Thursday, 21 May 2009

Rug Art: Turn-of-the-Century Oriental Carpet Advertisements

PARIS, May 22, 2009 – How do you sum up the mystery of oriental carpets in just a few words?

That’s always been a challenge -- both for the people who sell expensive rugs for a living and for the people who buy them and then have to explain why to family and friends.

So, it is interesting to see how advertisers approached the problem in the days when mass marketing was new.

The story is told by the posters that still survive from the turn-of-the-last century. Some of these posters were so successful and popular that they have become collectors items themselves, just like the rugs they show.

Here is an 1891 poster for a Paris store, ‘A La Place Clichy,’ that specialized in textiles, ready-to-wear clothing, and sundries. The ad proclaims the store ‘number one in the world for its oriental imports.’

What gives the poster its appeal?

For one, it sets a mood with stock characters that are instantly recognizable. The desert Arab, the pith-helmeted Westerner, and the treasure-laden camel make the idea of buying a rug adventuresome and appealing.

And, strangely, it doesn’t seem to matter that some of the rugs most prominently shown on the poster are from a world that has nothing to do with any of these stock characters at all. They are from the pine-covered mountains of the Caucasus in the then Russian Empire.

The painting is by Eugene Grasset, a Swiss decorative artist. After studying drawing and architecture, he traveled to Egypt in 1866 and fell in love with its motifs. He used Egyptian elements in a number of his posters for commercial products, perhaps explaining why the backdrop for his carpet advertisement seems to be missing only the pyramids.

A second reason the poster may be appealing is that Grasset was one of the leading graphic designers of his day and clearly knew what his audiences liked. His best known creations is the "Semeuse" logo which is still used by the dictionary publisher, Éditions Larousse today.

Grasset was equally famous as an innovative designer of furniture fabrics and tapestries as well as ceramics and jewelry. Some of his creations are considered milestone Art Nouveau patterns and motifs.

The fact that a talent like this could be recruited for marketing rugs gives some idea of the profitability of the rug business at the time.

And it shows that Art sells Art – something that rug advertisers who rely upon simply putting their logos in newspapers seem to forget.

An original copy of the ‘A La Place Clichy’ poster sells today on the internet for 2,500 euros from the Paris-store Estampe Moderne & Sportive.

Here is another advertisement for a rug sale in Paris in 1899. The venue – ‘Trois Quartiers’ – was a shopping gallery named for its location at the junction of the Madeleine, Opéra, and Concorde neighborhoods. It still exists today but now it is filled with luxury fashion boutiques.

This time the painting is by artist René Péan but many elements are like Grasset’s. The central figure is again the highly recognizable Arab trader despite the fact that, here too, the rugs are from the Caucasus.

The carpet behind the vendor is drawn so clearly that Caucasian rug expert Ralph Kaffel identifies it as an eastern Caucasus Boteh rug.

But why are images of the Middle East being used to sell Caucasian carpets?

One reason may be that Caucasian carpets were relatively new on the Paris market at the time and so had to be linked to more familiar images.

Kaffel observes in his 1998 book ‘Caucasian Prayer Rugs,’ that by the third quarter of the 19th century carpets from the Caucasus were becoming known in the West but were still novelties.

They were such novelties, in fact, that they provided the subject of one of the first ‘carpet books’ in English. The author, Herbert Coxon, traveled to the Caucasus to buy some rugs on site and wrote about his experiences in ‘Oriental Carpets, How They Are Made and Conveyed to Europe,’ published in 1884.

It is interesting to note that the posters for both the Paris department stores seem to be deliberately “positioning” Caucasian rugs as part of the fad for Orientalism that swept Europe in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s.

Tying into the fad meant the sellers could benefit from the free publicity generated by Orientalist fine arts painters. At the same time, buyers could get extra cachet for their purchases.

Here is an example of an Orientalist painting by Arthur Melville in 1881 entitled ‘An Arab Interior.’ On the floor, a carpet helps set the stage.

Like Orientalism, the rug store posters of the turn-of-the-last century belong today to a world long gone by. But they still stand as some of the most successful carpet ads of all times.

How can one be sure? The measure of success is longevity. Other ads have come and gone but the ‘Trois Quatiers’ poster, like the ‘A La Place Clichy’ poster, still circulates among museums and collectors.

And if you can’t find your own original of the ‘Trois Quartiers’ poster, there are replica art companies that regularly reproduce it . It is offered on the internet for $227 to $745, depending upon size, by




Related Links:

Original ‘A La Place Clichy’ Poster, 1891

Replica ‘Trois Quartiers’ Poster, 1899

Replica ‘Peerless Carpet & Cloth Soap’ Poster, 1900s

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Were Animal Design Carpets Renaissance Europe’s First Favorite Oriental Rugs?

VENICE, May 8, 2009 – It is impossible to visit Venice and not wonder what the first carpets that came to Europe through this great trading port looked like.

After all, Venice is home to Marco Polo, who very early on registered his appreciation of oriental rugs when he visited Konya in the Seljuk-controlled Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia.

The quintessential Venetian traveler of the 13th century mentioned the fineness of the carpets he saw and it is clear they were part of an already thriving commercial industry.

Another famous traveler of the time, Ibn Battuta, noted that Konya carpets were being exported to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India, and China.

Here is a Seljuk rug of that era which was discovered in 1905 buried under the layers of prayer carpets that accumulated over the centuries like geological strata on the floor of the great mosque of Alaeddin in Konya.

But one cannot be sure of what kinds of carpets reached Europe until much later, the early Renaissance period of the 1400s. That is when Europeans fell so in love with rugs that they began to regularly include glimpses of them in paintings.

The paintings are not of rugs per se. The rugs only appear as trappings, sometimes with just a corner or edge showing, like stage props. And the only reason to include them in the pictures seems to have been to enhance the beauty of religious scenes or prove the wealth of the nobles and merchants sitting for their portraits.

But because the paintings can be dated, the paintings offer both a wide sample of rugs on the European market and even give some idea of the market trends over time.

Are there some surprises?

One is that the first carpets to show up in the paintings are not the kinds of sumptuous and complicated court workshop carpets one generally associates with days gone by.

Instead, almost all the carpets to appear in pictures before 1450 are of rather simple pieces with highly exotic animal motifs. They are rugs that – astonishingly – can remind a modern viewer of our own enthusiasm for ethno and tribal works today.

One of the animal carpet designs is shown in this detail from a fresco painted in 1440. The fresco is one of three large mural paintings by Domenico di Bartolo to decorate the wall of a hospital (the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala) in Siena and celebrate the main activities of the facility. Those activities were to care for the sick, distribute alms to the poor, and to raise and marry off orphan girls.

Under the feet of the girl in the fresco (‘The Rearing and Marriage of Female Foundlings’) is a carpet with a curiously Far Eastern looking dragon-and-phoenix motif.

There are no known surviving rugs of this type, so scholars have had to look for something resembling it from the same period. The closest parallel seems to be this carpet from Anatolia, woven in the early to mid 1400s.

It is unclear when the dragon-and-phoenix motif carpets first came to Europe. But the motif itself appears to have a history that much pre-dates the carpets themselves.

Rosamond Mack, in an article entitled ‘Oriental carpets in Italian Renaissance paintings: art objects and status symbols’ (Magazine Antiques, Dec. 2004), says confrontations between fantastic animals such as a dragon and phoenix were common in the textiles and other arts of Mongol-ruled Asia in the 1200s and 1300s.

During that time – the Pax Mongolica – art motifs were easily shared across Eurasia as trade along the Silk Roads flourished. The Silk Roads ran from China across Central Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Many scholars believe that, along the way, motifs like Chinese animal patterns were stylized and simplified into more geometric forms as they were adopted by Islamic weavers. Mack observes that Turkoman tribesmen migrating from Central Asia, in turn, may have brought the stylized motifs to Anatolia.

Rug scholar Nalan Turkmen dates the motifs’ appearance in Anatolia to the early 14th century, after the fall of the Seljuks. He writes that the carpets “represent a new stage in Turkish carpet weaving which coves two hundred years from the early 14th century to the late 15th centuries” (‘Tracing Central Asian Turkmen Carpet Designs Through Parallels With Anatolian Carpets,’ Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies, Volume V Part 1, 1999).

The vast majority of the carpets in early Renaissance Europe are believed to have come from Anatolia and phoenix-and-dragon motifs are just one of a variety of different compartmentalized animal designs that appear in the paintings of that time. Mack notes “the majority (of the animal design carpets) show pairs of birds flanking a tree, and the rest have various animals alone or in pairs.”

These animal carpets are from the 1400s during the Ottoman period.

As to why the designs were popular with Europeans of the early Renaissance, one can only guess. But European art of the just-ended Medieval period made wide use of fantastic creatures, including unicorns, so the stylized animal design carpets would have seemed exotic, but not strange, to European eyes.

Animal carpets were far from the only carpets reaching Europe at the time. There were also Anatolian carpets with geometric designs, as well as carpets woven in Cairo and Damascus. But the animal carpets stand out for their popularity and, also, for one more great surprise. And that is the fact that, after 1450, they completely disappear from the European market.

The trend is recorded in the paintings. Suddenly, almost all the carpets pictured are geometric designs and only the faintest echoes of the once so dominant animal carpets remain.

The faint echoes take the form shown in this detail from a painting by Carlo Crivelli in 1486. The animals are reduced to a mere cameo appearance within the compartments of the rug’s complicated 16-point star pattern.

A surviving example of the same kind of carpet is shown below. The carpet is believed to have come from Anatolia, but there is no known record of where the style was woven. The best rug scholars have been able to do is name the style after the Renaissance painter who depicts it: Crivelli himself.

If animal carpets suddenly vanished from the European market after 1450, what could be the reason?

There are two possible explanations.

One possibility is on the producers’ side. Some rug experts believe that by this time the Ottoman authorities who ruled Anatolia were becoming stricter about depicting life forms in works of art. That is in line with Muslim prohibitions against making something to look like God’s creation, because it includes an implicit claim of an ability similar to that of God.

Nalan Turkmen observes that “when animal figures disappeared from Turkish carpets in the 16th century their place was taken by geometric motifs such as octagons or diamonds set in the compartments of a squared ground.” He adds that animal figures do not reappear again in Turkish carpets until the late 16th century and then only as a filler, not as a main motif.

The other possibility to explain the disappearance of animal motifs carpets in Europe is on the consumers’ side. By the mid-1450s the Renaissance had come to fully dominate Europe’s cultural life. And with its emphasis on humanism, logic, and science, it may have left no room in the market for artwork that appealed to a Medieval fascination with mysticism and symbols.

Whatever the reason, it seems things in the early carpet market never stayed the same for long -- just as in the carpet market today.

Here is the kind of geometric carpet that took the place of the animal carpets in Renaissance paintings after 1450. It is a Memling pattern, named after the artist Hans Memling, who depicted it often in the late 1400s.

It is interesting to note that Renaissance collectors – or at least the people who valued carpets enough to make them available to artists to copy – were not collecting either antiques or even the most extraordinary carpets of their time.

Throughout the 200 years or so of the Renaissance, the most complex Mamluk and Ottoman court carpets almost never appear in paintings and no-one knows whether this is because they were rare or because they were simply extremely difficult to paint. Persian carpets do not appear until end of the 16th century. Then, too, the finely-knotted silk carpets woven at Kashan and Isfahan are rarely represented.

Instead it seems the Europe’s carpet owners, especially as carpets became commonplace in the homes of the well-to-do by the mid 1600s, mostly bought and valued carpets that reflected the commercial trends of their day – again, much the way most people do now.

The fact that these carpets are extraordinarily beautiful is perhaps the biggest surprise for a modern viewer of all. It seems to be due as much to the high-level of the carpet industry at the time as to the discerning eye of the early collectors. And that is a situation contemporary carpet lovers can only envy.

(The picture at the top of this article is Marco Polo’s family home in Venice.)




Related Links

Oriental Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: art objects and status symbols, by Rosamond Mack, Magazine Antiques

Wikipedia: On Oriental Carpets in Renaissance Painting

The Carpet Index: The Oriental Carpet in Early Renaissance Paintings

Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture: a gallery of Renaissance paintings

Seljuk Textiles and Carpets

Seljuk Rugs

Old Turkish Carpets

Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts: Ottoman Court Carpets

Ottoman Carpets

Ottoman Dynasty Carpets and Rugs