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Tapestries in the Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

"Tapestry is the novel

the cinema

the encyclopedia

the best kind of letters.

It is botany




And just about the most luxurious thing that ever was."

Scrolled in the storefront window of Al Gitelman & Associates at the Dallas World Trade Center, these words by John Russell, English artist and scholar who lived 1745-1806, are a written vestibule to the world of tapestries. Tapestry is simply a type of weave, a heavy cloth with decorative designs, according to Stephen Harrison, assistant curator of decorative arts at the Dallas Museum of Art. Yet, for thousands of years, tapestries have covered walls, furniture, even floors. Why? Insulation against the cold is one hypothesis, at least initially. But tapestries developed into status symbols for wealth, rank, investment, and art.

Early weavings were cited in diggings from ancient Egypt (1483-11 BC) to ancient Peru (believed to date at beginning AD). Western tapestries told stories, first religious themes woven by monks in monasteries. But tournaments, battles, hunts, conquering kings, rich merchants, passionate lovers, gallantry, and mythology also became popular subjects. Tapestries reached colossal proportions in their zenith, the middle ages when many stretched past the walls of feudal castles and cathedrals, such as The Story of Gideon at over 330 feet, completed in 1453, but no longer in existence.

Easily rolled up and moved, tapestries traveled. For nobility, they created home-like surroundings in unfamiliar stops, where they were unpacked and hung on nails carried for that purpose. They were captured as rich booty from warring princes or left behind as calling cards and gifts, such as the Duke of Burgundy's coat of arms tapestries.

Tapestries hung, individually and in layers, over all available walls, in doorways (portieres), around doors (doorsurrounds), and even outdoors on occasions. If tapestries needed fitting (like removable wallpaper), they were rolled around corners or ruthlessly cut to the spaces. Tapestries became indispensable.

During the 16th century when the nobility abandoned their castles for more luxurious residences, classical tapestries served to decorate state rooms, galleries, and show off the grandeur of their owners. Then in 1797, French revolutionaries burned most of the royal French tapestries woven from gold, silver, and silk threads for their precious metal and thus, marked the end of a fabulous era. For along with the nobility that championed them, tapestries declined in popularity. And although they never fell extinct, tapestries never regained their earlier prominence, in part, because of the subordination of weaving to painting.

Tapestry weavers originally created their own models. After Pope Leo X ordered the tapestries, "Acts of the Apostles," to be woven from cartoons (full-sized sketches) created by the Italian painter Raphael (Raffaello Santi)1483-1520, tapestry weaving began copying painting. Gradually, weaving fell secondary to painting even before the French Revolution.

Interest in tapestries waned until late19th century, when the very rich built grand houses and re-created the renaissance look. In cities such as Paris, New York, and London, there sprouted very influential decorators who bought new tapestries and tapestries reproduced from earlier periods, according to Harrison. A tapestry revival also arose in the 20th century with the First International Biennial Tapestry Exhibition in 1962 in Switzerland. In Dallas today, tapestries can be found only in a few showrooms, mostly those designated for the trade (interior designers) such as Al Gitelman & Associates-Tapestries, Matt Camron Rugs and Tapestries, and Pittet Co., which also keeps a reference library.

Gitelman, a D-day survivor, began selling tapestries in the US after studying in post-World War II France. Buying two tapestries after selling one, Gitelman gradually built a collection, which he brought together in the World Trade Center, all the while working 40 years in photographic equipment. That was ten years ago. Now retired, he sells antique tapestries and recreations. Pittet Co., operated by Raymond and Harmony Pittet, carry antique tapestries; Matt Camron, Jerry Abramson gallery director, has antique and reproduced tapestries.

A few small recreations of antique tapestries start as low as $300, retail. Antique tapestries tend to begin around $20,000 and go up to $100,000. Occassionally a large piece in excellent condition may reach $150,000 or $200,000.

The Lady and the Unicorn

In the Middle Ages, Gothic tapestries were often created as a set of several tapestries bearing similar themes. The Unicorn tapestries, circa 1512 --located in the Cluny Museum in Paris, are a set of six tapestries; five are devoted to allegories on hearing, smell, taste, touch, and sight. The sixth tapestry features a richly clad lady and attending maid in front of a tent with the inscription, "A MON SEUL DESIR," (to my only desire). These tapestries illustrate "mille-fleurs," (thousand flowers), in which hundreds of flower motifs are sprinkled over the background, a feature invented by Gothic tapestry weavers.

"Dame au miroir" represents sight. The maiden holds a mirror to the face of the Unicorn, who rests with his forefeet on the maiden's lap. The Unicorn, a mythological symbol of purity, is pictured as a cloven-hoofed, horse with goat's beard and a spiral horn. The Unicorn was believed to be so wild and swift that no one could capture him, and only an innocent, virginal girl could approach him. Purchased with or without a decorative border, these tapestries come in a variety of sizes and weavings. Prices vary between $792 (32" x 33") and $3,783 (85" x 96") from one manufacturing series and $4,440 (51" x 43") and $6,960 (70" x 59") from another series.

Scenes galantes

This15th century tapestry (located in the Cluny Museum) with its background of leaves and flowers and two sets of couples features the Italian fashion, which Charles VIII introduced in France after 1495 when he conquered Naples. A recreation can be purchased in several sizes from 38" x 54" ($5,820) to 86" x 126" ($14,880). The scene can easily be cut to make smaller tapestries i.e., the couple with page (Dame au coffret) costs $3,030 (38" x 27").

Les armoiries du duc de Bourgogne

This 15th century tapestry comes from Brussels. Currently in the Bern Museum in Switzerland, it was carried by Duke Charles on his campaigns and was taken by the Swiss Confederates on March 3, 1476 at Charles' defeat. Recreations cost $3,090 (51" x 37") and $6,030 (67" x 51").

Les amours pastorales

Francois Boucher, a French painter (1703-1770) became superintendent at the French Gobelins-Manufacture of tapestries beginning 1755. Often regarded as a painter who accurately expressed the French tastes of the Rococo period, Boucher created many paintings, from which tapestries were woven. His scenes reflected the gentle and refined as in this composite of shepherds and shepherdesses indulging in love, flowers, and music. This tapestry, with or without border, comes in many sizes from 30" x 63" ($1,650) to 63" x 118" ($6,300).

French tapestries were predominately woven in one of three main centers during the 18th century. Gobelins, officially established in 1667, still manufacturers tapestries today, but the Beauvais Factory, established in 1664, no longer operates. Aubusson and Felletin, two French villages that date back to the 14th century, were known for tapestries woven by family workshops scattered in the area. While Felletin gradually dropped out, Aubusson has been rebuilding its tapestry industry over the 20th century.

Verdure Audenarde

The Forest of Audenarde, an early 17th century Brussels tapestry, is an example of greenery tapestries depicting only landscapes and nature, and occasionally a few animals or background buildings. This tapestry illustrates the influence of "cabbage leaves," an invention from the 16th century. And it comes in four sizes between 70" x 140" at $5,240 and 90" x 159" at $9,500. The White House in Washington, D.C. has a copy of this tapestry, which is shown sometimes behind President Clinton.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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