‘The Tapestries of Don Quixote by Coypel: Illustrating a Spanish Novel in 18th Century France’

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Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” spanned four centuries with all of its appeal intact, while inspiring playwrights, composers and ultimately filmmakers. Goya, Picasso and Dalí were among the famous Spanish painters for Don Quixote, as was the Frenchman Honoré Daumier. But for generations, Gustave Doré’s richly detailed illustrations, first published in 1863, were the most familiar images of Cervantes’ protagonists. At the Frick Collection, “Coypel’s Tapestries of Don Quixote: Illustrating a Spanish Novel in 18th Century France” offers what one might consider the main antecedent of Doré’s woodcuts.

Tapestries of Don Quixote de Coypel: Illustrating a Spanish novel in 18th century France

The Frick collection

Until May 17

Between 1714 and 1734, French court painter Charles Coypel (1694−1752) – who himself wrote two plays inspired by Cervantes – produced a series of 27 paintings depicting scenes from the novel, completing a 28th in 1751 , just before his death. The canvases were not intended to be exhibited, but to serve as patterns for the tapestries woven by the Gobelins factory. The Frick has assembled a complete series of Coypel’s 28 scenes made in several media. Included are five of his original paintings (from the Imperial Palace of Compiègne and the Jacquemart-André Museum), three panels of Gobelins tapestry (from the J. Paul Getty Museum), and the two Flemish tapestries by Frick inspired by Coypel (in storage since more than 10 years). To complete the recreation of the series, 18 prints and books based on Coypel’s drawings were on loan from the Hispanic Society of America in New York. The beautiful and compact exhibition catalog by Charlotte Vignon, Associate Curator of Frick’s Decorative Arts, combines each work with the relevant excerpt from the novel in a new translation by Edith Grossman.

It is significant that the exhibition was curated by Mme Vignon, rather than by a specialist in painting, as the underlying goal here is to reveal how ‘Don Quixote’ inspired works of art at the heart of a major decorative project which quickly evolved into an international trade. business. “Coypel was an important and very gifted master of easel paintings,” she said in an interview, “however, these paintings were executed as works for hire by the Gobelins factory.” The Goblins bought them directly from Coypel and used them as caricatures, a term for preliminary paintings (or drawings) produced for transfer to works in other media.

The Gobelins, who supplied the French crown with tapestries both as royal furnishings and as diplomatic gifts, wove Coypel’s “History of Don Quixote” nine times between 1717 and 1794 (in total about 200 panels). Coypel had not wanted his scenes to follow the novel’s timeline, and the number and selection of scenes varied with each weaving – a larger or smaller selection could be determined by the intended recipient. Each tapestry features one of Coypel’s scenes in an elaborate floral frame, called a around.

Throughout, Coypel portrays Don Quixote as a mature, scholarly figure who presents himself with courteous grace and elegant gestures, despite his delusional sensibility. As low and ridiculous as the comedy in the first part of the novel is, Coypel’s visual humor was born out of a seemingly serious person unwittingly tangled up in comedic situations – not just a slapstick but closer. of the high comedy of Molière and Sheridan. The smiling, laughing viewers throughout the series have a background in the work of Frans Hals.

Tapestries represent a laborious manual process so long that the finished works were much more expensive than large paintings or bronze sculptures. To create each tapestry, Coypel’s cardboard was hung on a wall behind the weaver, who worked from the reflection in a mirror hanging in front of the loom. The designs used for multiple weavings eventually wore off and the surfaces were repainted by unknown artists during the 18th century. But the five paintings of the Frick were each used only once or twice for tapestries, so most of their surfaces are still by Coypel’s hand, which gives us a good overview of his methods. “Asleep, Don Quixote fights the wineskins” (1716) illustrates his vibrant palette of deep and saturated colors and his emphasis on the contrasts of reflections and shadows. The brush is quite large, with more generalized costume, drapery and even figure details than in paintings by Coypel not included in the exhibition such as “Persée saves Andromède” (Louvre) or his self-portrait in pastels from 1734 (Getty ). But this deliberate stylistic simplification of the oils was conducive to woven imagery, and as such, the Getty tapestries appear as detailed and nuanced as paintings.

Coypel gives a wonderful element of caricature to “Distressed Countess Trifaldi, Grieved by His Beard, Begs Don Quixote to Avenge Her” (probably 1716), in which the wide-eyed Quixote and Sancho are as alive as Thomas Rowlandson’s caricatures. But for an irresistible charm, the jewel of the show is the little preliminary easel painting, or modello, of “Don Quixote Served by the Girls of the Inn”. Painted in 1751, it illustrates Coypel’s great technical sophistication purely as a painter rather than as an artist decorator. Quixote elegantly relaxes at the table – through the open visor of his feathered helmet, we can appreciate the delicate contour of his face and his bright, fiery eyes. The sweet prettiness of the girls and the genuine gaiety of the plump innkeeper, with jingling keys and scissors hanging from his apron, place this delightful canvas at the level of William Hogarth’s greatest genre scenes.

The engravings completing the cycle were first copied from the cartons and engraved by Coypel and his own associates for sale throughout Europe. Two later generations of engravers published further copies.

The two Frick tapestries were woven before 1748 in the Flemish workshop of Peter van den Hecke from cartoons by the Flemish artist Philippe de Hondt (1683-1741). Both are much larger than the Gobelins’ Coypels, and the horizontal compositions dispense with elaborate surroundings. They also show how Coypel has been “edited” to adapt to a foreign market: figures copied from Coypel are incorporated into entirely new compositions. The greenery style and the sober palette reflect a Flemish taste far removed from the rich colors of the Gobelins. Yet these reinvented pieces are just as viable as the French originals and, above all, just as beautiful.

Mr. Scherer writes on music and the fine arts for the Journal.

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