High above the Circulation Desk and the central hall of the Vassar College Library, on the four interior walls of the great tower, hangs a set of five tapestries illustrating the mythological story of Cupid and Psyche. The tapestries were purchased in Paris in 1904 by the architect F. R. Allen for Mary Clark Thompson, an alumna of the college, who then donated them to Vassar College for hanging in the library named after her husband, Frederick Ferris Thompson.
The set was designed and woven in the first half of the seventeenth century in the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium). Scholar Elizabeth Hazelton Haight published the tapestries and discussed the subject of Cupid and Psyche in the journal Art and Archaeology of 1923. According to Miss Haight, when the tapestries were briefly removed for cleaning in 1921, they were carefully examined by George Leland Hunter, an expert on tapestries, who suggested that they were made during the first half of the seventeenth century in modern-day Belgium.
Click here to read about the story of Cupid and Psyche and see pictures of the tapestries.
The Tradition of Tapestry Making
Sets of tapestries were highly valued. For centuries, they were used as a very important diplomatic gift. They were portable, so that they could be used at more than one castle or manor-house. Sometimes they were loaned from one aristocrat to another. In times of desperation, they could be pawned for ready cash. Sadly, there are also many accounts of them being burned so that a conqueror or an army could obtain access to gold threads woven into the fabric. However, most of all, sets of tapestries were regarded as being in the mainstream of artistic production.
As for their manufacture, they were woven by craftsmen working at their looms from cartoons provided by tapestry designers. Often, but not always, both weavers and designers were anonymous, although by the 17th century, it was more common to have name artists design the cartoons. The Vassar tapestries were woven on low warp (bas lisse) tapestry looms. The cartoon was placed under the warp. The weavers pulled the warp aside to see the design underneath. The warp of the tapestry was perpendicular to the design; in other words, the design was woven sideways. The weaver could follow the intricacies of the pattern as he wove. The tapestries were woven from the back, resulting in the face of the tapestry being the reverse of the cartoon.(1) The finished piece would be cut off the loom as it was completed. Thus, for example, all pieces from one loom would have at least one dimension in common: the height is determined by the width of the loom, because of the orientation of the warp to the design.(2) In the case of the Vassar College tapestries, all are 11 feet high, but have varying widths.
The center of the industry was Flanders--Brussels and Bruges--with the center of sales in the “Tapissierspand” (Tapestry-Makers Hall) in Antwerp. This was the state of affairs from about 1480 to the fall of Antwerp in 1585 to Spanish rule, at which point many craftsmen and dealers escaped. Yet many workshops continued to produce after the end of the sixteenth century and, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, Brussels, by then part of the Austrian Netherlands, emerged as the center of both production and sales. In 1613, for example, there were nine firms in Brussels and they employed more than 600 workers.
The Style of the Vassar College Tapestries
The Vassar College tapestries demonstrate a style consistent with other works signed and dated to the first half of the seventeenth century, probably from about 1620 to 1650, and originating from workshops in Brussels. Above all, their style exhibits the influence of the most important painting workshop of the time and period, that of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. Thus, the style of Flemish Baroque painting can be seen in the sister art of tapestry making. The figures in the Vassar College tapestries, and related works, are larger than the slim figures of the Mannerist style that dominated art during the preceding sixteenth century. In general, the colors of the Baroque era are more varied and bolder, although we cannot now appreciate the full glory of the original colors as they have often faded and dulled through exposure to light and dirt.
Unfortunately, the Vassar College Library tapestries are not signed or dated. Nevertheless, there are many examples of works similar to those at Vassar. Among them are a set of five tapestries (probably from an original set of eight) illustrating the Story of Antony and Cleopatra, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This set is similar in several respects to the Vassar College Library group: a border with swags of fruit, rectangular medallions, and small putti, as well as the simple, clear figural compositions that appear to be drawn from the painting style of Rubens. The Metropolitan Museum’s set was made about 1650 by Geraert van der Strecken and Jan van Leefdael (who placed their initials on the works) following the designs of Justus van Egmont, a Rubens workshop painter. Van der Strecken and Van Leefdael were partners in a workshop in Brussels for a period of time around 1650. Although this set is similar to the Vassar College Library group, the sizes of the looms are different, suggesting that the Vassar set comes from another workshop.
Another work, a single tapestry of unknown subject, may have been woven in the same workshop as the Vassar College set. It was sold as a “Flemish Historical Tapestry Panel of the mid-seventeenth century” at a Sothebys’ auction in New York on March 2 and 3, 1984 (lot no. 337). The measurement of the height of this work is nearly the same, and the design of the border is very close to the design of Vassar’s tapestries. The style of the composition and figures is also close to that of the Vassar works.
It is also worth reiterating the observation made by Elizabeth Hazelton Haight in her 1923 article in Art and Archaeology, in which she suggested that the work of Raphael was an inspiration for the use of the subject of Cupid and Psyche. In the Renaissance, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses was a widely available text. Raphael used the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius as the subject of his frescoes in the Villa Farnesina. The work of Raphael was copied extensively by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens and thus made available to artists and patrons of northern Europe during the seventeenth century.
Typically, the theme of a chamber would be an illustration of a Biblical, mythological, or historical subject with a coherent story line that proceeded from one piece to the next in chronological order. In the case of the Vassar College tapestries, the story of Cupid and Psyche comes from the Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), a scandalous novel by the Roman writer, Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 171 C.E.). It is a story of love, conflict, and final metamorphosis: the forbidden love of the beautiful mortal woman, Psyche, for an immortal, Cupid (or Amor), the grown son of the goddess Venus.
Removal for Conservation, 1998-2000
The attribution as to date and geographical origin have been recently confirmed, when the tapestries were again removed for cleaning, 1998-2000 (Figure 6). The five tapestries were examined at the Textile Conservation Laboratory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The supervisor of the work, Marlene Edelheit, director and head conservator at the Textile Conservation Laboratory concurred with the earlier attribution--to the Austrian Netherlands, probably Brussels, in the first half of the seventeenth century.
In addition, Ms. Edelheit reported that the tapestries were very affected by sun and dirt, rendering them quite dry. The textiles were cleaned as part of a gift from the Class of 1947; the gift included a cleaning of the library’s interior walls and a new seminar room. At the time of removal in August 1998, the tapestries were so laden with dirt that the vacuum used by conservators completely died. The conservators cleaned the works and fixed some places of deterioration. According to Ms. Edelheit, the tapestries “were conserved (not restored), in order to preserve everything there and to compensate for loss in a non-intrusive way.”
The foundation of the textiles is wool and the weft is composed of both wool and silk, the latter being used chiefly for highlights. Unfortunately, because of exposure to light, the colors have lost their intensity. Only a little bit of red remains. The pieces have become more monotone over time. Examination of the back of the tapestries reveals a truer palette with a full range of colors, including rich blues, reds, and yellows.
Reinstallation of the Tapestries, August 2000
In August 2000, the freshly cleaned and conserved tapestries were reinstalled in the lobby of the library. Workers wearing rock-climbing gear climbed 35 feet up scaffolding into the tower lifting the heavy textiles into place. “We’re very excited to get them back,” reported Sabrina Pape, Director of Libraries.
Since their first installation at the library at the beginning of the twentieth century, the five tapestries had not been placed in the order of the episodes from the story of Psyche and Cupid. This day of reinstallation had been anticipated as an opportunity to reorganize their placement to correspond with the events of the story. However, when the day came, it was decided that they would be returned to their former locations; the librarians and conservators realized that the tapestries had been hung according to their and the walls’ sizes. “Despite all our great ambitions, we’ll put them back that way,” said Ms. Pape, Director. So today the five tapestries illustrating the story of Psyche and Cupid hang clean and refreshed above the central hall of the Vassar College Library. They are displayed in a Gothic-style castle against cold stone walls, as they were originally intended to be, but they are displayed for the interest and pleasure of students and members, not of an aristocratic European court, but of an American college community.
1.) This is one way we have of telling whether a tapestry is high or low warp, as only the low warp tapestries reverse the cartoon. For a review of the technical information, I am indebted to Tina Kane, conservator and specialist in tapestries.
2.) A set, or “chamber”, of tapestries would have been woven all in one workshop, but not necessarily all on one loom. All works in a set would not necessarily have had the height dimension in common, but if the objective was to provide the patron with a “chamber” of textiles, the weavers would have aimed at providing tapestries with the same height, so that they could be hung together in a room to create a uniform look.
Accardo, Pasqual The Metamorphosis of Apuleius, Cupid and Psyche, Beauty and the Beast, King Kong, Madison & Teaneck Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and London: Associated University Presses, 2002.
Campbell, Thomas P. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Delmarcel, Guy Flemish Tapestry New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1999.
Haight, Elizabeth Hazelton, “The Tapestries of Vassar College Library,” Art and Archaeology, Vol. XV, No. 3, pp. 106-116, March, 1923.
Neumann, Erich Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine, A Commentary on the Tale by Apuleius trans. Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series LIV, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956.
Purser, Louis C. (editor) The Story of Cupid and Psyche as related by Apuleius London: George Bell & Sons, 1910.
Rothbaum, Rebecca “Tapestries from 1600s Get New Life,” Poughkeepsie Journal, Friday, August 4, 2000, pp. 1D and 2D.
Standen, Edith Appleton European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volumes I and II New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.