The Human Tapestry

John Haber
in New York City

Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Charles Coypel

The eyes of the late Renaissance ran everywhere, from the High Renaissance that nurtured it to a world coming apart. And few artists ranged more widely than Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

Born in 1502, Coecke maintained a busy workshop in Antwerp while serving as court artist to the Hapsburgs and supplying weavers in Brussels with the designs for their art. His tapestries entered the collections of kings and princes in Tuscany, England, and France. He himself traveled to Italy as an admirer—and to Constantinople with a sales pitch to the sultan. He ranged widely in media as well, including painting, prints, tapestry, an ornamental cup, and stained glass. With "Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry," the Met cannot turn him into a major artist. Yet it makes the case for tapestry as central to his century, and so does the Frick for Charles Coypel two centuries later. Pieter Coecke van Aelst's Adam and Eve After the Fall (photo by Bruce White, Palazzo Pitti, c. 1548)

A multimedia Renaissance

Does that sound familiar from the present—agonizing over the past while drifting every which way and into the future? What about debates over the status of fabric and the decorative arts, as in "Thread Lines" at the Drawing Center? What about an artist who never even touched his best-known work, in an endlessly reproducible medium at that? Is Postmodernism really a Neo-Mannerism, much as Mannerism was a kind of Post-Renaissance? Back then, weaving was not a long-neglected woman's art form, for it prospered in the hands of guilds and of men. Yet the curator, Elizabeth Cleland, fully intends a rediscovery.

If you have never heard of Coecke, you are not alone. A classic survey of the Northern Renaissance does not so much as mention him or, for that matter, give much space to his major antecedents and competitors. Long thought to have studied with Bernard van Orley, a Flemish Mannerist, he may have learned instead from someone even more obscure, his father-in-law. Does that make him van Orley's collaborator? Perhaps, but the collaboration consisted of turning the older artist's tapestry designs into full-scale templates on paper, or cartoons. That work hardly survives, but it launched the younger man's career.

Coecke was also establishing himself as a painter. And it takes a close look at both men's painting to know them. The show opens with Coecke in his twenties. van Orley had a chilly, lumpen style, with hard edges and a tendency to pile it on, including literal piles of bodies. He was also an admirer of Italy, to which he never traveled. Coecke arose in a second wave of "Romanizers," most notably Maerten van Heemskerck, but he runs to detailed, open-ended compositions all the same.

Coecke is at his most inventive with a Last Supper. He returns to an older model, before Leonardo and Rembrandt, with Judas on the near side of the table to sort out the good guys and the bad. That may not make much sense, not when Jesus is making an announcement that causes surprise, but it puts the viewer on the spot when it comes to thoughts of betrayal. The artist also places the table off-center, with a pantry at left, part of that predilection for mundane reality. And then Coecke "improves" things, with a nod to Italy after all. He adds a second apostle to the side with Judas, for a bit of symmetry.

He could be intimate, as in a Holy Family, although the family itself is not. Jesus is too busy standing erect like a god, an angel above is too busy dancing, and both the humble mother and oafish human father are half asleep. More often, one's eyes fly every which way, even in a relatively spare Adoration of the Magi, perhaps his first known panel. In Christ Carrying the Cross, one spots Jesus soon enough, in a striking blue robe, albeit crossed by the kicking leg of a tormenter. From there, though, figures pack closely right up to the gates of Jerusalem. Then the crowd comes to a sudden halt, as if about to teeter over into the hills behind.

The painter is discovering narrative as a record of action. In A Game of Backgammon, both a brothel scene and a bit of moralizing (much like later Dutch genre painting), death tries to interrupt lovers who hardly notice or care. And yet Coecke is also discovering what will set his work apart—the passage from story-telling into landscape. Earlier painters like Jan van Eyck had woven religious symbols into the fabric of an actual city and everyday life. Later painters like Pieter Bruegel were to unite foreground and background into a single epic sweep. Bruegel in fact married Coecke's daughter and may have entered his workshop. One can think of the 1500s as a period of transition, much like art today.

Fragments of a cartoon

It is the period of his tapestries, with a heavily populated landscape their most prominent feature. Cleland, a specialist in sculpture and the decorative arts, follows up on a broader survey of the art form with nineteen of them, drawn from each of Coecke's eight series. Like his paintings, they do not lack for depth or action, which add suspense when his characters and compositions cannot. In the life of Saint Paul, begun in 1529, one can barely sort out the human tapestry. And in series about Joshua, Abraham, and the Seven Deadly Sins, that tapestry has reached a fever pitch. In the last of these, from the early 1530s, vanity looks no more boastful than sloth and no less lazy. All one knows for certain is sin.

Memories of the Ottoman Empire may have shaped a key compositional element, the procession. Coecke responded to Constantinople with a stately sketch of Customs and Fashions of the Turks. He also found inspiration in Rome, in tapestry cartoons by Raphael around 1515. Mannerism, he might have said to himself, begins here. Yet the intricate weave across two dimensions inspires his art all along. Looking at the sketch for a triptych, laid out in detail right down to its three-part frame, one can imagine a tapestry in the making.

The Met does a good job of explaining the process. As with van Orley, someone sketches the scene, and then someone copies it in distemper, a glue-based medium, while adding color and enlarging it to the exact size of the finished product. The weavers take it from there, in fine silk, richly colored wool, and glittering metal threads—often as not in multiple sets. That step reverses the composition unless the weaver uses a mirror, but no matter. The procession remains. Some cartoon fragments survive to this day.

Coecke turns to Ovid for his narratives of the 1540s, as well as to a greater simplicity, if not exactly depth of feeling. Just two figures may dominate, give or take the representation of sculpture behind them sticking out its tongue. That simplicity brings a greater unity and anticipates the Baroque. Could a fallen Eve from shortly before Coecke's death in 1550 have influenced Peter Paul Rubens, who became a collector? As god sweeps in to accuse Adam and Adam points to Eve, she raises a robust arm and fingers her hair in shame—but also in the instinctive gesture of a fully recognizable woman. The snake wraps around the tree between god and man, face down and smirking, but woman has the last word.

The artist never did give up painting, although paintings grow few and far between. He became dean of the Antwerp painter's guild in 1537. Still, he misses out on Mannerism at its darkest. One has to look elsewhere for the dismantling of High Renaissance comforts in Parmigianino, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, El Greco, and Rome after Raphael. Coecke's last monumental triptych, a Descent from the Cross, is also the least coherent. He still has his penchant for action and the heavy colors of late Mannerism, from the writhing of crucified thieves to Mary's sinking into John's arms. They promise a greater rhythm and insight, but they never come through.

Still, the larger scenes fall apart because they push so remarkably into space—and because god lies in the details. Those cartoon fragments survived for a reason, like a horse's head, eyes taking in the message of the apostle, or the face of a man turning away in fear as Paul directs the burning of pagan books. (The artist, at work during the Counter Reformation, is on the side of the Christian censor.) Compared to the somber uniformity of tapestries, they also have touches of vivid color. The show cannot put tapestry on a par with Renaissance painting or Coecke with its enduring painters, but it makes clear how they helped to close out an era.

In praise of folly

Don Quixote is a long book, and part of the pleasure in reading is watching it grow. The fool caught up in his folly becomes a dreamer caught up in a humbler reality, and a parody of romance becomes a metafiction. One looks back to see how one's perspective has changed along with the author's. One may find that, all along, the point was never to settle for the half truths that pass for nobility. Part of the pleasure of the Don Quixote tapestries at the Frick is watching them grow, too, starting with paintings by Charles Coypel that themselves have as much to do with the follies of their time as with literature from the past. The big difference is that they continued to grow even after Coypel's death, as first and foremost a collaboration.

Charles Coypel's Asleep, Don Quixote Fights the Wineskins (Palais Impérial de Compiègne/Louvre, 1716)It is not easy to follow the players or the stages, itself a testimony to collaboration. One might think of Coypel, painter to Louis XV, as the creative force doling out cartoons for anonymous weavers to replicate as best they can. And indeed the Met's case for Renaissance tapestry hinges on their artistry. In reality, though, the Gobelins manufactory came to him in 1714 to set things in motion. The artist, who had just turned twenty-one, went on to illustrate twenty-eight episodes from the novel—a kind of Miguel de Cervantes greatest hits album. In time, nine weavings resulted in some two hundred renditions to hang in the royal apartments and to serve as royal gifts, on top of books and prints for a wider public produced the year before Coypel's death in 1752.

Got that straight? Postmodernism keeps questioning originality—or, with Sturtevant, to questioning when an imitation is even a copy. Coypel's, though, was a less questioning era, and the role of the copyist is that much harder to pin down. The curator, Charlotte Vignon, includes five paintings from French museums along with three Gobelins tapestries from the Getty Museum, which has collaborated before with the Frick on drawings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. They accompany two Belgian tapestries in the Frick collection, also based on Coypel and rarely taken out of storage. The Hispanic Society fills out the picture with eighteen engravings (on, be it duly noted, the four hundredth anniversary of the novel's completion).

The series could hardly look more different, another sign of collaboration. The French tapestries lighten Coypel's shadows and brighten his colors. They also add striking borders, or alentours, that could themselves change in response to the requirements of new owners. Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay and Claude Audran create the illusion of gilded frames and hanging flowers, with a dog leaping in appetite or delight. Perhaps it, too, is caught in an illusion. The Frick's own tapestries, from the workshop of Peter van den Hecke beginning in 1730, combine details from Coypel into panoramic landscapes—and someone else entirely, Philippe de Hondt, supplied the designs.

The Gobelins tapestries thrive on pronounced contrasts. A weapon leaning on a chair asserts its weight, while the principal actors seemingly float above. Subordinate figures draw back in real or pretend terror as hunters stab their prey, while others smile knowingly to catch the viewer's eye. The Frick tapestries have more ethereal colors and more distinct episodes. Their format has a debt to Dutch landscape, as with Hercules Segers. As for the engravings, cross-hatching lends a metallic tone that hardens the narrative almost before it begins.

Who are all these people? To be sure, Coypel has Don Quixote in his madness and Sancho Panza, taking on a role nearly equal to his master's. Yet the minor actors all but take over the joint, especially in the Frick tapestries, for a display of weddings and stately dances. This is, after all, the century of François Boucher, Jean Honoré, and the all but preposterous period rooms elsewhere in the Frick Collection. Still, the tapestries are more down-to-earth and reflective, much like the novel, with a clear parallel to the follies of their heroes in the courtly play of dance, theater, a puppet show, and a child's toys. Between Spanish fiction and the reality of a doomed French aristocracy, they find one last collaboration.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 11, 2015, Charles Coypel at The Frick Collection through May 17. "Thread Lines" ran at the Drawing Center through December 14, 2014.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME