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FEUILLES DE CHOUX TAPESTRIES
'Feuilles de choux' tapestries, so-called because of the mass of huge cabbage-like leaves dominating their fields, are among the most striking and mysterious of all tapestries. Their design borders on the abstract, a profusion of wild foliage seemingly emerging from darkness with a visual dynamism particularly in tune with the modern eye. While the origins of these powerful images are unclear, their impact remains undimmed.
Tapestries dominated by a background of flowers and foliage but in a more ordered, classical framework are recorded as early as 1430 in an inventory for Philip the Good where one tapestry is described 'de fil d'Arras, à plusieurs herbages et fleurettes, ouvré au mylieu de deux personnages, assavoir d'un chevalier et d'une dame, et de six personnages d'enfants'. One of the earliest and grandest surviving examples, however, is in the Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne, and depicts the arms of Philip the Good flanked by stags on a millefleurs background and was woven by Jan de Haze in Brussels in circa 1466. Here the flowers are largely symbolic and represent a type of Garden of Eden on which the Duke's arms are displayed.
The wilder, more untamed nature of the foliage of 'Feuille de choux' tapestries, almost surrealistic in its imagery, first appeared at the beginning of the second quarter of the 16th Century and probably evolved from these millefleurs tapestries. While the millefleurs tapestries retained a peaceful and ordered appearance and were drawn in a flat manner, these large leaf verdures display a rich and spontaneous fantasy, defy form and reason and are extremely three-dimensional. These tapestries are known as feuilles de choux or feuilles d'aristoloche although the name 'cabbage leaf verdure' is incorrect as they are usually meant to represent monumental acanthus or bearsbreech. Large leaf verdure tapestries introduced a three-dimensional and naturalistic appearance that was reinforced by the inclusion of naturalistic birds and occasionally mythological animals and rarely by human figures. The predominant vision was of untamed nature uninterrupted by man, an image at once fascinating and even possibly emblematic of an innocent, prelapsarian state, but also threatening because of its seemingly uncontrolled nature.
Very early precursors to this group are three examples (one in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, another in the Danske Kunstindustriemuseum, Copenhagen and one in the Palais Jacques-Coeur, Bourges) depicting large thistles that cover the entire tapestry (it is interesting therefore to note the predominance of thistles in the magnificent tapestry offered as lot 98 in this sale). It is possible that they are the ones that were commissioned by Duke Peter II of Burbon (d. 1503) (Delmarcel, G.: Flemish Tapestry, Tielt, 1999, p. 34) while they may also be those bought by Charles V from Pieter van Aelst in 1518 (Cavallo, A.: Medieval Tapestries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993, p. 605). Apart from that group, the first surviving examples with a predominant large leaf foliate background are two armorial tapestries that were woven for Margaret of Austria by Henri van Lacke of Enghien in 1528 and that are now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Budapest (Delmarcel, G.: Tapisseries Anciennes d'Enghien, exhibition catalogue, Mons, 1980, cat. 1+2, pp. 14-17). The leaves in that example still serve the specific purpose of framing and supporting a coat-of-arms, while those of an example in the Abeggstiftung, Riggisberg, that is slightly later in date are purely decorative. That example still depicts the thickets neatly grouped so that the individual plants can be identified and their bases can be seen (Delmarcel, op. cit., cat. 7, pp. 26-27) while later examples such as the following three tapestries depict a convolute of foliage.
Although most Flemish weaving centres adopted this genre of tapestry into their repertoire, their symbolic origins and sudden and widespread popularity remain unexplained. It appears that these untamed thickets, seemingly beyond the control of man, possibly represented the preeminent fears of medieval society of chaos, insanity and ungodliness although they may have no specific symbolic meaning. They certainly seem to present a darker image of nature than the ordered, more courtly of the slightly earlier millefleurs tapestries. They also have clear parallels with the surrealistic worlds created by painters such as Hieronimus Bosch (1460 - 1516) and Joseph Arcimboldo (1527 - 1593) and may be the product of the rising interest in plant-life at the beginning of the 16th century.
It is certain that centres such as Enghien, Grammont and Audenarde manufactured large leaf verdure tapestries but it is probable that other cities also made similar works. It is believed that most weaving centres in southern Flanders were actually involved in the production of these tapestries and that possibly even towns of the Marche district in France may have woven examples. The identification of specific weaving centres for these tapestries is greatly hindered by the rarity of town marks on the tapestries and insufficient descriptions of the tapestries in 16th Century records.