In the front building of the Gobelin manufactory in Paris there is a large exhibition hall, on two floors, displaying some of their more recent tapestries and carpets. The first time I went through this exhibition hall I was mildly impressed. Then I took a tour of the manufactory to see how the tapestries and carpets are made, using traditional techniques that have changed very little since the seventeenth century. After that I went through the exhibition hall again and was much more than mildly impressed, now that I had seen how much skill and painstaking work went into making these magnificent works of art.
Although the same techniques are used today as in the past four centuries, the subjects have changed. Now they tend to create tapestries based on modern paintings. There is a committee of artists to decide which paintings to use.
The Gobelin Gallery on the Avenue des Gobelins was built in the early twentieth century and completed in 1914. The caryatids on the façade (statues of women who seem to be supporting the roof on their heads) were made by the sculptor Antoine Injalbert (1845–1933), who also made a statue of the Count of Mirabeau as a fiery orator that is on display in a far back corner of the Panthéon. (You can see this statue in my post Mitterrand and the Panthéon if you scroll down far enough.)
On our tour of the Gobelin Manufactory we first went through this courtyard with a statue of Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), who was the director of the manufactory for many years under King Louis XIV. After that, we were led out a back gate, across a street (rue Berbier du Mets) and into another compound where the workshops are currently located.
Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the workshops, so I can’t show you how the tapestries and carpets are made. Suffice it to say that it is all done by hand, using wool and silk threads of 22,000 different colors. At present they employ 30 staff members (down from 250 during the reign of Louis XIV) and have 15 looms. The ones we saw were located in a modern five-storey building overlooking the Square René Le Gall (which is actually a park), with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let in a maximum of natural light, augmented by ‘natural light’ electric lights along the ceiling.
We watched several skilled workers, mainly women, weaving tapestries on one floor and carpets on another. They worked quickly, yet in half an hour each of them had made perhaps two or three square centimeters of finished tapestry or carpet. The carpet makers in addition had to take a wooden mallet and carefully pound down the woven threads to make them as close together as possible.
Each year they take on three or four new apprentices to be trained in one of these crafts. At the end of the three or four year apprenticeship, each apprentice makes a tapestry or carpet of about 30 square centimeters, so to speak as a final exam.
We asked our guide what qualities such an apprentice would need, and her immediate answer was “patience”. I must admit I started getting somewhat nervous watching the weavers at work, since I have been accused of a lot of things but never of being particularly patient.
Each year there are six to seven tapestries that “fall from the loom”, as they say. These are not for sale, but are all used by the French state to furnish palaces, public buildings or embassies.
Another thing I learned on the tour is that the Gobelin family actually had nothing to do with tapestries. The Gobelins were dyers who set up shop on the banks of the Bièvre River in the fifteenth century and made a great deal of money over four generations by dyeing cloth, especially with scarlet dye which at the time was very much in demand. The Gobelins also acquired large tracts of land near the Bièvre.
In the seventeenth century, when the Gobelins had become too rich to be bothered with dyeing cloth any more, their buildings and land were first rented (under Henry IV) and then bought (under Louis XIV) by the French Crown for use as a tapestry and furniture manufactory. So the tapestries came to be called Gobelins only because they were made in buildings that had formerly belonged to the Gobelin family.
The guided tour I took was in French. I don’t know if they also do them in English, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Places on the tours are limited, so I reserved mine in advance through the fnac website, but in this case there was (unusually) no print-it-yourself option so I had to pick up my ticket at one of the fnac stores.
Address of the Gobelin Gallery: 42 avenue des Gobelins, 75013 Paris
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2017.