A short history of French Tapestry

A deeply rooted tradition in human history

Woven tapestry art is one of the most effective forms of literary expression the world has ever known. Through the use of this unique art form, the stories of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad were told and made vivid to the ancient Greeks. We can also go back to other civilizations, among them Egyptians or Incas, to find pieces of woven tapestries, which could be used to bury the dead.

The revival of tapestry in France

In the middle Ages, tapestries had a purely utilitarian function. They were originally designed to protect medieval rooms from damp and cold weather, to cover austere walls of big castles, or to insulate big rooms into more comfortable quarters.

The early Thirteenth and Fourteenth century have given this tradition a great revival. Gothic art appeared in woven tapestry art with it's unique form of religious mystery and romance to fascinate the viewer. The tapestry art created at that time was the work of men permeated with religious consciousness: finally a good way for religious institutions to reach their illiterate fellows.

During the period and through the Hundred Years War, France was considered the world's most important producer of tapestry, with Paris being the tapestry capital of the western world. Many of the best known works such as the “Lady with the Unicorn” series were woven at the turn of the 15th century in the Loire valley. English people or Italian still know tapestries as “arras” or “arrazzi”, named after a town in the north of France.

Unfortunately, during the Hundred Years War, pillaging and unrest drove skilled dyers and tapestry craftsmen to move north towards Flanders, in fact a few kilometers where our tapestries from French-Tapestry-Shop are still woven.

Changes with the XVI century

In the XVIth century, a complete change in philosophy and sciences brought with it the artistic revolution of “La Renaissance”. The purpose of Renaissance pictorial art in woven tapestry was to produce illusions of what reality should be. It was actually more intellectual, more abstract, and more scientific with perfection of form, precision of method, and creative grandeur as it's objective for the viewer. An example of the Renaissance period is the widely acclaimed set, the Acts of the Apostles, from the cartoons of Raphael and his Renaissance School of Ancient Roman.

XVII Century Tapestry in France

In 1663, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Gobelins factory was founded in Paris employing over 800 artisans in the production of tapestries for the royal court. Other European countries followed, opening factories on behalf of their rulers. They employed Flemish weavers who by now had to complete a twelve year apprenticeship. Louis XIV's estate inventory at his death listed 2,155 Gobelins tapestries. Henry VIII's collection totaled over 2,000 in seventeen royal residences.

XVIII Century and the French revolution

The baroque style dominated the 17th cent.; the rococo and classical styles appeared in the 18th cent. Fine examples were woven from the cartoons of François Boucher, who worked both for the Beauvais and the Gobelins looms. But during the French Revolution the social changes of the times decimated the tapestry market , considering the gold and silver threads to have greater value.

A positive development of this period however was the invention of Mr Joseph Marie Jacquard’s first mechanical loom in Flanders in 1804. It processed perforated cards (like early IBM computers) which fed the colored yarns to the shuttle. It enabled tapestries to become accessible to a wider market and it still forms the basis of the techniques used today.

From XVIII century up today

Modern tapestry weaving owes much to the vigour and freedom bought by the Arts and Crafts Movement headed by William Morris in England. He revived many old crafts; tapestry weaving being one of the beneficiaries of his fresh vision and creative energy. He visited French weavers in 1878 and described the workshops at Aubusson as 'a decaying commercial industry of ...rubbish'. A year later he had a high-warp loom built in his bedroom where he taught himself to weave from an 18th century French craft manual. With colleagues and friends he designed tapestries, like the Woodpecker, based on medieval styles and techniques. The weavers at Morris and Co. achieved commercial success and, more importantly revived the ailing craft.

Today, most surviving pieces of original hand-woven tapestry art are from the 16th to the 19th century. Important public collections in the United States that contain fine examples of tapestry weaving are those in the Metropolitan Museum (including the magnificent Hunt of the Unicorn series at the Cloisters) and in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Thanks to modern yarns and techniques, we can offer state-of- the-art reproductions, with really affordable prices compared to a fully hand woven piece of works. Enjoy your tour through our French-Tapestry-Shop and discover the fruits of this very human history.

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