Tapestries

IN GALLERY FIVE are hung three tapestries of I high excellence, the largest, No. 79, being the earliest of the three. It is a late Gothic example, made in Brussels about the year 1500, finely woven with gold and silver threads among the linen, silk, and wool of which the main fabric is composed. The tapestry, like others of its period, is divided by architectural partitions into smaller fields which contain scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. In the lower left-hand division the Annunciation is depicted and above it the Presentation of the Virgin; in the lower right-hand corner is the Adoration of the Magi, surmounted by the Visitation; while in the upper center is the Assumption of the Virgin with a landscape below and a choir of angels above. The drawing has all the character of late Gothic work with an added touch of the incipient realism of the Renaissance, while design, color, and technique typify in this example all that is best in tapestry. The piece was at one time in the Spitzer Collection and later in the Hainauer. It is of the same period of manufacture and the same merit as the large ” Kingdom of Heaven” or “Mazarin” tapestry shown in the first floor of the Wing of Decorative Arts as a loan of J. Pierpont Morgan.

The second tapestry in this room, No. 8o, is a few years later, dating probably from the decade between 1525 and 1535. It represents the Adoration of the Magi and is from a drawing by Bernard van Orley, a Flemish painter who was born in 1493 and died in 1542. The painting of the Blessed Virgin in a Gar-den, No. 34, included in the Altman bequest, is a work of this artist, whose characteristic method of drawing is as evident in the tapestry as in the finished picture. During his rather brief career he made frequent cartoons for the Brussels tapestry looms, then at their height, and his designs were always carried out in the best manner and in the finest materials, with gold and silver threads generously used. The Van Orley tapestry in the Altman Collection is smaller in scale as well as more minute in texture than is usually found in fabrics designed by him and represents the acme of Renaissance tapestry-making, when the freshness of the newly acquired fashion had refined but not perverted the sound Gothic traditions of the art.

On the left of this tapestry hangs a third, No. 8,, an exceptional and almost unique specimen of weaving. The subject is the young Christ, for some unknown reason represented without a halo, crushing the eucharistic grapes into the cup of sacrifice, while the orb of His sovereignty rests on the table before Him. Around the panel is an inscription, at first difficult to see, from Ecclesiasticus, Chapter L, which, when translated from the Latin of the Vulgate in which it is written, reads: “He stretched out His hand in sacrifice and poured forth of the blood of the grape.” The tapestry is late Gothic, dating from about the same time at the end of the fifteenth century as the large hanging, No. 79, which represents scenes from the Life of the Virgin. The small piece, which is heavily interwoven with gold and silver, is finest in texture of all the tapestries in the collection, and the workmanship in the border is even more perfect than that of the central portion. A very similar panel, drawn from the same cartoon but with added figures, was in the Spitzer Collection in Paris, but no others of the type are known.

The fourth and last tapestry is No. 82, in GALLERY 4, of another age and another manner, when the desire to make a picture in a woven fabric had superseded the more formal decorative expression of Gothic times. In the eighteenth century, when this hanging was made, there was no longer a wish for symmetry and balance in the design, but rather for the opposite, and a tapestry of the period is simply one of the informally arranged paintings of the day translated into the paler colors and flatter modeling of a woven fabric. François Boucher, the painter from whose cartoon the Altman example was made, lived between 1703 and 1770 and during that period produced a large number of decorative works which mirror most faithfully one aspect of eighteenth-century art and fashion. His designs for tapestry are more successful in color than his paintings, which are apt to be hard, and while he was immensely popular in his own time, his position as a painter can today scarcely be considered so unassailable as that of some of his contemporaries. As a tapestry designer, how ever, he was unrivaled and made for the royal manufactory of the Gobelins cartoons for six sets of tapes-tries, among them a series showing the Loves of the Gods, which included a single hanging of Vertumnus and Pomona, the same subject as that of the Altman tapestry. This was first used at the manufactory in 1747 at the King’s order, but in 1752 the Beauvais tapestry looms, which rivaled the Gobelins and were also supported by the government, received another and different cartoon of the same subject, which they carried out five times in all. The Altman example is signed and dated 1757 and may probably be identified with a piece recorded as having been made for a M. de Cuissey, to whom it was delivered in 1758. The subject is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, XIV, 623 et seq., and refers to a visit paid to Pomona by Vertumnus, who, in order to penetrate past the barriers surrounding his beloved, disguised himself in the rags of an old woman and gained admission as a fortune teller. This hanging deserves to be regarded as among the best which the eighteenth century produced, embodying in its graceful design, its agreeable color, and its technical perfection all the merits and none of the lapses of Rococo taste and of the last healthy phase of the art of tapestry-weaving.