The subject of grotesques first appeared in tapestries in a series designed by Raphael's assistant Giovanni da Udine and woven in Brussels in circa 1520 for Pope Leo X, but soon 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 thereafter Beauvais designed its own Grotesques to meet the general interest in the subject.
This tapestry forms part of the celebrated series known as the Grotesques, usually consisting of six tapestries including three horizontal panels, The Animal Tamers, The Camel and The Elephant, and three vertical panels, Offering to Bacchus, Offering to Pan and The Musicians.
Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (d. 1699) is recorded 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 (hence the series' 19th Century name Grotesques de Bérain) who in fact designed the borders of a set made for the Swedish Chancellor Carl Piper, described by Cronström in a further letter of May 1695 as follows ' Je fais mettre à la Grotesque, une bordeure d'un goust grotesque du dessein de Berain...' .
Jean Bérain (1637-1711) was, along with the painter Charles le Brun, the most influential designer of Louis XIV's reign, creating a playful arabesque style which is so emblematic of the period. In 1674 he was appointed dessinateur de la Chambre et du cabinet du Roi in the Menus-Plaisirs, and from 1677 onwards he was granted an apartment in the Galeries du Louvre near to the workshops of André-Charles Boulle, for whom Bérain's designs were central in developing his own famous marquetry patterns. The fantastical theatricality of Bérain's work, as exemplified in this superb tapestry, is a reflection of the fact that he designed extensively for the theatre, notably for Jean-Baptiste Lully's Opéra.
Monnoyer is France's best-known flower painter of the 17th Century but was versatile and also painted history, still-life and portrait paintings. Although he is known to have collaborated on the creation of many cartoons for Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries, the Grotesques series is the only series 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 Manufacture, was forced to pawn four pieces of this series to the Royal Counselor Jean Talon on 10 February 1689. This date is further supported by the 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, as in this version, the trellis, ground and steps at the bottom.
The set was woven with variations to the borders designs, among which the elaborate chinoiserie designs seen on this example are the richest. Among the most significant sets known with chinoiserie borders is a set of five in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated in Standen, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 441 – 458 (the sixth tapestry from this series is probably one in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris), and a set of six in Schloss Bruchsal, Karlsruhe.