Woven Gold at the Getty

Hosted by

Can you believe it has been 300 years since the death of the King Louis XIV? The Sun King, as he is known, reigned from 1643 to 1715 and his legacy is more than ancient regime glory. His cultural patronage is legendary: the palace of Versailles, Sevres porcelains, and exquisite tapestries.

"Château of Monceaux / Month of December," about 1668–1676
Design conceived by Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690), about 1665- by 1668
Wool, silk, and gilt metal–wrapped thread; 400 x 660 cm (157 1/2 x 259 13/16 in.)
Le Mobilier National, Paris
Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

Tapestries were considered one of the highest of the arts and after a visit to the Getty Museum to see Woven in Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV, on view through May 1, 2016, you may be inclined to agree. Often commissioned from the greatest painters of the period, including Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens and Charles Le Brun, each tapestry was designed to be seen from a great distance to cover the walls of grand formal salons, and to provide insulation from the cold. Spectacular as they were in that context, this exhibition is an opportunity to see them from the perspective of the weavers, just inches away from the intricate workmanship. Standing close, you can marvel at the thousands of multi-colored, gold and silver yarns of wool or silk that were interwoven to create monumental pictures on historical or biblical subjects. Buildings, landscapes, figures, animals, plants, words; it took years, even decades, to complete a single tapestry. Each was a declaration of power, wealth and taste.

Design by Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690) with the collaboration of Adam Frans van der Meulen for the hunt scene in the medallion (Flemish, 1632–1690), 1664
Wool, silk, and gilt metal-wrapped thread; 480 x 580 cm (189 x 228 3/8 in.)
Le Mobilier National, Paris
Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

Organized by the Getty's curator Charissa Bremer-David, this is the first time these 14 weavings have been shown together outside of France. They are survivors of the French Revolution, as well, a time when countless tapestries were burned to capture the gold and silver within them. That gold was abundant. Even today, each tapestry glimmers with woven reflections on water, in the sky, or in the curling locks of heroes.

"Constantius [I] Appoints Constantine as his Successor," about 1625–1627
Design by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), 1622
Border design attributed to Laurent Guyot (French, about 1575– after 1644), about 1622–1623
Wool, silk, and gilt metal-wrapped thread; 458 x 407 cm (180 5/16 x 160 1/4 in.)
Le Mobilier National, Paris
Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

Louis XIV was just 22 when he assumed the throne and he added to the tapestries that he had inherited, becoming an avid collector of Renaissance tapestries, especially those designed by or in the style of the great Raphael. Before 1600, tapestries were produced largely in Brussels or Antwerp. It was Henry IV, the grandfather of Louis XIV, who built up the production of such tapestries within France, establishing workshops in Paris.

Louis XIV took that further, establishing the Royal Tapestry Manufactory at Gobelins to produce hangings for his palaces and chateaus. (Tapestries continue to be produced there.)

"The Entry of Alexander into Babylon," about 1665–probably by 1676
Design by Charles Le Brun
Cartoon for the vertical loom by Henri Testelin (French, 1616–1695), about 1665
Wool, silk, gilt metal– and silver-wrapped thread; 495 x 810 cm (194 7/8 x 318 7/8 in.)
Le Mobilier National, Paris
Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

This exhibition features a series on The Story of Alexander, chronicling the accomplishments of the great military leader and suggesting parallels with those of Louis XIV. Like much of the art commissioned during his reign, these were produced for their symbolic celebration of royal power, military might and moral values. Le Brun's painting of one scene got him the commission to produce the series and to become master of the tapestry workshop.

Cartoon fragments for "The Entry of Alexander into Babylon," before 1690
Design by Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690), by 1665
Oil on canvas, Unframed, 317 x 387 cm (124 13/16 x 152 3/8 in.)
Le Mobilier National, Paris
Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

The exhibition features elements of Le Brun's entire production including the cartoon — a painting from which the weaving was made — preparatory drawings and engravings, all of the spectacular scene of The Entry of Alexander into Babylon, woven between 1665 and 1676. The young leader (like Louis XIV), rides in his chariot drawn by an elephant, cheered by figures in the street and on horseback. The architecture of the imagined legendary city looms in the background. The tapestry is bordered with heraldry and arms and Latin inscriptions. Like most of the tapestries, it is immense, nearly 17 feet tall and nearly 27 feet long, so you are looking at an image larger than a movie screen but seen up close, you can see every bit of warp and weft. From any perspective, it is a heady experience.