and illustration of these marks as well as a short history of individual weavers and their workshops.

To write such a history of tapestry poses immediate problems. On the one hand, lack of documentation on extant examples makes it difficult to attribute them to a particular weaving center and on the other hand, tapestries have not survived from workshops for which considerable documentation exists. The author draws from his intimate familiarity both with the tapestries and the written sources to associate types of tapestries with production centers. In turn, he shifts the focus of his descriptions of individual tapestries from the weaver or workshop to the designer of the composition and its subject matter.

After a brief discussion of tapestry technique, patrons, and use, the book begins with the first centers of tapestry production: Arras, Paris, Tournai, and Brussels. He emphasizes the role of designs by Rogier van der Weyden, his followers, and anonymous French artists, and the patronage of the Burgundian court. Chapter 2 turns first to the collections of the Habsburgs and then to the diffusion of designs by Italian artists, including Raphael and Giulio Romano. The major center of tapestry production during this period was Brussels, with important workshops run by Pieter van Edingen (van Aelst), Pieter de Pannemaker, and the family Dermoyen, while Bernard van Orley, his pupil Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Karel van Mander, and Michiel Coxcie designed tapestries. The author then focuses on tapestries produced in Tournai, Enghien, Antwerp (which also served as the center of tapestry export from the Netherlands), Bruges, and Oudenarde. The third chapter, on the seventeenth century, begins with a brief discussion of the immigration of Flemish artists. It is followed by a description of production in Brussels, where cartoons from designers of the previous century were reused while Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, and Antoon Sallaert, along with French artist Charles Le Brun, provided new designs. It concludes with a discussion of production in Antwerp, Bruges, Enghien, and Oudenarde. The final chapter focuses on Brussels in the eighteenth century, where tapestries were heavily influenced by the work of French painters, and where the Brussels history painters, Victor Janssens and Jan van Orley, provided cartoons.

Based on this study, we can begin to differentiate between the numerous centers of tapestry production, many of which Brussels has eclipsed. Flemish Tapestries underscores the scale and variety of tapestries produced by Flemish weavers. It also demonstrates the extent to which well-known painters made cartoons for tapestries. In this respect, Delmarcel underscores one of the fundamental ways in which tapestry relates to other forms of artistic production.

Since one of the purported goals of this study is to situate tapestry within a broader history of art, the author might have emphasized further the specificity of the medium. His characterizations of the type of tapestries produced in different centers rely on stylistic generalizations common to many surveys of painting and sculpture. Consequently, they do not do justice to the originality of the tapestries, which the author has so convincingly differentiated and classified. Moreover, the layout of the book makes it particularly difficult to follow the author’s descriptions of style: tapestries referred to in the text are not positioned next to their illustrations nor are references included with which to locate these illustrations in the book. In order fully to appreciate the contribution of tapestry to the history of European art, the following topics might be of interest: how a tapestry departs from the preliminary drawings and paintings; the relationship of the borders to the central scene in a given tapestry; or the specific occasions and settings in which tapestries were displayed.

A more nuanced discussion of the historical circumstances surrounding the industry might have helped also to integrate the tapestry into European history. For a history that has an extremely precise beginning, as Delmarcel outlined in Chapter 1, the use of the term Ancien Régime to circumscribe the chronological scope of his study is vague. The French Revolution, the proposed cutoff point of the study, did not have a direct impact on the tapestry industry; by this time very few tapestries were produced in Brussels. The way in which the religious persecution of Protestants in the sixteenth century and the French invasion of the Southern Netherlands in the seventeenth century transformed the tapestry industry is not made explicit in the text.

The general reader might have profited from a clearer statement of the place of Flemish tapestry within the broader scope of tapestry production in what is now Europe. First of all, the reader might not understand why the author includes tapestries produced in Picardy and within the political sphere of the French kings in a study of Flemish tapestry. Second, without an awareness of the long-standing debate between Belgian and French scholars as to the provenance of certain medieval tapestries, the reader might not appreciate the fact that Delmarcel’s discussion of French painters as designers of Flemish tapestries points to the interaction between artists in these geographic regions. Finally, the author mentions numerous weavers who participated in the foundation of state-sponsored French workshops, but excludes a discussion of tapestry production in Aubusson, Beauvais, and Paris. In order to understand what is distinctive about the Flemish tapestry industry, it would be interesting to have a brief description of these French centers of production, as well as those in other countries, such as England and Italy. For the former, the reader can turn to Amaury Lefebure’s section on seventeenth and eighteenth century tapestries, which highlights tapestry production in France, in Histoire de la Tapisserie en Europe du Moyen-Age à nos jours.

Laura Weigert
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers University

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