Gobelins Tapestry (1601-present)
For a general guide to the evolution of
Gobelins tapestry art - a world famous brand of French decorative art - is made at the Manufacture des Gobelins, a famous tapestry factory named after a family of dyers and clothmakers who founded a dyestuffs business in the suburbs of Paris in the 15th century. It is best known for its role as official supplier of tapestries and woven upholstery to the French court of the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), Louis XIV (1638-1715), during the 17th century, although it retained its position as the leading tapestry manufactory in Europe throughout the 18th century and beyond. Its directors have included a number of great French decorative designers, such as: Charles Le Brun (1619-90), creative overseer at the Palace of Versailles; Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), the famous animal painter; and Francois Boucher (1703-70), a favourite of Madame de Pompadour and the finest exponent of rococo art in France. The Gobelins manufactory is now operated by the French Ministry of Culture, although it continues to make tapestries and carpets. The factory, together with the Gobelins Museum, is located at 42 avenue des Gobelins, Paris, France.
(1) Broadly speaking, the term "tapestry" describes any heavy woven material used to cover walls, furniture or floors; however, it is commonly used more narrowly to denote handwoven textiles designed to be used as wall hangings.
(2) France dominated European tapestry, architecture and decorative art in the centuries following the Renaissance. French activity began with the Fontainebleau School (Ecole de Fontainebleau), which - under the patronage of Francis I (1494-1547) and his successors - produced a good deal of the painting, decorative sculpture, and architecture for the French court. It also contained the first royal tapestry works, which operated from 1538 to 1550. Fontainebleau achieved its apogee at Versailles during the era of Baroque art in the 17th century. See also: French Royal Furniture (c.1640-1792).
(3) If Gobelins was the official state-run tapestry supplier to the French Crown, the Beauvais manufactory - founded by two Flemish weavers, Louis Hinart and Philippe Behagle in 1664 in Beauvais, northern France - was the leading supplier to the nobility and bourgeoisie, as well as the leading exporter. Although under the protection of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finances (1665-83), and subsidized by the state, the Beauvais factory - which specialised in low-warp tapestry weaving - remained a private enterprise. In comparison with Gobelins, Beauvais was more progressive and achieved its greatest work during the 18th century.
The Gobelins name was first made famous by a French family of dyers and clothmakers (probably from Reims) who established themselves around 1450 in the Faubourg Saint Marcel on the banks of the River Bievre, to the south-east of Paris. The founding head of the firm was Jehan Gobelin (c.1410-76), who discovered a scarlet dyestuff and spent so much money promoting it that it was dubbed "la folie Gobelin". The family made a fortune in the dyeing industry before giving it up at the end of the 16th century.
In 1601 the works were leased to Henry IV (1553-1610). The king was keen to establish a French tapestry industry capable of competing with the flourishing weaving industries of Antwerp and Brussels, and so took over the Gobelins plant for the purpose of making tapestries. (He also invited Flemish weavers to settle in France and help create the new French school.) Initially, the works were run by the king's Flemish tapestry makers Francois de la Planche and Marc de Comans. Then in 1629, control passed to their sons Raphael de la Planche and Charles de Comans. Their partnership ended in 1650 and the workshops were divided into two. Tapestries made during this early Flemish period are sometimes called pre-gobelins.
In 1662, the factory buildings in the Faubourg Saint Marcel, together with the adjoining grounds, were bought by Colbert on behalf of Louis XIV and devoted to general upholstery. Given the official title of "Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne", it supplied the king, with not only tapestry but also every type of product (except for carpets, which were woven at the Savonnerie factory) needed for the furnishing of the royal palaces. Its first director was Charles Le Brun, official painter to the king, decorator at the Chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte for Nicolas Fouquet (Superintendent of Finances in France, 1653-61), creative manager at Versailles Palace, decorator of the Galerie d'Apollon at the Louvre, and much more.
When he assumed control, he employed a large number of craftsmen in disciplines such as goldsmithing, furniture-making, painting, and weaving, to produce objects for the king's palaces. Le Brun was also an outstanding tapestry-designer (cartoonist), and his masterpiece entitled "Louis XIV visits the Gobelins Manufacture (1667) illustrates some of the many products made at the factory. Le Brun's other tapestry designs included cartoons for "The Four Elements" and "The Four Seasons", as well as for "The Months of the Year" (The Royal Houses).
In 1694, the works were closed due to Louis XIV's financial difficulties. They reopened three years later, but only for the weaving of tapestries. However, it continued to rank as the leading tapestry manufactory in Europe for most of the 18th century. Skilled weavers were paid according to the type and complexity of their work; for instance, those responsible for weaving flesh tones, heads or figures, received the highest wages. Themes incorporated into Gobelins tapestries varied according to demand. During the reign of Louis XIV, tapestries typically exalted the imperial majesty of the Sun King, but 18th century themes were much more lighthearted, albeit more visually creative, with new colours and designs.
The factory was temporarily closed during the Revolutionary period but was reopened by Napoleon. The business was further revived during the Bourbon Restoration (1815-30). In 1826, production of Savonnerie carpets was moved into the Gobelins factory. Savonnerie was responsible for supplying pile carpets and seat covers for all the king's palaces. Many of the patterns used were designed by the same artists who created the Gobelins tapestries.
Developments at Gobelins during the era of modern art (1850-1960) included the near-disaster of 1871, when some of the Gobelins workshops were burned down by the Communards - supporters of the short-lived Paris Commune, formed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. In 1912, a new replacement building was designed and built by the French architect Jean-Camille Formige (1845-1926) on the avenue des Gobelins. Also during the early decades of the 20th century, the twin fashions of abstract art and Surrealism were reflected in new designs for both Gobelins tapestries and Savonnerie rugs. The latter, in particular, have had a huge influence on the designs of other carpet workshops in the West.
Today, the Gobelins site consists of four buildings dating to the 17th century, plus the new building on the avenue des Gobelins. They include the workshops that served as foundries for the bronze sculpture in the grounds of Versailles Palace, as well as the looms upon which tapestries are still woven using original 17th century techniques - mostly for use in French government institutions.
For Renaissance tapestry, see works by Raphael (1483-1520), who produced cartoons for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.
Flemish weavers at the first royal tapestry works at Fontainebleau, worked from designs supplied by two Italian artists, Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70) and Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) - both official artists to the King.
For more about Gobelins or Beauvais tapestries, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY