Coypel’s ‘Don Quixote’ Tapestries: Illustrating a Spanish Novel in Eighteenth-Century France

(“Contredanse pour tous” by Bergerie) – [Voiceover] In 1714,
the young Charles Coypel was asked to design a series of paintings based on Cervantes’
masterpiece, Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. The commission came
from the Duke of Antin, Director of the Batiments du Roi, the powerful institution that coordinated the building and decorating
of French royal residencies. The paintings served as models
for a series of tapestries woven at the Gobelins
Tapestry Manufactory. Over the next 36 years, Coypel painted 28 scenes. Cartoons, from the Italian cartone, such as these were typically
commissioned from painters at the Royal Academy like Coypel, and were used as guides for composition, coloration and scale by tapestry weavers. The weavers at the Gobelins
Tapestry Manufactory were among the most talented in Europe. Established in 1663, the manufactory produced sumptuous tapestries,
silver, light fixtures, and furniture for the
French kings’ residencies and for use as lavish diplomatic gifts to disseminate his glory
across foreign courts. By the 18th century, countless plays, ballets, and operas retold and interpretate the
adventures of Don Quixote for the court and a popular audience. Coypel himself wrote two plays inspired by Cervantes’ novel. Coypel’s scenes for Don Quixote
would have been familiar to theatrical audiences. His characters used performative
gestures and postures. His scenes are often
oriented toward the viewer, and perhaps most striking,
on several occasions, Coypel frames his scenes with a curtain, making them look as if they
are taking place on a stage. The success of the first set
of Don Quixote tapestries prompted the Duke of Antin
to extend the series. Between 1719 and 1734, Coypel added 12 paintings and a last scene in 1751. By the end of the 18th
century, about 200 tapestries from the story of Don Quixote
were woven at the Gobelins. Each tapestry panel
presents a Coypel scene within a rich alentour,
or decorative surround, of flowers, animals, and other motifs related to the adventures of Don Quixote. Coypel’s scene is identified by its title which is woven into the
bottom of the frame. While Coypel’s scenes remain unchanged throughout the 18th century, the alentour was modified six times
to update the tapestries to new tastes and fashions. The earliest alentours, designed by Jean-Baptiste
Belin de Fontenay Pere and the famous French decorative
painter, Claude Audran III, feature an abundance
of decorative elements, trophies, allegories, and
references to classical art. This style flourished at the
end of Louis XIV’s reign. In the early 1730s,
the decorative painter, Pierre-Josse Perrot,
designed a new alentour and a model for a
tapestry cover of a sofa, back and seat. A significant modification
took place in 1760 when the background of
the Don Quixote tapestries was changed from a
golden yellow to crimson. This background imitates
a damask wall covering in rose and crimson
festooned with large garlands of flowers and fruits tied
together by a blue ribbon. While the tapestries were luxury items, accessible to only a few wealthy patrons, Coypel’s paintings
gained international fame from a series of black
and white engravings. (“Contredanse pour tous” by Bergerie) Between 1723 and 1734, Coypel had 25 of the 28 cartoons engraved by some of the most distinguished French 18th century printmakers. Thousands of sheets were printed and sold individually or in folios. The prints were produced
and reduced in size, were also used as illustrations
in Cervantes’ novel, not only in French editions, but in English and Dutch as well. Coypel’s designs also
influenced tapestry production in France and abroad. Around 1730, 1745, the Bruxelles workshop
of Pieter van den Hecke produced a series of eight tapestries illustrating the story of Don Quixote. Six are inspired by
engravings after Coypel. Visually different from the Gobelins’ Don Quixote tapestries, the scenes cover the entire
surface of the tapestry panel, and are surrounded by a simple border that simulates a carved and gilded frame. In some instances, the Bruxelles designer combined figures from
two different engravings after Coypel. In the Arrival of the Shepherdesses at the Wedding of Comacho, the wedding guests and
the young girls dancing derive from Coypel’s
scene of the same subject but the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho come from the Entrance
of Love and Treasure at the Wedding of Comacho. More importantly, the cartoonist, working within the Flemish tradition, incorporated Coypel’s
figures into large landscapes reminiscent of 17th
century Dutch paintings. With these two Flemish tapestries, the exhibition brings
Coypel’s designs full circle. From the original cartoons to
the woven Gobelins tapestries to reproductions in prints and books, and later tapestries from the workshop of Pieter van den Hecke. We welcome you to visit
Coypel’s Don Quixote Tapestries, Illustrating a Spanish Novel
in Eighteenth-Century France on view in the Oval Room and East Gallery through May 17, 2015. For more information, please
visit our website, (“Contredanse pour tous” by Bergerie)

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