BEAUVAIS 'GROTESQUE CHINOIS' TAPESTRIES
"Grottesques ... A word used for figures who are bizarre, extravagant, ridiculous in themselves, in their habits, in their speech, etc. One painted the pagan gods in a thousand grottesque figural ways. Costumes from masquerades and ballets are more esteemed the more they are grottesque." - translated from Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire Universel, contenant généralement tous le mots, 1690.
Based on the striking designs of Jean Bérain I (1640-1711) and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (d. 1699), ‘Grotesques’ tapestries woven at the Beauvais ateliers have remained highly sought after since they were first devised in the late 17th century. As the ‘Grotesques’ don't follow any of the narrative themes of history, religion or mythology they were widely considered more suited to domestic interiors than the formal hangings produced for the court by the Gobelins Manufactory. The ‘Grotesques’ were intended to hang either together, or independently as purely decorative weavings with no loss to their narrative value, a characteristic that appealed to a wide range of purchasers throughout the centuries. It is rare to find tapestries of this series to survive in sets or pairs, with the present two tapestries retaining wonderful vibrant colours.
The grotesque theme first appeared in tapestries in a series designed by Raphael’s assistant, Giovanni da Udine, woven in Brussels in circa 1520 for Pope Leo X, which thereafter became widely popular. Louis XIV had his first set loosely copied from these by the Gobelins Manufactory as ‘Les Triomphes des Dieux’ in 1687. Shortly afterwards, Beauvais designed its own grotesque tapestries to address the general interest in the subject. These tapestries form part of a series called the ‘Grotesques’, usually consisting of six tapestries, four with horizontal panels, The Musicians and Dancers, The Animal Tamers, The Camel and The Elephant, and two with vertical panels, Offering to Bacchus and Offering to Pan. However a list of dessins et peintures servant a la Manafacture records that in 1710 eight cartoons for the designs, as well as seven additional copies of them, were at the disposal of the weavers. There are at least eight variable borders known in this series, of which a total of circa 150 tapestries from at least 40 sets survive. A set of six tapestries can still be found at Schloss Bruchsal, Baden-Württemberg (illustrated in C Bremer-David, Conundrum, Puzzles in the Grotesques Tapestry Series, Los Angeles, 2015, pp. 25, 72-73) and in the Musée des Tapisseries, Aix-en-Provence. A set of five tapestries of the same series is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (illustrated in E. Standen, European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, vol. II, pp. 441–458). Further examples are in the collection of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Stockholm Town Hall, as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (d. 1699) is mentioned as the designer of this series in a letter of 7 January 1695 from Daniel Cronström, then in Paris, to Nicodemus Tessin in Sweden: ‘Baptiste, excellent peintre et dessignateur d’ornement icy’, and this series is described as ‘du goust de celle des Gobelins faite sur les desseins de Raphaël, de Rome’. It is probable that Monnoyer based the set on sketches by Jean Bérain I (hence the 19th century name of the series, Grotesques de Bérain) who in fact designed the borders of a set made for the Swedish Chancellor, Carl Piper. His sketches for the main subjects could, however, only have served as inspiration to Monnoyer as Bérain’s designs are in general much heavier, darker and more idiosyncratic than the patterns of this tapestry series. Monnoyer was France’s best-known flower painter of the 17th Century but was versatile in his ability to paint history, still-life and portraiture. Although he is known to have collaborated on the creation of many cartoons for the Gobelins and Beauvais Manufactories, the ‘Grotesques’ series is the only one attributed entirely to him.
The designs for this series appear to have been completed by 1688 as Philippe Behagle (d. 1705), then directeur at the Royal Beauvais Tapestry Manufactory, was forced to pledge four pieces of this series to the Royal Counsellor, Jean Talon, on 10 February 1689. This date is further supported by the related contemporary use of the background colour in Savonnerie carpets. By 1694, thirteen sets had been sold, a number that suggests that the weaving possibly commenced even earlier than 1688. The design proved so popular that two cartoons had to be restored in 1722 and the last set was produced as late as 1732. As Noël-Antoine Moron, then directeur, reported, the cartoons were so worn that the exact weaving was difficult and the details were therefore imprecise. The set’s popularity was probably not only based on the accessibility of the subject, but also on the flexibility of the design. Most elements could be used individually and the size of the tapestry could easily be varied in height by adding a further band of grotesques at the top or trellis, ground and steps at the bottom.
The panel depicting The Musicians is not part of the traditional set of six as discussed by Bremer-David (op. cit.) and most probably based on one of the two additional cartoons recorded in Dessins et peintures servant a la Manafacture in 1710. It relates to the largest tapestry in the series Musicians and Dancers and shows similar trees that can be found in the Offering to Bacchus. The scene portrays the usual theatrical divertissements under a tripartite arcade set upon a stone-tiled floor with two figures playing music, a female figure dancing and a flower girl. A tapestry with identical composition but slightly different borders from the collection of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild was sold (as part of a set of four) at Christie's, London, 22 July 1939, lot 159.
THE ANIMAL TAMERS
The Animal Tamers was one of the rarer woven subjects of the Beauvais Grotesques series. The scene in the left foreground, with a pair of leopards attacking a bull, constituted one of those optional lateral elements that were often omitted, despite its clear reference to 16th and early 17th century tapestries, that often celebrated the subject of animal combat. To collectors of Renaissance art and Baroque bronze statuettes, Monnoyer's choice and pose of these three animals must have appeared particularly erudite, replicating not the more widely-known group of a lion attacking a bull, after a prototype by the Italian-Flemish sculptor, Giovanni Bologna (1529-1608), who created an animal group with leopards attacking a bull. How Monnoyer came to copy the stance of this model remains a mystery as only two examples of the statuette are now known. A tapestry with identical composition but different borders, acquired in the early 19th century by Richard, 2nd Earl of Bantry, was subsequently sold at Christie's, London, 22 November 1956, lot 139 (as part of a set divided across lots 137-142). Another tapestry with this subject was sold more recently at Christie's Paris, 21 June 2006, lot 252 (€180,000).
M.J. Badin, La Manufacture de Tapisseries de Beauvais, Paris 1909, pp. 9-13.
D. Boccara, Les Belles heures de la Tapisserie, Milan 1971, pp. 138-139.
E. Standen, European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, vol. II, pp. 441–458.
J. Coural and C. Gastinel-Coural, Beauvais. Manufacture nationale de Tapisserie, Paris 1992, pp. 17-21.
C. Bremer-David, ‘The Offering to Bacchus’, in French Tapestries & Textiles in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 1997, pp. 72-79.
C. Bremer-David, Conundrum, Puzzles in the Grotesques Tapestry Series, Los Angeles, 2015, pp. 25 and 72-73.