Gobelins Royal Manufactory
Founded in 1663, the Gobelins Royal Manufactory produced sumptuous furnishings for the French king’s residences and lavish diplomatic gifts that spread his glory to foreign courts. Woven nine times between 1717 and 1794, The Story of Don Quixote is one of the Gobelins’s most celebrated tapestry series. The number of panels and the selection of Charles Coypel’s scenes varied with each weaving. The first weaving (1717–19), for example, included the first fifteen scenes painted by Coypel while the second weaving (1721−35) and the fourth (1746–49) were each composed of twelve pieces. The third weaving (1733–35) had only five pieces, but there were sixty-seven in the eighth (1763–87), including three that are in the exhibition. Such flexibility was possible because Coypel’s scenes were not designed to follow the chronology of Cervantes’s novel or any other order. This was greatly appreciated by the director of the manufactory, who explained in 1752: “This tapestry set has the advantage that it can be separated into as many or as few pieces as needed, and it is therefore even more suited as a present from the king to princes and ambassadors.” At least six panels of the fifth weaving were hung in the 1750s in Louis XV’s apartments in the Château de Marly. Others were presented as diplomatic gifts — like the three panels in the exhibition — or purchased by distinguished clients.
A total of about two hundred panels from The Story of Don Quixote were woven during the eighteenth century. Each panel presents a central scene by Coypel framed by a trompe-l’oeil carved and gilded wooden frame that appears to be hung on a wall covered in yellow or red fabric. The scenes are surrounded by a decorative border of flowers, animals, and other motifs related to the adventures of Don Quixote. This border, known as an alentour, was originally designed by Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay père (1653–1717) and Claude Audran III (1658–1734). Unlike Coypel’s scenes, which remained unchanged throughout the eighteenth century, the alentour was modified on six occasions to adapt to new tastes and fashions. All the versions, however, retain the initial idea of creating a highly decorative border that could be shortened in length, as this allowed the tapestries to be slightly adjustable in size, according to the taste or need of the owner.
Tapestries consist of warps — fixed threads, usually of undyed wool — and colored wefts that are interwoven with the base warp to create the image. The Don Quixote tapestries were woven on high-warp looms, with the exception of the seventh weaving, which was produced on low-warp looms. On high-warp looms, the warp threads were stretched vertically (see illustration). In order to weave an exact reproduction of the painted scene, the cartoon was hung on a wall behind the weaver, who looked at the reflection in a mirror placed on the wall in front of him. Only a few cartoons have survived today, and most are in poor condition. Coypel’s Don Quixote scenes are no exception. Because of their enduring success, the paintings needed to be restored several times during the eighteenth century. Coypel’s hand is no longer visible on the cartoons used in multiple weavings. But those woven only once or twice — such as the examples presented here — show most of their original surface.
Weaver Working at a Tapestry on a High-warp Loom at the Gobelins Manufactory, plate 9 of Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers … (Paris 1771)