Session 4

How North America wrote on history of tapestry?

Comment l’histoire de la tapisserie a été écrite en Amérique du nord?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Uris Center, The Art Studio Room
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Historians of tapestry in America were not embarrassed by nationalist assumptions that hindered their European predecessors and contemporaries. How did they work? What were their goals and methods? What did they bring? How antique dealers and interior decorators have contributed to the writing of the history of tapestry in America?

Les historiens de la tapisserie en Amérique n’ont pas été gênés par les présupposés nationalistes qui entravaient leurs prédécesseurs et contemporains européens. Comment ont-ils travaillé ? Quelles ont été leurs buts et leurs méthodes ? Qu’ont-ils apporté ? De quelle manière les antiquaires et décorateurs ont-ils contribué à l’écriture de l’histoire de la tapisserie en Amérique ?


9:30. – Welcome by Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge, department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chair and respondent: Peter Miller, the Bard Graduate Center.

9:45. – Introduction: Pascal-François Bertrand, J. Clawson Mills fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dominique Jarrassé, Professor, Département d’histoire de l’art et archéologie, Université Michel de Montaigne – Bordeaux 3.

10 :15. – Elizabeth Cleland, Associate curator, department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art: “An unbiased eye? Tapestry scholarship, Stateside”

11:00. – Candace Adelson, Senior Curator of Fashion & Textiles, Tennessee State Museum: “Cataloguing Tapestries: The Anglo-Saxon Contribution”

11:45. – Charissa Bremer David, Curator, department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The J. Paul Getty Museum: “”An upholstery and drapery workroom and a studio for designing interiors,” The Interior Decorating Department of French & Company, New York, 1907-1957”

14:00. – Round table discussion with members of the curatorial staff of the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Chair and respondent: Dr. Sarah Lawrence, Dean, Parsons The New School for Design.

The theme of this session will be the concept of identity in the applied arts. In three short presentations, Wolfram Koeppe (Marina Kellen French Curator) will raise the notion of the cabinet-maker as designer, with emphasis on the Roentgens, Melinda Watt (Associate Curator) will introduce the anonymous seamstresses behind some royal embroidery commissions, and Yassana Croizat-Glazer (Assistant Curator) will address the question of Bernard Palissy and French national identity. Chaired by Dr. Lawrence, the conversation will be open to the floor and we invite our audience members to participate in the ensuing discussion.

Summaries of the morning lectures

Elizabeth Cleland. “An unbiased eye? Tapestry scholarship, Stateside”

Historically, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European tapestry scholarship tended, understandably, to fall into camps, influenced by access to particular archives, motivated to celebrate a ‘national style’, or concentrating on those periods of production most glorious to the scholars’ own country: in France, the earliest weavers in Paris and Arras, and the glory days of the Manufacture Royale des Gobelins; in Belgium, the Renaissance’s great age of independent workshops, of speculators and agents in Brussels and Bruges; in England, Thomson and Marillier’s valiant efforts to document the Mortlake manufactory, with others like Barnard and Wace founding a homegrown literature on Sheldon.

At first glance, the earliest tapestry scholars in the United States of America would seem unfettered by these national biases, free instead to present complete and balanced responses to the medium.  Certainly, both George Leland Hunter (1912, 1925) and, slightly later, Phyllis Ackerman (1933) anchored their ambitious surveys (from 3rd Century BC Mesopotamia to contemporary New York!) firmly with surviving works; Hunter (1925) cavalierly declared his book to “waste little space on unimportant tapestries, or on tapestries that have ceased to exist”! The authors exhibit an American practicality of spirit in place of the perceived dry historicism or indebtedness to the archives of their European counterparts. The surviving record and these tapestries’ original owners take centre stage; to cite Ackerman’s rather rosy prose, tapestries are presented as “records of the habits, amusements, follies and illuminations of the human spirit”.

But by focusing so resolutely on surviving examples of the medium- “tapestries I have seen and know” (Hunter 1925)- these New World scholars faced a problem of access, with no royal or national collection to fall back on, no antiquated country houses or venerable institutions. Their indebtedness to those controlling access to tapestries, the dealers- in particular that unholy trinity Joseph Duveen, Jacques Seligmann and Mitchell Samuels- is strikingly apparent in their Acknowledgements, their illustrations and in those periods of tapestry they chose to extol above others. Almost by necessity, American tapestry scholarship could be said to have been held hostage by a set of circumstances quite unlike those faced by their European contemporaries. By guiding the tiller of these popular and widely-read tapestry surveys, the dealers in turn gained further means to nuance American public taste, whilst maintaining a remarkably visible public presence thanks to the striking number of tapestry loan exhibitions held at many of the nascent museums in America, their catalogues given a scholarly sheen by Hunter (Buffalo 1914, Philadelphia 1915, Cleveland 1918, Detroit 1919) and Ackerman (San Francisco 1922, Chicago 1926). This vicious circle of tapestry publications, private collecting and newly-acquired museum holdings might, in turn, explain why America has had to wait more than half a century for tapestry scholars to concentrate on those periods- like the Baroque- whose tapestries were not for sale in pre-Second World War America.

Candace Adelson. “Cataloguing Tapestries: The Anglo-Saxon Contribution”

The rise of interest in tapestries as a cultural and artistic manifestation in the nineteenth century accompanied and was fostered by the advent of, on one hand, modern historical scholarship, and on the other, of applied, or decorative arts museums and cathedral tourism. From the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries, the particularly broad educational mandate of British, and later U.S. museums encouraged tapping ever increasing scholarly resources to elucidate tapestries for the public in progressively more detailed museum publications. This paper will discuss the Anglo-Saxon contribution to the development of the modern tapestry catalogue as a highly effective, compact communication form, touching on some of the major figures in that evolution—from the Rev. Daniel Rock and A. F. Kendrick to Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo and Edith Standen.

Charissa Bremer David. “”An upholstery and drapery workroom and a studio for designing interiors,” The Interior Decorating Department of French & Company, New York, 1907-1957”

The interior decorating department of French & Company, a New-York based art dealer, is largely forgotten today but, for more than four decades, it served a base of the most elite American clients and art collectors. In regards to the fields of tapestry and upholstery, the activities of French & Company’s interiors department expose the then prevailing tendency – and underlying aesthetic rationale – for cutting, re-assembling, and re-purposing tapestries for the American market, even as those elite domestic interiors shrank in scale. Period illustrations of French & Company interiors from design articles in architecture and decorating magazines show how certain tapestries and textiles were judged appropriate for specific spaces, rooms, decors, and even genders.

 We are very grateful to the Director, Dr. Thomas P. Campbell, to Luke Syson, head of the ESDA department and all his strongly active and energetic team, and Lizzie Cleland for making this study day possible.

ARACHNE is a research program supported by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (France)

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