First, a little background. While a copy of “Don Quixote” has been sitting on my shelf for the last 15 years or so I never bothered to read it until last Fall when I thought to give it a go. I was going through a bit of a rough patch at the time and reading the alternately comedic and tragic tale of the mad gentleman of La Mancha somehow made things easier (I also had Linda Eder’s version of “Man of La Mancha” stuck in my head a lot of the time, but that’s neither here nor there). Since then I’ve been captivated by all things Quixotic, from the history of the book itself (https://youtu.be/_Tb0iK2HYkc), to different translations, to various illustrated versions (my favorite remains Gustave Doré‘s, although I also enjoy Salvador Dali’s). So when The Frick Collection had an exhibition this past spring centering around a series of tapestries of “Don Quixote” my interest was piqued. The tapestries in question were produced by the Gobelins Textile Manufactory in France from 1717 to 1794, as well as other versions by Flemish manufacturers, but the images that provided the central focus of each tapestry were created by French painter Charles Coypel. I enjoyed the Frick’s exhibition and purchased the catalog of their exhibition, a thin volume with a bright red cover, which I then proceeded to bury unread beneath a massive stack of other books.
Fast forward to last week when I was walking through the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to see the Queen’s Vermeer “The Music Lesson” (I’m trying to see every Vermeer in the world and this one happened to be in Buckingham). On the way out of the Picture Room I passed down a short hallway with four tapestries, two hung on either side. I recognized one as Quixotic instantly (“Sancho Awakes in Despair at not Finding His Beloved Grison”; the image of Sancho sitting atop four stilts is iconic) and excitedly examined the others. They were all of the same series as those I had seen earlier at the Frick! When I returned home I immediately pulled out the little red volume to try to find out more. What followed was an education, however lite, into tapestry history and creation with Coypel and Don Quixote as my guide.
The Gobelins Textile Manufactory was begun in 1663, tasked with creating lavish furnishings for Louis XIV’s residences as well as diplomatic gifts. Their typical works during the early years were centered around glorifying Louis’ image although other series were produced, including one depicted the works of Italian Renaissance painters as interpreted by French painter Noël Coypel. Noel’s son Antoine, a successful painter as well, would have a series of his own paintings of Old Testament scenes turned into tapestries by Gobelins. Antoine’s son Charles was asked in 1714 to produce a series of paintings for the Manufactory centering around Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha” that they might be turned into tapestries originally commissioned by the Duc d’Antin. From 1714 until his death in 1752 Charles Coypel would produce 28 paintings of “Don Quixote” for Gobelins, which would weave them into some of the most celebrated tapestries in history.
Despite the celebrated reception of Coypel’s paintings only some of them still survive and those that do are in pretty rough shape. They’re not that way because of poor preservation though, or war, fire, or any other cause that has destroyed artwork throughout history. The paintings are beat up because they weren’t created to be admired on a wall. They were created to be tools, and the reason has to do with how tapestries are produced.
Tapestries are woven in one of two ways, either on a high loom or a low loom and while the technique for weaving is similar there are some key differences. A high loom is oriented vertically. Warp threads, fixed, colorless strands, are stretched from top to bottom. The weaver sits behind this wall of warp threads and weaves colored thread, or wefts, between the warps to produce the pattern, occasionally tamping down the wefts to fully conceal the warps.
A low loom is laid out horizontally, the large, long spools of warp thread at either side and the warps themselves stretched between them. Picture a dining room table. The spools would be positioned at opposing edges of the table with the warp threads forming the table surface.
But the weaver has to reference something to form the tapestry’s image and that something, in the case of the “Don Quixote” tapestries, was Coypel’s paintings. To call them paintings isn’t exactly accurate though, as the technical term is ‘cartoons’. Lacking silly rabbits and gullible hunters, these cartoons are works, usual painted, done in full scale specifically to be transferred into another medium. Basically, a cartoon is a painting that a weaver references when creating a tapestry.
In the case of a high loom the cartoon remains intact. It sits behind the weaver who views it in a mirror that’s placed in front of them. That way, even though they’re sitting behind the tapestry to work, the weavers will create the image facing the same way as the cartoon. A low loom is just the opposite. Because the loom is laid out horizontally, with the weaver working above it, there is no practical way to position the cartoon behind the weaver or the mirror to view it. Thus, the cartoon is placed below the loom for reference, but, because the weaver is still working from the back of the tapestry, the tapestry’s image will be reversed from that of the original painting. Also, because space is an issue with low looms, the cartoon will often be folded or cut into strips.
Coypel’s “Don Quixote” series would be woven into tapestries in nine sets in the 18th Century with the selection and quantity of the tapestries woven varying each time. About 200 total tapestries would be created from Coypel’s works. With the exception of the seventh series they were always woven on a high loom. But with so much use the cartoons soon started to suffer. When they did they would be retouched or repainted altogether. Due to their persistent usage Coypel’s original cartoons, especially the more popular ones, would deteriorate. Some would be touched up. Nine of the most popular had become so unusable they had to be repainted altogether by a different artist (this was about 10 years after Coypel’s death). Eventually the cartoons would be sent to the Louvre, who would forward them to the Château de Compiègne under a long term loan where they remain today.
The images Coypel produced for “Don Quixote” would become some of the more popular of the novel’s illustrations, certainly in the 18th Century. Lending to this popularity was a series of engravings Coypel commissioned to increase his income for the paintings, for which he was paid relatively little (For the first painting he received 1100 livres while the designer of the alentour, the border around the center image, received 2000). For a 10 year stretch beginning in 1724 Coypel worked with some of France’s leading engravers to produce a folio of twenty-five plates. While tapestries were only available to the wealthy, engravings were accessible to the masses, and Coypel’s popularity soared, his engravings would become the quintessential illustrations for “Don Quixote” for the next hundred years.
For more about the Gobelins Textile Manufactory, Charles Coypel, and the “Don Quixote” tapestries, be sure to check out the catalog of The Frick Collection’s exhibition “Coypel’s Don Quixote Tapestries: Illustrating a Spanish Novel in Eighteenth-Century France” by Charlotte Vignon.
To see a step-by-step guide of tapestry construction click here: http://www.metmuseum.org/content/interactives/unicorn/unicorn_weaving_transcript.htm