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There are all kinds of interesting ironies with regard to art and art history. Subject matters come and go, and then come again. Ditto for various styles. And, the same could be said about various art media as well. For example, two or three hundred years ago, if a painter failed to find work elsewhere, or if his work was overwhelmingly popular (another interesting irony), he could get a job designing tapestries, or see his paintings translated into delicately woven and embroidered works of art designed to warm the rooms and tame the acoustics of even the draughtiest old medieval castle. Today, you probably couldn't buy this kind of tapestry if your life depended upon it (except for the computer generated ones perhaps). Yet, one of the liveliest "new media" is that of the "art quilt." Often more closely related to painting than what we think of as traditional quilting, the art quilt bears a sibling relationship to both. And, though this still-evolving art form is a close cousin to the traditional tapestry, it is infinitely more varied and "modern."

When we think about the art of tapestry weaving, one name stands apart from all other--La Manufacture des Meubles de la Couronne. If you've never heard of it, perhaps you know it by its more popular name, Gobelins. Founded in 1667 in Paris, this royal tapestry works may have been built on French soil, but it had its roots in Italy, England, and Northern Europe as well, drawing from a pool of designers, artisans, and weavers dating back more than a thousand years. But it was the reign of Louis XIV that pulled these threads all together into the most incredible art factory ever seen before or since. Much of the success of the enterprise rests with one Charles le Brun. His allegorical depictions of the Sun King likened to Alexander the Great were not only great PR for his king and patron, but great art as well.

Le Brun's Alexander Besieging Babylon, dating from 1661-65 is an incredibly complex scene of Alexander riding atop a massive white chariot pulled by a team of elephants (no less), amidst a melange of celebrants, soldiers, and spoils of war so great they all but obscure the central figures. (I know it sounds hard to lose two elephants and a big white chariot in a picture, but it happens.) Le Brun also designed a series of tapestries entitled Maisons Royales which depicted the splendours of life in the court of Louis XIV. In the eighteenth century, production demands grew so great, two more factories were opened at Aubusson and Beauvais which worked from cartoons (tapestry designs) by popular Rococo painters, François Boucher and Charles Coypel. Tapestries such as Boucher's Neptune and Anymone from The Loves of the Gods series and Coypel's The Ball in Barcelona from The Stories of Don Quixote series were no longer used merely to cover vast expanses of walls, but were placed in large, elaborate, gold leaf frames, competing for wall space with regular oil paintings. Ironically, painters today are having the same "problem" with regard to the tapestry's "close cousin."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
21 April 1999


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