Guide Tour of Gobelins Manufactory, Paris, France

The Gobelins Manufactory is a historic tapestry factory in Paris, France. It is located at 42 avenue des Gobelins, near Les Gobelins métro station in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. It is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs since Louis XIV, and it is now run by the Administration générale du Mobilier national et des Manufactures nationales de tapis et tapisseries of the French Ministry of Culture.

It was originally established on the site as a medieval dyeing business by the family Gobelin. Recognizable thanks to the bas-reliefs of its facade representing weavers, the Manufacture des Gobelins has been producing tapestries for French palaces for more than four centuries. Created in 1601 under the reign of King Henry IV during the rise of Flemish tapestry. The Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins, as well as the corresponding soils, are classified as historical monuments by order of the March 24, 1993.

The manufactures of Gobelins, Beauvais and Savonnerie are three high places of tapestry and carpets in France to which are attached the workshop of Lodève (carpet) and the workshops of Puy (bobbin lace) and Alençon (lace needle). The priorities are the furnishing of state buildings and the continuation of a tradition, with the conservation of ancient techniques and the maintenance of a traditional quality applied to contemporary artistic expressions.

The Galerie des Gobelins is dedicated to temporary exhibitions of tapestries from the French manufactures and furnitures from the Mobilier National, built in the gardens by Auguste Perret in 1937. The gallery, renovated from the end of the 1970s in order to rediscover its original mission as an exhibition space, celebrates its 400th anniversary when it reopens to the public on May 12, 2007.

Official name “Manufacture nationale des Gobelins”, the factory is open for guided tours several afternoons per week by appointment. Managed by National Furniture and the National Carpet and Tapestries Manufactures, which includes the National Furniture, the Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture, the Beauvais Manufacture (workshops located in Paris and Beauvais), the Savonnerie Manufacture (workshops located in Paris and Lodève) as well as the lace workshops in Alençon and Le Puy.

The Gobelins were a family of dyers who, in the middle of the 15th century, established themselves in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel, Paris, on the banks of the Bièvre. The first mention of a Gobelin dates from August 1443, when Jehan Gobelin, probably originally from Reims from a family, rented a house rue Mouffetard at the sign of the swan and four years later establishes on the banks of the Bièvre, flowing at that time in the open air, a dyeing workshop.

Jehan Gobelin was a wool dyer renowned for his scarlet reds in the middle of the 15th century, installed near a mill on the Bièvre, in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel, this mill was named “Moulin des Gobelins”. Allied to Le Peultre and Canaye, it continued for a century and a half to perfect the dyeing industry there to such an extent that the reputation of the Gobelins eclipsed that of the other dyers, and that the river like the district took their place.

17th century
In the very first years of the 17th century, King Henry IV set up, on the advice of Sully, an ambitious program for the development of factories in the kingdom of France. It is then a question of limiting as much as possible the purchase abroad of the manufactured products, with the first title of the tapestries and carpets, of which the sovereign and the court have great need.

Also, the “good king” installed in the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, in buildings rented from the descendants of the Gobelin dyers, tapestry workshops run by two Flemings, Marc de Comans and François de la Planche.

In 1662, the works in the Faubourg Saint Marcel, with the adjoining grounds, were purchased by Jean-Baptiste Colbert on behalf of Louis XIV and made into a general upholstery factory, in which designs both in tapestry and in all kinds of furniture were executed under the superintendence of the court painter, Charles Le Brun.

The Manufacture royale des Gobelins was born, and is submitted by him to the authority of the first painter of the King, Charles Le Brun who served as director and chief designer from 1663–1690, subsequently had entire teams of artists under his orders, “good painters, master upholsterers in high warp, goldsmiths, founders, lapidary engravers and cabinetmakers…” He therefore combined the management of the Manufacture des Meubles de la Couronne.

In 1665, the dyeing workshop was officially organized by Colbert; the dyeing is then carried out using natural dyes of vegetable origin (gaude, madder, indigo) or animal (kermes, cochineal). The dyeing of wools and silks is now done exclusively with synthetic pigments. Gobelins Manufactory’s tapestry rivalled the Beauvais tapestry works.

The Manufacture des Gobelins received its definitive organization from the royal edict of November 1667, with significant advantages being granted to its inhabitants: tax exemption, waiver of right of increase, maintenance of chosen apprentices. Charles Le Brun deployed there until his death on February 12, 1690, a prodigious activity, by installing the first high-warp works – 19 hangings (197 pieces) and 34 low-warp (286 pieces) – the works of the Manufacture, intended for the furnishing of the Royal Houses and for diplomatic gifts, acquired by their magnificence an international reputation that endures three centuries later. Various successors such as Pierre Mignard and Robert de Cotte continue and develop Le Brun’s design.

Among the most famous hangings, we can cite The Elements, The Seasons, The History of Alexander, The History of the King, according to Le Brun; who also weaves according to Giulio Romano: The History of Constantine, according to Raphaël The Acts of the Apostles and Poussin with The History of Moses.

Under the direction of Le Brun, the production of the factory, intended for the furnishing of the Royal Houses and diplomatic gifts, acquired an international reputation through its magnificence. These thirty years constituted the golden age of the Manufacture, which then produced seven hundred and seventy-five pieces, five hundred and forty-five of which were enhanced with gold thread.

On account of Louis XIV’s financial problems, the establishment was closed in 1694, but reopened in 1697 for the manufacture of tapestry, chiefly for royal use. Only the most skilful artists completed their masterpieces. The workshops reopened in January 1699, only Gobelins tapestries were produced.

18th century
Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708) restarted the establishment by entrusting the management (until 1782) to several architects who were controllers of the King’s buildings. The most famous is Soufflot (1713-1780). But from the middle of the 18th century, the Manufacture experienced serious financial difficulties which worsened, the Treasury not being able to pay the royal orders to the contractors, then on the verge of bankruptcy; to this financial crisis is added an artistic crisis, in spite of the nomination of Jean-Baptiste Pierre, first painter of the King.

Between 1717 and 1794, The Story of Don Quixote after Charles-Antoine Coypel was woven many times. The Surroundings corresponded to an invention of the fashionable Gobelins: a very rich frame of flowers and ornaments, in the center of which is placed a historiated subject.

The factory also continued to weave in the tradition of large hangings of religious, historical or mythological inspiration, such as The Story of Esther and The Story of Jason according to Jean-François de Troy.

François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour’s favorite painter, had Sunrise and Sunset as well as the very famous Hanging of the Gods woven in 1763. The portrait tapestries also met with some success, including for example the portrait of Louis XV after the painting by Louis-Michel Van Loo, woven in 1763.

19th century
After the Revolution, the tapestries should glorify the Napoleonic reign: Plague of Jaffa after Jean-Antoine Gros and Bonaparte crossing the Saint-Bernard after Jacques-Louis David. The tradition of official visits resumed, and the Emperor presented the Pope with a New Testament hanging for his visit in 1805.

Until the Second Empire the taste for portraits did not diminish: twenty-eight were notably made for the Galerie d’Apollon du Louvre. Contemporary painters also make their contribution. Between 1818 and 1827, the workshops devoted themselves to making the tapestry of The Battle of Tolosa, after Horace Vernet.

From 1860 to 1871, the Gobelins and Beauvais were united under the direction of Pierre-Adolphe Badin, who launched an important program of textile decoration for the imperial palaces; let us quote the Five senses according to Diéterle, Baudry, and Chabal-Dussurgey.

20th century
Attached to the administration of the Mobilier national since 1937, the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins weaves, as it did four centuries ago, tapestries based on contemporary works (Marcel Gromaire, Pierre Dubreuil, Jean Arp, Fernand Léger, Alexandre Calder, Sonia Delaunay, Jean Dewasne, Serge Poliakoff, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Eduardo Arroyo, Gérard Garouste, Louise Bourgeois, Patrick Corillon, Hervé Télémaque, Ung no Lee, Gudmundur Erro, Jean-Michel Alberola…) thus testifying to the multiple possibilities of a mode of expression open to all aesthetic and contemporary trends.

The act of creation is today a fruitful dialogue that is tied with the artists. It is an act of transposition in textile terms of a writing that was initially pictorial or photographic. The weaving is not a simple copy, even if the cardboard is adapted from a pre-existing model. The cardboard, today a photographic enlargement produced by the weavers and possibly retouched by the artist, constitutes a step towards a new creation which will owe its originality to the new material, the work of the dyers and the talent of the weaver. From this dialogue are often born modifications of the project which make the woven work a co-creation.

Today, the manufactory consists of a set of four irregular buildings dating to the seventeenth century, plus the building on the avenue des Gobelins built by Jean-Camille Formigé in 1912 after the 1871 fire. They contain Le Brun’s residence and workshops that served as foundries for most of the bronze statues in the park of Versailles, as well as looms on which tapestries are woven following seventeenth century techniques. The factory is still in operation today as a state-run institution. The Gobelins still produces some limited amount of tapestries for the decoration of French governmental institutions, with contemporary subjects.

The building
For more than four centuries, the Mobilier national has shone on a unique site in the heart of the capital, the Gobelins enclosure, a true haven of peace combining historic buildings and gardens. The Mobilier national is installed since this date in a building built by Auguste Perret on the old gardens of the Gobelins factory and the historic Gobelins enclosure, whose buildings, spread around several courtyards, date back in part to the 17th century. A preserved village in the heart of Paris, a place of history and creation.

In the center, an elongated building with a decoration of trophies and garlands on its southern facade. This is the former home of Charles Le Brun, the first director of the factory who died there in 1690. Facing it, the very long building on the ground floor, with yellow walls, housed the high-warp workshop of the upholsterer Jean Jans, active from 1662 to 1668. This is today one of the two workshops from the Manufacture des Gobelins.

In the Cour Colbert, stands the old chapel of the factory (Saint-Louis chapel), built in 1723 for the weavers of Gobelins, which has retained its period interior decor, in particular a stuccoed cornice. Deconsecrated in the 1960s, it now houses both heritage tapestries and works by contemporary artists (Combas and Kijno, Vincent Bioulès) around the sacred. To the right of the Saint-Louis chapel is the dyeing workshop, occupied in the 19th century by the chemist Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), who is still active.

Along the avenue des Gobelins, the “Gobelins” gallery, in brick and stone, which dates from 1914. It was built according to the plans of the architect Jean-Camille Formigé, on the initiative of the critic Gustave Geffroy, appointed administrator of the Gobelins in 1908. We notice on the main facade four caryatids by Antoine Injalbert and a bas-relief sculpted by Paul Landowski: The Triumph of Art; as well as eight medallions, La Fileuse, La Dye, Le Carton, La Tapisserie… by Louis Convers and Jean Hugues, which pay homage to the different crafts and stages of weaving.

The Galerie des Gobelins, built in 1914 by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé, hosts the temporary exhibitions of the Mobilier national. It consists of two platforms of approximately 450m² each and can accommodate up to 500 people.

Gobelins Gallery
At the initiative of Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée, the Galerie des Gobelins reopened its doors in 2007 as an exhibition space for the collections of the Mobilier national to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the creation of the Manufacture des Gobelins by Henri IV.

Consisting mainly of furniture ordered for the great residences of the State, the collections of the Mobilier national offer a faithful reflection of the evolution of official furniture in France from the 17th century to the present day. The Mobilier national, heir to the Garde-meuble de la Couronne and the Imperial furniture repository, now owns a collection of 130,000 items (tapestries, carpets, furniture, clocks, chandeliers, ceramics, historical textiles, lace, etc.)

Since 1662, the year when Colbert decided to bring the Parisian workshops together in one place, the Manufacture des Gobelins, famous throughout the world, has never ceased to mark the history of tapestry with its signature. The Manufacture des Gobelins has exclusively used the Haute lice technique since 1826.

It has 15 vertical looms on which the warp, made entirely of wool, is stretched vertically between two beams. One thread out of two is embellished with a warp, a small cotton cord forming a ring. It is by activating the warps with one hand, hence the name licier, that we obtain the crossing of the threads necessary for the execution of the weaving. The weft is made using a wooden brooch loaded with wool, silk, linen…which is passed between the warp threads. The wicker is seated behind the loom, the lists are placed above his head, hence the name of the loom Haute lice.

The weaver weaves against the light on the reverse side of the tapestry, controlling the area by means of a mirror placed in front of the loom. The full-scale model is placed on his back. The licer places transparent paper on the model in order to note the lines, the shapes, the values, all the technical indications which seem important to him for the realization. He will then transfer these marks using a small stick inked on the warp threads.

These traces will be used to identify themselves during the work. The beaver can then begin to weave. Every forty centimeters, he rolls his weaving then starts the operation of the traces again and this until the completion of the piece which we will not discover in its entirety until the day of the fall of the loom. Each tapestry bears the monogram of the manufacture a “G” with across the design of the spindle which is used to weave.

The National Furniture School of Textile Arts:
The Mobilier national provides, within its School of Textile Arts, complete initial training in the profession of tapestry or carpet weaver in the Gobelins, Beauvais and Savonnerie factories, and in the profession of tapestry or carpet re-entryer in restoration workshops.