Jean and Philibert Gobelins were brothers and their trade was dyeing. Applying color to thread and fabric was something of a secret art during the 15th century. It was a process of nuance, but the most complicated color to dye was scarlet. A deep scarlet could only be attached to a fabric if the source water had a certain quality. So, the Gobelins set out to find the best place to become notable dyers of scarlet. They settled on the Bièvre river, which was a tributary of theSeine.
They succeeded in their ambition and became wealthy, cultured, and famous. They built the collection of buildings called the Hotel des Gobelins which in future generations would house the best tapestry ateliers in the world.
Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert sought to build upFrance’s wealth through the aggressive adoption of the principles of mercantilism. One of its key doctrines was the need to grow manufacturing capabilities in the realm: the wealth of the realm should be spent on goods that could be produced locally and that wealth should grow through exports. Imports were a cardinal sin. Luxury goods were high on the list of industries to promote.
So, Colbert, in 1662 bought the Hotel des Gobelins and formally organized a state sponsored tapestry atelier. Tapestry making was a capital-intensive business. This was a collective—not individual—art. It could not be undertaken by a single person. An expensive loom had to be bought and maintained, dyes had to be mastered, execution was specialized, and cartoons had to be designed. Specialization even extended to the weaving with weavers who would specialize in animals, foliage, or design borders. Even spinning the thread was a unique art that often incorporated the use of gold or other precious metals.
There were low warp and high warp looms. Low warp looms have the tapestry being built flat like a table top. High warp looms stood up as though working against a wall. Low warp looms were traditionally easier to manage because the cartoon could be placed closer to the work and the drawstrings were controlled using foot pedals. On high warp looms, the drawstrings had to be manipulated by hand. While low warp looms were mechanically easier to use, it’s one disadvantage was that the weaver would be working the tapestry from behind. Low warp was the dominant form of weaving due to its inherent advantages, but little distinction in quality can be made on the finished tapestry. (For an effective overview of how tapestries were made, go here.)
By becoming a royal atelier, the weavers at Gobelins no longer had to worry about marketing and selling their craft. Freed from the oppressive need for regular income, they could push the limits of their artistic craft. And by most evaluations, they did reach the considerable heights of that art.
The quality of materials put into this labor-intensive art was impressive. During the cash-strapped Revolutionary government, the suggestion was made to burn a number of tapestries to reclaim the gold and silver from the metallic threading. Sixty of the king’s best tapestries were burned resulting in 60,000 livres-worth of precious metals (source, page 139-140).
While the royal charter freed them from the commercial constraints of sales, marketing, and obtaining steady work, their subject matter was controlled by the propagandistic demands of the Sun King’s considerable ego. After the Sun King, the weavers at Gobelins had to adjust. Large tapestries were falling out of fashion. Renaissance buildings presented less wall space, paintings took up more of the available space, and tapestries even seemed to be competing for subject matter that paintings were more apt to accomplish (like portraiture). The Gobelins’ canvass naturally moved to smaller spaces, like the back of a chair, a couch, or bedding.
Gobelins found themselves in a particular pickle a hundred years after their birth when the monarchy fell and Revolutionaries cast a suspicious eye to any institution that smacked of the royal past. Aside from a beheading or two, they survived, even if they didn’t thrive. Today, the Gobelins tapestry factory is managed by the Ministry of Culture.
The quality of a tapestry is judged on a few criteria: the tightness of the weave (the number of warps per centimeter and the grade of the weft), the quality of the source cartoon (and by consequence the effectiveness of the overall design), and the skill of the weavers in translating the design to woven form. By all of these criteria, the Gobelins produced some of the best tapestries in the world.
Extra information: There were other notable tapestry ateliers inFrance at the time. The weavers atBeauvais were a “for profit” venture set up by Colbert. Due to the challenges of maintaining cash flow, they gravitated toward smaller projects. They, too, were known for their quality. The weavers at Aubusson had fallen in quality. Colbert believed that they could return to prominence with a touch of royal support. While they were given a royal charter, financial support never materialized and their quality continued to suffer. The Savonnerie weavers used a style of weaving that was used primarily for floor coverings and so never gained much acclaim. In the end, they were absorbed into the Gobelins.