Cartoons: They’re Not Just for Saturday Mornings

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters are likely familiar with our collection of tapestries.  These splendid objects are very impressive to Museum visitors, who may already know that tapestries are woven on giant looms.  But how do the weavers get the desired images to appear on a tapestry?  The answer is cartoons.

A cartoon is a full-scale drawing, which is placed behind the vertical warp threads of a loom.  Cartoons can also be used when designing frescoes.  For hundreds of years, when producing tapestries, weavers closely followed the cartoon to ensure that the tapestry design came out the way the artist intended.  The quality of the cartoon has to be high, because its appearance directly impacts the tapestry’s final outcome.  Modern weavers still use cartoons to create their tapestry’s design.

Comedies of Moliere…

Comedies of Moliere…

One of the rare books in Watson Library’s collection is The Comedies of Moliere: Tapestries with Subjects from the Comedies of Moliere, Executed Under Louis XV at the Royal Manufactory of Beauvais After Cartoons by Jean Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and Woven Under the Supervision of N. Besnier.  This book was requested from Watson Library by the Getty Museum through interlibrary services, but due to its age and condition, we were unable to loan it.  However, we were able to digitize it on demand, and then made it available electronically to researchers around the world.  Although this book was printed in a limited run of one-hundred, only eighteen are listed as being available on WorldCat.

Watson Library’s copy is number six of one-hundred

Watson Library’s copy is number six of one-hundred

This book features three photogravures which give researchers a good idea of what a tapestry cartoon would have looked like, followed by additional information about Moliere, his plays and the creators of the tapestry set.  The tapestries based on these cartoons were at one point acquired by J.P. Morgan, but were later sold to an unknown collector. 

A scene from Moliere’s "Le Malade Imaginaire," or "The Imaginary Invalid"

A scene from Moliere’s “Le Malade Imaginaire,” or “The Imaginary Invalid”

The cartoons in this book were designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, a French painter.  Some of Oudry’s other works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

For more information on the creation of tapestries, the essay How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made, by Museum director Thomas P. Campbell, is an excellent resource.