A film produced by Julia Louise-Dreyfus about her father, William Louise-Dreyfus.
It’s little wonder we often talk of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ to describe the vibrancy of life itself; tapestry is a unique medium that captures shape, form, color and texture – suspending vivid images in fabric for all time. Many ancient examples of the art form are as fresh and vital today as when they were first woven centuries ago.
Practiced for thousands of years, the art of tapestry making is woven into a diverse range of cultures around the world. In Europe, tapestry has a long history dating back to the middle-ages when tapestries combined practical, social and aesthetic functions; helping to keep out drafts in chilly medieval castles and baronial halls as well as communicating stories of myth, morality and religion in times when few people were able to read.
While the nature of design themes and the materials used vary across cultures and over time, the process of tapestry weaving has remained largely unchanged for millennia. By weaving interlocking threads, the artist is able to interpret designs with unique results and produce images with a textural dimension – very different from a painting or a photograph.
Alongside painting, sculpture and architecture, tapestry remains one of the most important visual arts – still flourishing today as new generations of artists use the medium to create contemporary designs.
Comprised of seven wall hangings, each at least 12 feet high by 8 feet wide, the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters were created 500 years ago by an unknown artist for unknown royalty in Western Europe.
In violent and disturbing detail, the series tells the story of hunters stalking through the woods with their canines, hunting the mythical beast. As the story progresses, the unicorn is found and surrounded, ambushed and eventually attacked from all sides. Despite getting away from the hunters, the unicorn is eventually calmed by a virgin maiden and killed while under her charm.
Most people who have studied the tapestries believe they come from 1495-1505, from somewhere in southern Holland. Although even those details are often debated. Despite a general geographic location, the identity of the author is completely unknown. The tapestries’ only connection to the past is a small cipher, showing the letters A and B intertwined by some rope, which may signify the artist or the owner of the work.
From this slight hint, some have devised that Anne of Brittany commissioned the works to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, but there is no conclusive proof and the code of the Unicorn Tapestries remains unbroken. Despite the mystery, art historians have reveled in the chance to interpret the tapestries, often comparing the hunt of the unicorn to the Passion of Christ. The unicorn itself, once a pagan symbol, became a symbol for Christ.
All of the vibrant tapestries are available for personal interpretation and are held in the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan. The exhibit is accompanied by the 6-foot long horn of a narwhal, which many in 16th century Europe confused with the horn of a unicorn, inspiring stories and depictions of the magical beast.
- The Trojan War tapestry referred to by Homer in Book III of the Iliad, where Iris disguises herself as Laodice and finds Helen “working at a great web of purple linen, on which she was embroidering the battles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake.” Though the composition of the Iliad spanned a period of approximately 700 years, it is worth noting that this method of weaving was in common use in or before the eighth century BCE.
- The Cloth of St Gereon – second oldest European tapestry still extant.
- The Överhogdal tapestries – the oldest European tapestry still extant.
- The Sampul tapestry, woollen wall hanging, 3rd–2nd century BCE, Sampul, Ürümqi Xinjiang Museum.
- The Hestia Tapestry, 6th century, Egypt, Dumbarton Oaks Collection.
- The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth — not an actual tapestry — nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, likely made in England — not Bayeux — in the 1070s
- The Apocalypse Tapestry is the longest tapestry in the world, and depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation. It was woven between 1373 and 1382. Originally 140 m (459 ft), the surviving 100m are displayed in the Château d’Angers, in Angers.
- The six-part piece La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), stored in l’Hôtel de Cluny, Paris.
- The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, four Flemish tapestries dating from the mid-fifteenth century depict men and women in fashionable dress of the early fifteenth century hunting in a forest. The tapestries formerly belonged to the Duke of Devonshire and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- The Hunt of the Unicorn is a seven piece tapestry from 1495 to 1505, currently displayed at The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
- The tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, designed by Raphael in 1515–16, for which the Raphael Cartoons, or painted designs, also survive.
- The Wawel Tapestries, (mid 16th century) a collection of 134 tapestries at the Wawel Castle in Kraków, Poland displaying various religious, natural, and royal themes. These famous tapestries, created in Arras, were collected by Polish Kings Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus.
- The Valois Tapestries are a cycle of 8 hangings depicting royal festivities in France in the 1560s and 1570s
- The New World Tapestry is a 267 feet long tapestry which depicts the colonization of the Americas between 1583 and 1648, displayed at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum; this is not (strictly speaking) a tapestry, but is instead embroidery.
- The biggest collection of Flanders tapestry is in the Spanish royal collection, there is 8000 meters of historical tapestry from Flanders, as well as Spanish tapestries designed by Goya and others. There is a special museum in the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, and others are displayed in various historic buildings.
- The Pastoral Amusements, also known as “Les Amusements Champêtres”, a series of 8 Beauvais Tapestries designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry between 1720 and 1730.
- The Prestonpans Tapestry is a 104 metres long embroidery which tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Prestonpans.
- Christ in Glory, (1962) for Coventry Cathedral designed by Graham Sutherland. Up until the 1990s this was the world’s largest vertical tapestry.
- The Quaker Tapestry (1981–1989) is a modern set of embroidery panels that tell the story of Quakerism from the 17th century to the present day.
Some tapestries come unfinished, meaning that they don’t come with the rod pocket necessary to hang them. A tapestry company can custom-fit a wall hanging with trim, backing, and rod pockets to make a tapestry suitable for wall hanging. If an unfinished tapestry’s appearance might be compromised by altering it, a textile conservator can help determine the best way to mount an unfinished tapestry to the wall.
Cleaning One way of cleaning is using a vacuum cleaner with an upholstery attachment to rid the tapestry of dust. Dust should not accumulate so much that it starts to show; if it does, then it has gone for too long without dusting. The dustier the tapestry is, the more susceptible it is to other particles adhering to it. The more that accumulates, the more difficult it will be to clean. Vacuuming the tapestry twice a year should suffice except in homes with a lot of dust or a home with pets. In this case, a tapestry may need to be vacuumed as often as once every two weeks.
If the tapestry ever gets a stain on it, however, it must be dry cleaned. Even water can damage the tapestry. If water does get on the tapestry, it can be blotted with a plain white cloth, but if the stain is still present, it should be brought to a textile conservator for proper cleaning.
Newer tapestries might be more flexible regarding care. Some manufacturers might deem it appropriate to wash a tapestry in mild soap and water, but for antique pieces, it’s best not to take chances; instead, these are the tapestries that should always be handled by a textile conservator.
Over time, the fabric on a tapestry can fade – with antique pieces, this is part of the appeal. It can provide an aged look, and some people even prefer it so much that they’ll pay to have their newer tapestries washed to hasten the fading process. When faded fabric is not desired, though, it is best not to hang the tapestry in direct sunlight. On a similar note, they should not be hung near windows in humid climates because of the risk of mold. Moisture can also cause colors to fade and the fibers to weaken. Fortunately, wall tapestries are very versatile when it comes to decorating possibilities. They can fit in many places in a home, even after a room has been redecorated or the tapestry is moved to a new place. This reduces the risk of the tapestry being damaged by the elements.
Storage Proper storage is necessary to preserve valuable tapestries. They should be dry cleaned and stored in a container that provides ventilation but prevents dust and dirt from getting in. A wicker basket with a cover or an acid-free cardboard box with small air holes should suffice for tapestry storage. The tapestry should be folded with a piece of white tissue paper to prevent the threads from rubbing against one another. Lastly, the tapestry should never be stored in a place with sharp or jagged edges, as this can irreparably damage the threads.
Exercising appropriate care for tapestries will allow them to beautify a home for many years. Because they are timeless works of art, it is essential to care for them properly so that they can be appreciated for generations to come.
Tapestries were once one of the most highly prized mediums, with Raphael being paid five times more for the tapestries he designed to adorn the walls of the Sistine Chapel than Michelangelo received for his contribution to the ceiling. Masterful artists wove silk, wool, gold, and silver threads glorifying military triumphs, tales, and worldly domains. They decorated the walls of castles and palaces, symbols of wealth and prestige, and reminded travelers of their past, present, and future. With the passage of time however, the admiration and fascination with tapestries have faltered. Today though, thanks to the help of technology in the form of a jacquard loom and the accessibility of traditional weavers, artists are once again embracing the medium and exploring the intricate balance between art and cloth.
Not since the early 20thCentury has the medium of tapestries been so embraced by artists. In the early 1930’s French weaving workshops, or ateliers, produced thousands of modern art images. Many of the century’s greatest artists—Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely and Marc Chagall—allowed French weavers to translate existing works of theirs or create cartoons that are highly valued in the art market today for the sheer intricate skill with which the tapestry was created. Collectors such as Marie Cuttoli influenced the medium as well by commissioning those similar artists to produce original designs conceived specifically for conversion into cloth by Aubusson weavers, and then having them sign the backs of the works, adding to their value.
Often thought of as too costly and time consuming to embark on today, artists such as Chuck Close, Craigie Horsfield, Kiki Smith, William Kentridge, and Grayson Perry are experimenting with the medium and realizing the accessibility and affordability of the weavers and material. With the jacquard loom, a computerized weaving machine, the artist is able to churn out a tapestry in just days after experimenting with their design, color palette, and desired weave tightness. Meanwhile other artists are seeking out skilled weavers in foreign countries such as India, Afghanistan, and South Africa to create their masterpieces in a collaborative effort allowing for the process to be an artistic journey and art form all its own.
Craigie Horsfield says, “The tapestry allows scale. It allows physicality. It’s not just to create a spectacular effect…It allows the sense of things being woven and how we imagine the world through the stories we tell each other…I like the idea that the tapestry takes on a meaning by the juxtaposition of individual threads, individual colors, which when read together become whole, rather in the same way that in our society we are individuals, but when we work together we take on new meaning.” In understanding the motivations and history behind such an art form, tapestries deserve more than the fleeting, offhand mentions that they have received to date. From Raphael to Picasso to Close tapestries have captured the world’s attention as artist and weaver effortlessly come together in an organic display not available in any painting.
Information obtained from ArtNews article “Looms with a View” by Hilarie M. Sheets in the September 2012 edition.