The Nationalization of the French Tapestry Industry and the Formation of the Gobelins

This article was first published in the International Tapestry Journal, Vol. 1 No. 4, March 1999

Since the middle of the seventeenth century, the name Gobelins has been closely associated with tapestry weaving. This alliance reflects the importance of the La Manufacture royale des meubles de la Couronne,  a state supported manufactory patented by Louis XIV which consisted of workshops devoted to goldsmithing, cabinetry and Florentine mosaic, as well as both high and low warp tapestry and embroidery. The manufactory came to be known as the Gobelins because it occupied the former property of Jean Gobelin, a dyer and merchant of scarlet cloth.  The state support of the arts which resulted in the formation of the Gobelins had been initiated by earlier monarchs and can be seen as a reflection of changes in the political and economic structure of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the nation states of Europe were beginning to take form. The centralization of political power was accompanied by the development of mercantilism, an economic theory which promoted a money based (as opposed to land based) economy. In this milieu the flow of money in and out of  countries became increasingly important.[1] During the sixteenth century the courts of Europe were decorated with tapestries woven in Brussels. The popularity of Flemish tapestry was partially due to quicker production rates in the low warp ateliers. However, in 1519 Pope Leo X commissioned the Acts of the Apostles, a suite of tapestries designed by Raphael and executed by Peter van Aelst. Their great popularity created a demand for tapestries designed by Italian Renaissance painters and Brussels’ alliance with those artists attracted commissions from throughout Europe.[2] For many European countries, the importation of tapestry represented a significant drain on the national coffers.

In order to reduce the importation of tapestry the French monarchy bestowed patents upon certain tapestry manufacturers, granting them privileges in return for a reliable, high quality product. As early as 1535 Francis I established a royal tapestry manufactory at Fontainebleau. In 1551 Henri II founded a tapestry school for orphans at the Hopital de la Trinite, Rue Saint Denis, which utilized cartoons from Italian Renaissance painters such as Giulio Romano.

From these beginnings, Henri IV expanded the foundation of the Parisian tapestry industry. In 1597 he set up a high warp workshop at Faubourg St. Antoine for Henri Laurent and Maurice du Bourg, two weavers who had been trained at la Trinite.[3]  Understanding the need to compete successfully with tapestries from the Netherlands, Henri IV encouraged Flemish weavers  to immigrate to France. Many of these men were anxious to emigrate because of the civil and religious wars in their country. Two such weavers patronized by Henri IV were Marc de Comans and Francois de la Planche. Initially located in the Palace of Tournelles, their workshop soon moved to the Maison des Canaye in the Faubourg St. Marcel, close by the Bievre River, a district which had come to be known as Gobelins because of the aforementioned dyers. In 1602 the two Flemings received letters of patent. They were granted titles of nobility, housing with gardens, exclusive rights regarding the sale of tapestry in France, a yearly stipend, a furnished workshop and the right to brew beer. In return, they agreed to keep sixty looms active, to train twenty five apprentices the first year,  twenty each succeeding year and to compete successfully with Flemish tapestry.[4] 

By 1627 de Comans and de la Planche’s workshop had woven over one thousand tapestries, including the History of Constantine, a series designed by Peter Paul Rubens which now hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[5]  Other painters providing models were Antoine Caron and Simon Vouet, a French painter who studied in Italy with Renaissance masters. In addition to their Parisian looms, de la Planche and de Comans were also responsible for two workshops in the provinces, one in Amiens and one at Tours. In 1627, at the death of de la Planche, his son, Raphael, moved his portion of the business to a location in Faubourg St. Germain.

Henri IV also set up the looms of Girard Laurent and Maurice Dubout in the galleries of the Louvre in 1608. The royal support of Henri IV soon brought attention  and acclaim to the products of the Parisian looms. However it was Louis XIV, the Sun King, who facilitated a more complete nationalization of the tapestry industry.

Louis XIV’s long and prosperous reign (1643 – 1715) has been seen as a reflection of the desire among the French people for stability. Decades of internal strife and a fragmented feudal economy left the populace eager for stability and unity.[6]  Louis XIV offered this through a monarchy which exerted increasing control over the culture and economy of France. Jean Colbert, the King’s powerful finance and cultural minister centralized the economy and established regulations that increased the wealth of the state by promoting export and discouraging import. These policies produced a large surplus which was used to support building projects as well as the arts, sciences and letters.[7] All of these activities promoted the king’s reputation and broadcast the glory of France.[8]  It was this unsurpassed patronage of the arts that culminated in a national manufactory for the furnishings of the crown.

In 1662 the buildings of the Gobelins estate were bought and under Colbert’s direction, rebuilt into a complex of housing and workshops.[9] Colbert’s objective was to raise the standards of French craftsmanship in order to furnish the royal residences and create a product for export that would astonish the world with its quality.[10] The sale of textiles outside France was encouraged through protective tariffs and facilitated by an aggressive road and canal building campaign.

The workshops established under Francis I, Henri  II and Henri IV, as well as the looms of de la Planche’s son and the workshop set up at Maincy in 1658 were consolidated in 1662 into the five tapestry workshops at the Gobelins.[11]  The letters of patent for the manufactory were received in 1667. They stipulated that sixty apprentices would be trained each year. Each apprentice underwent six years of study and four years in service before he received master weaver status. Charles Lebrun, a painter for the Maincy workshop who had trained with Vouet, was appointed artistic director.[12]  Over three hundred weavers worked under the leadership of Jean Lebevre, Jean Jans and Henri Laurent ( the high warp workshops) and Jean Delacroix and Jean Baptist Mozin (the low warp workshops.)[13]  Each workshop operated independently and contracted for work with both the state and private individuals. Weavers specialized on different parts of the design and were compensated on the basis of their output, with different levels of difficulty receiving  different pay rates.[14]

Lebrun also directed the newly formed Academy of Painting and Sculpture, an organization of artists who wished to distinguish themselves socially and economically from guild workers.[15]  His work is characterized by both a sense of grandeur and monumentality and by the kind of detail that indicates a fine understanding of decorative design. Of the many sets of tapestries woven during Lebrun’s tenure The Story of the King is perhaps the best known. The fourteen pieces which celebrate the first twenty five years of Louis XIV’s seventy two years in power span a cumulative distance of seventeen feet by three hundred fifty four feet. The complete set was woven once on high warp looms and three times on low warp looms and is rich with the gold thread flowing out of Europe’s colonies in the New World. Each set took over fifteen years to complete.[16]

Although most of the Parisian tapestry workshops had been consolidated into the Gobelins, this was not the extent of Louis XIV’s patronage. In 1664 a royal manufactory was set up fifty miles north of Paris at Beauvais under the direction of Louis Hinart. Hinart received a loan for construction of a low warp workshop and supplies as well as stipends for each foreign worker that he attracted to his atelier, for each set of tapestries exported and for training apprentices. Although the shop received royal commissions, it was created as a private enterprise that might satisfy the demand for tapestry from private individuals. In 1684 Philip Behagle assumed the leadership at Beauvais and it was during this time that the popular Grotesques of Jean Berain and J.B. Monnoyer were woven.

An additional objective of centralizing the economy of France was to support an army. Louis XIV’s reputation may have been built on his great patronage of the arts, but he also wished to establish his fame through military success. His chance for that came in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The drawn out Dutch and English wars drained the national coffers and many cultural and domestic programs were curtailed. In 1694 the Gobelins was closed.[17]  During this time many of the weavers worked at Beauvais, which because of its commercial nature, remained active. In addition, in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed religious tolerance for Protestants, including many of the Flemish weavers. Many weavers emigrated out of France. In 1697 peace was signed with Holland and the Gobelins reopened and has remained so. Although the productivity and grandeur of the Gobelins under Louis XIV has perhaps not been equaled, the prestige of the name remains. To see the formation of the Gobelins as the product of economic concerns in a newly formed nation and a monarch’s desire to create an aura of magnificence and splendor accounts for two of the motivating factors behind this unprecedented adventure. However, the tensions existing between the newly forming Academy and the guilds and the history of architectural decoration also play an important part in tapestry’s favored position in seventeenth century France. The elucidation of these latter factors will have to wait for another chapter.

End Notes

  1. Alfred Aspler, The Sun King: Louis XIV of France, New York: Julian Messner, 1965., p. 82.
  2. F.P. Thompson, Tapestry Mirror of History, New York: Crown Publishers, 1980, p. 89.
  3. Helen Churchill Candee, The Tapestry Book, New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1912, p.94 f.
  4. Madeleine Jarry, “Parisian Workshops of the Seventeenth Century” Acts of the Tapestry Symposium, November 1976, ed. Anna Bennet, San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1979, p. 171.
  5. Thompson,  p. 121.
  6. Albert Geurard, France, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
  7. John B. Wolf, “Introduction” Louis XIV: A Profile, ed. John B. Wolf, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. xvii.
  8. Pierre Gaxotte, The Age of Louis XIV, New York: The MacMillan Co., 1970, p. 123.
  9. George Leland Hunter, Tapestries: Their Origin, History and Renaissance, New York: John Lane Co., 1912, p. 162.
  10. Guy Walton, Louis XIV’s Versailles, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 48.
  11. George Leland Hunter, The Practical Book of Tapestries, Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott Co., 1925, p.139.
  12. Jarry, p. 179.
  13. Candee, p. 109.
  14. Hunter, Tapestries, p. 164
  15. Gaxotte, 123.
  16. Hunter, p. 145.
  17. Candee, p. 120.