China on Tapestry

Explore this magnificent tapestry from "The Story of the Emperor of China," part of a set commissioned and woven in France in the late 1600s. Hanging nearly 14 feet tall, weavers worked by hand for nine years to create the group of ten large textiles.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Tapestry: The Collation from The Story of the Emperor of China Series (about 1697 - 1705)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The hangings were novel for introducing Chinese culture to a French audience at a time when few Europeans travelled the globe. The tapestry designers consulted oral, written, and visual sources to understand and portray unfamiliar places, plants, people, and customs.

Under a pavilion set outdoors in a glade, a couple enjoys a meal served by attendants.

The pavilion’s roof bears heavy ceramic tiles glazed in red, blue, yellow, and brown. A ceremonial guardian dragon is fitted at each of the three visible corners.

The pavilion is draped with a fringed crimson and gold damask curtain that has been pulled aside.

Seated before a table covered with an embroidered cloth and laid with a platter of fruit and other dishes, the emperor sits on a high-backed chair embellished with a carved dragon on the crest rail. He wears a fur-trimmed red cap set with peacock feathers and a blue robe decorated with stylized dragon and cloud forms. These distinctive symbols and motifs are meant to identify him as the emperor of China.

Here, the artists portrayed the emperor wearing a large pendant pearl earring. This earring had special significance because the giant freshwater pearl, which was harvested in Manchuria (north China), conveyed wealth, status, and identity. At that time, such pearls were valued in China as the highest grade of precious gem.

Across from him, the empress sits on a stool and gestures with a fan held in her left hand.

While the imperial couple are served tea and fruit, a servant reaches up behind them to remove a platter from a buffet of golden dishes and blue-and-white porcelain arranged in a European fashion.

Seated on a stool to the left, a female musician with a monkey at her feet plays a stringed instrument resembling a sitar.

In the center, a dancer moves to her music while to the right a maid drops incense into a golden incense burner.

A large carpet covers the platform on which the emperor and empress sit. The edge of the carpet is woven with the inscription of Guy-Louis Vernansal, who was the chief designer of this tapestry. 

The French artists who designed this tapestry consulted illustrated travel reports about China to help them visualize people and places they had never personally seen. One artist, Vernansal, specialized in human figures while another, Monnoyer, specialized in plants and flowers.

The Collation represents one of the tapestries from The Story of the Emperor of China. Getty has six other tapestries from this same set: The Harvesting of Pineapples, The Astronomers, The Emperor on a Journey, The Return from the Hunt, The Empress’s Tea, and The Empress Sailing.

,
Show lessRead more

This monumental series was conceived in the mid-1680s, after cross-cultural encounters between the French court at Versailles and travelers from the Far East. The first to visit Versailles was the Chinese convert to Christianity, Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung in September 1684. Then came a trade delegation of Siamese (present day Thailand) ambassadors in September 1686.

The presence of these guests sparked a fascination at the French court for far distant lands, peoples, and cultures. On the French side of this exchange, King Louis XIV sent six mathematicians and scientists to China, via Siam, who departed France in 1685.

Tapestry: L'Empereur en voyage, from L'Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine Series, Guy-Louis Vernansal, Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay, Beauvais Manufactory, Philippe Béhagle, about 1690–1705, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Show lessRead more

These events even impacted the French town of Beauvais, whose tapestry weaving workshop was visited in 1686 by Louis XIV and then the Siamese delegation. Inspired by travelogues and his own experiences with these guests, the workshop’s director commissioned four artists to design a set of tapestries featuring the Manchu Qing dynasty Kangxi emperor, who the king considered his peer.

Initially, the tapestries were purchased by members of the French royal family and courtiers, some of whom had witnessed the travelers’ appearances at Versailles. Additional sets of tapestries were marketed to a broader range of prosperous customers. The subject proved popular and production spanned four decades.

Tapestry: Le Thé de l'impératrice, from L'Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine Series, Beauvais Manufactory, Philippe Béhagle, Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, Guy-Louis Vernansal, Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay, about 1697–1705, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Tapestry: L'Embarquement de l'impératrice, from L'Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine Series, Guy-Louis Vernansal, Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay, Beauvais Manufactory, Philippe Béhagle, design about 1690; weave about 1697–1705, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

Tapestry: The Collation from The Story of the Emperor of China Series (about 1697 - 1705)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The border of this tapestry is designed as if it were a carved picture frame hung with floral and fruit garlands, with an outer row of simulated carved acanthus leaves.

Centering each side of the border is a blue shield with the monogram of a golden A and two entwined L’s. These are the initials for Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, the legitimized son of Louis XIV and his mistress, the marquise de Montespan.

He is identified by the Bourbon coat of arms in each corner. The crown indicates his royal parentage. The encircling chains tell us he is a member of two French honorary orders of chivalry, the Order of Saint Michael and the Order of the Holy Spirit. The anchor fluke also alludes to his role as grand admiral of the French navy.

The remarkable Story of the Emperor of China series has long drawn the notice of historians and tapestry specialists for its fascinating, large-scale portrayal of 17th-century China. Generally acknowledged as one of the first European artistic expressions of Chinese customs and artifacts, the series was a milestone in the history of taste and in the cross-cultural exchange between East and West for it introduced, in a monumental manner, foreign modes and practices into the West’s pictorial repertoire. 

The series visually contextualized a country and people who, hitherto, were known primarily through their export commodities of porcelain, lacquer, silk, and tea. The French fascination for China crescendoed through the 18th century, into the 1780s.

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 1997 and 2007 in the catalogue French Tapestries and TextilesTo learn more about this tapestry series, see curator Charissa Bremer-David's essay "Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor."

To cite these texts, please use: "China on Tapestry," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps