Metropolitan Museum – Textiles

TEXTILE fabrics — the products of the loom and the needle for practical use or pleasing decoration, obviously demand attention in forming an art museum.

The study of textiles is often subdivided into tapestry, carpet-weaving, mechanical weaving of fabrics of lighter weight or woven stuffs, embroidery and laces. These headings are useful to observe in our treatment of the vast collections of textiles now found in the Metropolitan Museum, which are gradually rounding out into a complete survey of this art. Especially after the Fischbach collection was purchased, illustrating the most important periods in the history of the textile arts, the hitherto somewhat meagre collection of stuffs has attained a development equal to that of the lace collection. This Fischbach collection comprises nearly 3000 pieces, representing chiefly European weaves from the 15th to the 18th century, stuffs of the Renaissance of Italy, Spain and Germany, and those of France of the periods of Louis XIV to Louis )(VI. There are also excellent examples of mediaeval work, of Coptic and Peruvian weaves, and an interesting group of Japanese brocades. The Coles collection of tapestries and the Morgan gifts amplify this department in other directions, while the Nuttal and Blackborne collections of laces make this section matchless for completeness.

We need not go into details as to the process of weaving. The earliest was, of course, hand weaving, where the woof was worked on the warp in worsted or silk from spindles. When loom weaving came in use, there were two kinds of looms — high warp looms, or Haute Lisse, where the design was above or behind the weaver, and low warp looms, known as Basse Lisse, with the design under the warp. High warp looms have been known in Europe certainly since the 9th century.

Tapestry is popularly considered to cover those great rectangular wall hangings which at the end of the Middle Ages were a luxury almost solely restricted to princely houses. These hangings were highly prized. The favourite subjects were naturally scenes from court life with all their splendour and pomp of costume. Beautiful textiles had been used to ornament the Church of St. Denis as early as 630. There is a legend that in 732 a tapestry establishment existed between Tours and Poitiers. At Beauvais the weavers of Arras were settled at the time of the Norman ravages. In the 10th century German craftsmen worked successfully, and in the 12th century, under Church auspices, the tapestry industry rose to its highest perfection. In the 13th century the work was in a flourishing condition in France, while Flanders or Burgundian tapestry was famous in the 12th and 14th centuries.

These tapestries, after the Middle Ages, fall into two groups : an earlier group, principally woven at Arras at the time of the Burgundian dominion, about 14304480, and a later one of Brussels origin, from 1480-1520, which became the culmination of Flemish art, after which Italian influences deprived it of national feeling.

Arras was the town in Flanders celebrated for the beauty of its work. This famous factory was founded prior to 1350, and the van Eycks, Memlinc, and Rogier van der Weyden were among those who designed its cartoons. A magnificent series of the product of its looms is the Morgan set of Gothic tapestries. There are five pieces, two of these subdivided as double pictures, representing the Seven Sacraments. They are filled with life size figures, with a conventional background of a stencil like pattern of fleur-de-lys. They have an harmonious scheme of colours — Gothic greens, reds and yellows, in rich variety. The type of the lettering, of the costumes and their details, closely place the date of their manufacture in the first quarter of the 15th century. Originally they formed very likely the choir decoration of a cathedral. There is also a splendid piece illustrating the story of Esther, with rude but vigorous .figures and expressive gestures. The colouring is as strong and rich as the stained glass of the period, with a flat, purely decorative treatment.

As early as; 1441 tapestries were executed in Oudenarden, usually composed of green foliage, and known as ” Verdures.” The names ” Oudenarde ” and ” Verdure ” became interchangeable for this class of tapestry, which represented woodland and hunting scenes, and was also called ” Tapestry Verde,” as alluded to by Chaucer.

To the Brussels period belong two hangings portraying biblical subjects: the ” Slaughter of the Innocents ” and the ” Presentation in the Temple.” They are intensely dramatic and rendered with naive force. Three allegorical subjects and a hunting scene belong to the best period of the Brussels looms. The figures, with plastic modelling, have become more elegant and refined in expression, thereby losing something of force and power. They show quite a sense of perspective. Among the Coles tapestries the five scenes from the lives of Anthony and Cleopatra are excellent examples of this period. The pieces are all signed with the mark of the Brussels factory, the double B (Brussels and Brabant) divided by a shield, and further with the names of the weavers, Jan van Leefdael and Gerard van der Stecken. They are of the middle of the 17th century. It is reliably supposed that Rubens designed the cartoons for this set. The general tones are yellow, golden and claret browns, with touches of deep blue and dull green. We know that at the height of the fame of the Brussels factory the Raphael tapestries were made there by Pieter van Aelst, under the order of Pope Leo X. But in the 16th and 17th centuries the Italian influence came with its aimless scrolls to detract from the dignity of churchly ornament. Sincerity counted for less than effect, as seen in the method then creeping in to paint the faces and hands in the tapestry, instead of letting the weaver’s work speak for itself. A fine example of this later work is found in the set of four scenes from Tasso’s ” Jerusalem Delivered,” which is Italian work of 1739.

The Gobelins work was inaugurated in Paris in the 15th century under Jean Gobelins, a native of Rheims. In 1630 the works were established at Fontainebleau, where Watteau and Boucher made designs. Gradually its technical perfection resulted in artistic decline. The pictures differed little from those painted on coarse canvas, and all feeling for the material was lost, so that the naive charm of the original workers ceased to be a part of the production.

Very little tapestry was made in Spain up to the time of Philip IV. Gutierrez, the interior of whose factory was represented by Velasquez in his painting ” The Weavers,” became a well-known worker.

Rugs and carpets are in fact but tapestry, more substantially woven for heavier ware, although in the Orient they are used both for floor covering and wall hanging. The names indeed were used promiscuously. A table cloth in mediaeval times being called a ” carpett,” and often worked with pearls and silver tissue.

Chinese rugs are on a par in age and artistry with the better known Persian rugs. They should not, however, be compared with the latter, but more truly with other products of Chinese art — paintings, porcelains, and bronzes, in which similar principles of decoration are used. Chinese rugs differ from the Persian in material, weave, design and colour. The design is mostly of straight, geometrical forms in which the hooked fret takes the place of the curves of the Persian arabesques. The pattern of the field is simpler, often with round and oval forms, which are very rarely found in Persian rugs. They are also lighter in colour, nor de they ever present the striking contrasts, such as deep red and green, or red and yellow of the Persian carpet.

The best Chinese rugs appear to belong to the Ch’ ien Lung period (1736-1795). The motifs of the design — the dragons, bats, literary implements, are characteristic of the porcelain decoration of the period. Other rugs show Persian influence in the lotos flower and the Tree of Life, or Horu. An early 17th century rug here is of exceptionally fine design and workmanship.

A Persian Hunting Carpet in the Museum is of great importance. It is attributed to Ispahan, and to date from the 16th century. It has a green border with spiral tendrils bearing flowers, buds and leaves, amongst which are birds of gay plumage. The field is covered with foliage and flowers, with wild animals, natural and symbolical, on a red ground. A large central medallion of yellow contains figures seated under flowering trees, drinking and playing musical instruments. It is a magnificent specimen of the travelling rug the nomad Persians took with them on the hunt.

We note further two small rugs from Asia Minor with a geometric foliage design in the centre, and a border design based in the Cufic characters. Such were highly prized on the Italian palaces of the 16th century, as seen in paintings of the period. A Smyrna carpet in red and blue, with a centre shield and corner sections, and a small Ispahan rug with a characteristic Chinese cloud design, and a velvet prayer-rug, embroidered with gold, must not be passed.

The Moors introduced the art of carpet weaving into Spain in the 12th century. The carpet industry of the Spanish Renaissance is illustrated by some examples which declare the gradually superior influence of Italian design with its cheerful harmonies over the hard, cold colours of the Moresque inspiration.

When we come to the woven fabrics of lighter weight we find the number of specimens almost bewildering. In no other art expression is there as much similarity between the Oriental and the Occident as in textiles. The products of the loom from the fifth to the fifteenth century, of China, Byzantium and Central Europe — of the most diverse peoples, have remarkable points of correspondence. This was caused by the interworking of influences upon each other. The antique Roman art of weaving was continued in the Coptic stuffs of Egypt, as the old Assyrian art melted into the Sassanidian (old Persian).

A prehistoric fabric from the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and a piece of Egyptian painted linen of the 18th dynasty (about 1200 B. c.) are the oldest pieces in the collection.

Coptic stuffs are also shown dating from the 4th to the 8th century. They resemble closely the much later tapestry weaving. Many are woven in coloured patterns, on some of these the Birth of Christ is told. A 6th century Sassanidian silk piece further illustrates this period.

From the 4th to the 7th century these arts have still lessening individuality, until the transportation of the silk industry, in the 7th century, from China to the Mediterranean brought the styles still closer together. The Byzantine stuffs (7th to 10th centuries) show in part the legends of the Christian Church, with suggestions of antique motives, and also free and significant imitations of the old Persian motives of animal and hunting scenes. From the 10th century on the Arabian design spread east and west, with a pattern of smaller proportions, in which often animal and vegetable forms are arranged in rows and interwoven with arabesque and geometrical bands.

An interesting specimen, showing the difficulty of solving the problem of placing and dating the stuffs, is an effective piece, with reversed eagles and gazelles. Like pieces in European museums have been called Persian, Syrian and Italian, with dates varying from the 11th to the 14th century.

The Syrian attribution, with the 12th or 13th century date, is held by the curator, Dr. W. Valentiner, to be the most probable.

In the 15th century the Italian textile industry became wholly independent, and the stuffs of Genoa and Venice were accepted all over Europe. Its patterns no longer presented the former variety, but became limited to one, the pomegranate in divers variations.

When the art became active farther north in Europe, especially in Germany, various patterns appear, somewhat influenced by the earlier Byzantine conceptions, together with the old lion, griffin and other patterns. But the Arabic influence became also in Central Europe ever stronger, spreading as far as the Netherlands and the Baltic Sea, until Italian art when liberated from the bondage of the Orient, in its turn infused its spirit eastward, whereby a charming combination resulted of Italian grace and Oriental conventionalism. Of this Italian-Arabian style a few pieces show the artistic grace of animal forms.

Gold brocades, made in Italy in the 14th century, have Oriental richness of decoration together with individual expression and unsurpassed fertility of invention. The taste for allegory and symbolism, which is so evident in much of trecento painting, is reflected in the designs of these textiles. The Italian brocades and velvets of the 15th century have as a typical decoration leaf-shaped panels, inclosing pomegranate devices usually combined with serpentine stalks or ogival framings. These stuffs were much copied in the paintings of the period.

The textiles of the 16th century show a leaning for increased richness of effect, with prodigality of ornament, which led to the small ” all-over ” pattern. The Venetian damasks are especially to be noted. Their patterns were freely imitated in the Lyons brocades.

In the 17th century the fabrics became over-elaborated and too-opulent.

The styles of the 18th century brocades of Lyons are distinguished by their light colours and delicacy of pattern. In the Louis XIV period the earlier decorations were yet followed. With Louis XV we find a growing taste for picturesqueness in the designs of wavy ribands and floral garlands, or zigzag stems decorated with sprays of flowers. Stripes combined with spots of small flowers or sprays, and flower baskets, dainty rakes and watering-pots, reminding of the pastoral delights of the Petit Trianon, mark the style of Louis XVI.

At the beginning of the 19th century we meet the classical severity of the Empire style with its wreaths and tripods and medallions. Then France dominated the styles of most other European countries.

The manufacture of silk was an imperial monopoly in Rome under Justinian. Two monks had brought silk worm eggs from China in hollow walking sticks, in 550, from which the entire European silk industry dates. After the art of silk weaving was introduced into Sicily from the East, the industry spread through Palermo to Southern Italy, retaining much of its Oriental character. Farther West the art was received through the Moors in Spain.

French silks were not of great prominence until the 16th century, while those of the Netherlands led all others as early as the 13th century. Velvet and Satin do not appear until the 12th and 13th centuries. Baudekin, a silk and golden weave, was used largely in altar coverings and hangings, such as dossals. By degree the name became synonymous with ” baldichin,” and in Italy the whole altar canopy is still called baldachino.

The materials used as ground work for mediaeval embroideries were very rich. Samit was shimmering and woven of solid flat gold-wire. Ciclatoun was a brilliant textile, and Cendal silk is spoken of by early writers. Fustian and Taffeta were often used in important work of embroidery, as also were Sarcenet and Camora.

In the Middle Ages the leading needleworkers were often men, but the finest work was certainly accomplished in cloisters and the nuns devoted their vast leisure to this art. The so-called satin-stitch was executed in long smooth stitches of irregular length, which merged into each other. When executed on linen the covered surface was often cut out and fastened on a brocade background which style of rendering was known as applique. This is illustrated in a Spanish wall curtain of heavy blue linen with an applied design in yellow and green linen, outlined with a heavy cord. This dates from the second half of the 16th century. The pattern presents a convolution of ornamental scrolls in late Renaissance style, with an armorial shield as the central motif. A quaint piece of embroidered linen of Indo-Portuguese origin from the early 17th century has a pattern of narrow bands with a symmetrical arrangement of branching leaves and flowers, with birds and animals alternating. In the broader bands are horsemen and footmen in Spanish costume, some with rifles. The piece is shaped like an apron.

An embroidery, called Point d’ Hongrie has delightful nuances of yellow, blue and lilac flames.

An embroidery, padded with cotton, was called “stump ” work. It was made extensively in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Sicily coral was used in embroideries, as well as pearls. Coral work is called Sicilian work, though it was also executed in Spain.

Among the thousands of specimens we find the work of the loom and needle of every European country represented. Of Oriental work we find also a Chinese silk tapestry with a design depicting a boating party of Chinese gentlemen, a Tsuduri-Ori coloured silk hanging with the Japanese design of Howo birds and peony flowers, and two Yoko-Zuna (champion wrestler’s) Aprons, which are the last word in technical perfection.