The tapestry banner of St. Geneviève, from the Atelier des Gobelins, an important and well documented Parisian work produced by Royal commission.


183 X118 CM.

            The tapestry depicts St. Genevieve, patroness of the city of Paris. She lived in the 5th century and saved her town from Attila’s invasion in 451, and again protected the citizens after the conquest of the Francs.
Following the traditional iconography the Saint is represented in the tapestry as a shepherdess standing between her lambs, her eyes turned towards the sky, whilst weaving her wool.
            She is wearing a popular costume of the early 19th century , with brilliant colours in the shades of emerald green for the skirt and the head cloth, lilac for the corset, a white blouse, and  a  rosy-orange  apron held at the waist by a red cloth. All around the flock is grazing and two dogs are at her feet. The background is composed of a green hill and a wide sky shaded by luminous clouds, graduating in colour from pink to beige just like the complexion of the saint herself.
           On the left side the tapestry is finished by a tight  trompe l’oeil golden border composed by  short straight lines alternating with dots. On the opposite side the border is composed of plain blue tissue. On the two horizontal sides the border consists of modern matching blue textile. The dimensions and the image’s devotional style are particular to the banner, which might have been used as well as an altar cloth.
           On top of the nearly perfect condition of the textile net and of the colors it is remarkable the finesse of the  weaving the density of which is  11 threads per centimeter. It is one of the thickest registered in the tapestry’s history. Extraordinary the nearly tactile effect  produced by the dress of the Saint, the  mane of the flock  and the dog’s hairs.

            A very refined detail is to be found  in the treatment of the  thread that the girl holds in her hand suspended  in front of her apron,  which has been rendered  through leaving  minimal adjacent  cuts  in the weaving of the costume. A great effect is again to be perceived in the luminosity overall perceived and which manifests itself either as  the  soft splendor  of the sky either like  the silky brilliancy of the dress, and in the contrasts between lights and shades, and again in the reflecting light on the girl’s skin.
           The dreamy expression of the Saint, her static posture in the manner of the XV century (with a possible reference to a model by Perugino) combined however with the optical truth  of the details  and the light,  automatically invite us to  date the work as being during  the first years of the 19th century. In the Restauration climate of holy imagery  that was the time of Purism, the so called Nazarenes, while the identity of the Saint makes one look for  the origin of the tapestry in France, in a Parisian scene.
When the co-ordinate were found in which to inscribe this work, the philological solution is found in the identification with a banner realized in between 1822 and 1823 in the Parisian workshop of the Goblins, in which a detailed documentation is to be found in Fenaille Calmette 1912, p.365 (cfr: the title is to be found at the end of the page) and of which all trace was lost.

The tapestry in fact correspond to a banner  with the image of Saint Geneviève  woven at the Goblins  under the direction of  Laforest senior (1817-1827). The weaver called Harland produced the tapestry.  It was started the 17th of June 1822 and finished the 22nd of December 1823,  when it was taken officially into stock at the workshop. The documents describe the dimensions of the banner as being cm.190X137, slightly superior if compared to our tapestry but which include a border that might have existed originally and which was only partially executed. Between the 2nd of January 1823 and the 31 of December 1826 two vertical pieces of border were woven in the same atelier, but never finished, copied by a Mulard’s sample which should have been applied to the banner.

           They were never applied and got lost during the fire, which ravaged the Atelier in1871. The banner’s model was officially commissioned the 15th of may 1822 (but was already started and visible from the beginning of March) by the Minister of the Royal Household, the Marquis  of Lauriston, with the mediation of Monsieur des Rotours, to a famous painter: Pierre Narcisse Guérin: they  feared that the artist, very slow at painting, and in poor health, wouldn’t be able to produce the model soon enough. The work, an oil on canvas painting,  was ready, however, in a month.

  The commitment shown to prepare the banner was testified in a writing from Cassas, the Goblin’s inspector, on the 3rd. Of March 1822 (recorded by Fenaille Calmette 1912, p.365).

Nous nous sommes concertés et nous avons examiné soigneusement avec Mr. Mulard pour prendre tous les moyens possibles relatifs à la plus parfaite exécution de Sainte Geneviève. Ce tableau plein d’ harmonie et de grâce, demande à être médité et surtout exécuté  dans toutes ses parties par d’ habiles mains. Il est fort à désirer que Mr. Laforest puisse entreprendre la tète de la sainte. Son beau talent est tout fait convenable  à cette partie si essentielle, surtout pour en rendre l’ expression douce et toute céleste, ainsi que le ton du couleur un peu rembruni, que l’ artiste y a si judicieusement répandu, la bordure est d’un bon effet,riche d’ ornement et cependant tranquille dans son ensemble; combinaison bien sentie pour éviter de trop attirer la vue sur cette partie  accessoire.”

              Fenaillle Calmette 1912  declares on the other hand that the newspapers of the time advertised the disclosure of the banner at the “Exposition des produits des manufactures” that took place in December 1822, but the banner was not presented, as it was going to be finished only one year later. Des Rotours was intending to present it  to the King (Louis XVIII, or from 1824 Charles X) together with an altar antependium woven at the Gobelins from a model of Laurens. From a letter by the Viscount de Rochefoucauld to des Rotours on the 10th of January 1826, we finally find out that the banner was offered to the St. Geneviève church in Paris. The later story of the tapestry to the very recent apparition  on the antiquarian market remain to be researched.
               The identification of  St. Genevieve recorded here with the banner from the Gobelins in1822 –23 is certain, because of the total similarity of the tapestry with the painting from which was woven and which still exists even if unpublished.
               It is quoted by Guerin, Pierre Narcisse, in G.K. Nagler, Neues Algemeines Kunstler-Lexikon 2 Auflage 6 band, Linz1905 p181 as existing at the Luxembourg Palace In Paris. Then it went to the Louvre (inv 5179) and is now shown in the Compiègne Castle Chapel (Musée National du Chateau de Compiègne). The painting is quoted by different sources to still be there: I Compin, A Roquebert, Catalogue sommaire illustré des peintures Du Louvre et du Musée d’ Orsay.V Ecole Francaise, Annexes et index Paris 1986 p. 270. B Faucart , Le renouveau de la peinture religieuse  en france 1800-1860 Paris 1987 p. 390. Les années romantiques . La peinture francaise de 1815 a 1850, cat  exposition ( Nantes, Paris, Piacenza 1995-1996) Paris 1995 p 468. A direct analysis of the painting shows that our tapestry is an exact replica in  dimension, image  and colouring and that it doesn’ t reflect the image “en contre partie” as was often the case in the productions of  high looms.
              In relation to Pierre Narcisse Guerin, as can be read  in the short monography and  concise bibliography produced by J.Whiteleyy, (Guerin Pierre Narcisse in  J. Turner, ed., The dictionary of art, London- New York 1996, pp. 791-795) one must remember that he was a contemporary of David, Ingres and Delacroix, and that he was one of the most important  French painters of the Napoleonic age. Less known and researched is the later phase of his career during the Restauration  period. Pupil of  Brenet and Regnault,  he made his début  at the Salon in 1795 and in 1797 won the Prix of Rome with the “ Death of Cato” (Paris , Ecole des Beaux Arts). He achieved a great success with the painting named “The return of Marcus Sestus“ and  “Phaedra and Hippolyt”,  shown respectively at 1799 and 1802 Salons, now both at the Louvre, and in our days judged to be some of the masterpieces of French Neoclassicism.
             After spending some time in  Italy (Naples, Pompei and Paestum) in 1803, he went back to Paris where he produced more Napoleonic propaganda paintings ( Napoleon forgive  the rebels in Cairo, Castle of Versailles) and some others on mythological or literary themes ( Sheperds  on Aminta’s grave-1805, Andromac and Pirrus 1810 both at the Louvre). He was trying to mix the classicism learned by Poussin and David  with an archaistic  taste shared with some others pupils of David as well as  with the debutante Ingres, and with a “magical” undertone  expressed by the pre romantic trend of Girodet. From 1815, owing to ill health, Guerin, didn’t paint much longer. He dedicated himself  to teaching at both the Institute de France and  The French Academy in Rome of which he was  the director from1823 to 1828. 

              The model painting for the banner of St. Geneviève, early expression of the Puristic trend and “ neoQuattrocento “ in France, was therefore realized in the phase immediately preceding the starting of the painter’s work in Rome(1823) and was the only model painted by Guerin for a tapestry  during  the whole of his career.
               To conclude; the tapestry banner of St. Geneviève is an important and well documented Parisian work, from the Atelier des Gobelins, woven  in 1822-1823, produced by Royal commission, based on a painted model still existing,  that was executed by a notorious painter . The incredible finesse of the weaving characterises other tapestries executed in this period at the Gobelins, with the specific aim to reproduce, in the textile transcription, the  tiniest details, the chiaro-scuro and the luminous  effects  existing in the painted models. They are very rare masterpieces to be found in Italy: one of them (executed in the same workshop on a vertical loom directed by Laforest, who carried out  the St. Geneviève, but not as fine as the latter ) was given by Charles X of France to Pope Leon XII  in 1826 and is now at the Quirinale Palace: it is “The last sermon by St. Etiènne” from a model by Abel de Pujol (n: Forti Grazzini, Il patrimonio artistico  del Quirinale. Gli arazzi, Milano-Roma 1994,II pp.488 491 n.169)

Bibliographie: M. Fenaille- F. Calmette, Etat générale des tapisseries de la Manufacture des Gobelins depuis son origine jusqu’à nos jours 1600-1900.V. Période du XIXème siècle1794-1900,  Paris 1912 p 365


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