Photograph of Oval Room gallery with two paintings and a tapestry

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is considered by many to be among the greatest works of fiction ever written. From the publication in 1605 of the first of two volumes (the second followed ten years later), the novel enjoyed immense popularity. Reprints and translations spread across Europe, with the adventures of the knight Don Quixote and his companion, Sancho Panza, captivating the continental imagination and influencing both the performing and visual arts. Twenty-eight of the novel’s episodes are illustrated in a renowned series of paintings by Charles Coypel (1694–1752) that were full-scale preparatory designs (called cartoons from the Italian cartone) for tapestries to be woven at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris.

Charles Coypel was born into a family of distinguished French painters. Both his grandfather, Noël Coypel (1628–1707), and his father, Antoine Coypel (1661–1722), were directors of the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and, on several occasions, also produced paintings to be reproduced as tapestries at the Gobelins Manufactory. In 1715, Antoine was appointed First Painter to the King, a title Charles would inherit in 1747. In 1714, the young Charles Coypel was asked to collaborate with the Gobelins Manufactory in what would become one of its most celebrated series of tapestries: The Story of Don Quixote. Between 1714 and 1734, he delivered twenty-seven cartoons and in 1751, just before his death, an additional one. On view in the exhibition and in New York for the first time are five of these original paintings, which together with three Gobelins tapestry panels, two Flemish tapestries inspired by Coypel, and eighteen prints and books represent each of Coypel’s twenty-eight scenes. Coypel is believed to have selected the scenes and also determined the order in which he would paint them. Eight cartoons illustrate episodes from the first part of the novel — in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza embark on foolish, often comical adventures — while the remaining twenty paintings illustrate scenes from the second part in which the two protagonists evolve from buffoons to heroes.

For the selection of scenes and compositions, Coypel was influenced by contemporary French theater. By the early eighteenth century, numerous plays, ballets, and operas had retold and interpreted the adventures of Don Quixote for both the court and popular audiences. Coypel himself was a playwright whose first two plays were inspired by Cervantes’s novel. Though not a success, Don Quichotte — written when Coypel was only eighteen — demonstrates his familiarity with the tale. In 1720, when Coypel was painting the cartoons for the Gobelins, he wrote a second interpretation. Titled Les Folies de Cardenio, it was performed five times before the court, with the young Louis XV participating in the ballet. For the tapestry designs, Coypel created images of Don Quixote that would be familiar to theatrical audiences. His characters use gestures and postures seen on stage, and on several occasions, Coypel included a theater-like curtain.

The exhibition as installed in the Oval Room

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