Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Behind the Scenes at Gobelins Manufactory

Chancellerie, Gobelins tapestry (1680).

Before my visit to Gobelins Manufactory, the historic royal tapestry workshop currently run by the French Ministry of Culture, I would have looked at the above tapestry and merely thought "nice colors" before switching my attention to something else. Equipped with my newly acquired knowledge, however,  I was excited to see the Gobelins tapestry hanging in the stairwell of the Nissim de Camondo Museum because I now know that:

  1. It would have taken five weavers approximately four years to produce a tapestry this size. As the work is painstakingly slow, each weaver only completes about 1.5 square meters (1.8 square yards) per year! Weavers don't get to pick the tapestry on which they work, which means that they may spend four years on a design that they don't particularly like. To protect the dyes, the workshops use natural lighting with the exception of a brief period during the winter when artificial lighting is used in the afternoon.
  2. The tapestry is old (1680) and a royal commission because the fleur-de-lis (lys), symbolizing French royalty, is no longer included in Gobelins tapestries, not even in reproductions of older tapestries with a fleur-de-lis in the original motif.
  3. The famous Gobelins scarlet originated from the fortuitous location of the dye-works on the Bièvre River, where the large quantity of urine in the water helped fix the red dye made from cochineal insects.
  4. It isn't one of the tapestries that Louis XIV used as a savings account because there aren't any gold or silver threads woven into the design. Evidently, bulky tapestries were a good place to store your fortune because they were too cumbersome for thieves to steal.
Galerie des Gobelins

It's possible to visit the Gobelins Manufactory by booking one of the tours offered in French at 1:00 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with FNAC. Admittedly, the tour stretched my comprehension skills because it encompassed an entirely new vocabulary of French words, such as high-warp looms and low-warp looms. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to see this ancient art used to turn paintings by contemporary artists into carpets and tapestries. My favorite was "Arrachement" by Andre-Pierre Arnal, whose exhibition I attended last September.

A few other things that I found interesting:
  • Tapestries were originally hung on walls or in front of doors to reduce drafts.
  • Louis XIV was the first to put carpets on the floor in France. He commissioned ninety-three Savonnerie carpets for the Grand Galerie of the Louvre.
  • As a national manufactory, Gobelins only accepts commissions from the government. Tapestries and carpets are given as diplomatic gifts to other countries and used in government offices. 
  • The manufactory was closed briefly from 1694-97. When our guide mentioned that the Revolution and two World Wars didn't stop the production of tapestries, only an economic recession, one of the Frenchmen on our tour joked that it should be closed now.
Gobelins Manufacture
42 avenue des Gobelins
75013 Paris

Many thanks to Véronique Kurtz for organizing our visit to Gobelins!
"The Chaste Suzanne" in Napoleon III's apartment in the Louvre. Gobelins Manufactory, Neilson workshop, 1757-1761.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post.
    I never got to visit the place when I lived in Paris (one of those many places that were constantly on the backburner until it was too late).
    Now I regret it.

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  2. If you ever get the chance to visit when you're back in Paris, I would highly recommend it because my post doesn't do justice to Gobelins. We weren't allowed to take photos during the tour, so I didn't write about how the tapestries are woven. For example, on a low warp loom, the weaver works on the backside of the tapestry and uses a mirror in front to control his work. I really admire their patience and skill! Plus, the contemporary carpets and tapestries are incredible because they're able to use a wider range of colors now. Fascinating stuff!

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  3. Good information, stuff I didn't know. Honestly, I know so little about tapestries and carpets and what not. I was impressed when the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC was given to a tapestry curator and expert. I've seen some tapestry shows since then, and indeed they are amazing, especially when woven with golden threads and the light enlivens the rugs.

    I also really like the fleur-de-lis fact.

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  4. The fleur-de-lis fact was intriguing. The guide mentioned it in connection with the dilemma faced by weavers who are reproducing an old pattern. She also said that they used to deliberately use much brighter colors, as can be seen on the back of the tapestries, because they knew that the dyes would fade to the right color in about 20 years. As an example, she showed us a tapestry where the Greek god was originally done in bright orange that faded to a recognizable skin tone with time.

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  5. If you are a member of the American Library you can sign up for this semester's art history tours led by an Caroline de Navacelle, an art historian. One of the meetings will be at the Gobelins.

    Terry Cagle

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  6. Thanks for this very helpful information, Terry! I had no idea that the American Library organizes art history tours. I've been meaning to join the library ever since I arrived and will go there this week to get more information. Are the tours listed on their website? I searched for "Caroline de Navacelle" and didn't get any results. I would happily do the Gobelins tour again in English because there's so much information to process. Thanks again!

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  7. Sorry for the delay in answering. When you arrive at the website for the American Library in Paris http://www.americanlibraryinparis.org/
    click on Use the Library and then choose Book Groups. Click on Book Groups Winter 2012 and you will download Library Groups 2012. "Looking Closer" is the one that I referred to ( no books required for this group). I realize that this sounds a lot more complicated than it is in reality.
    Cheers,
    Terry

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Terry! I just got my membership for the American Library today and will contact the woman who organizes the book groups to get more details about how to join "Looking Closer".

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