The ‘Verdure’ Tapestry

Well-chosen furniture, art, and objets d’art are the essential elements of a fine interior, reflecting their owner’s particular taste and cultivation. But beyond these, another element not so commonly seen today is the prominent use of textiles to add a further layer of colour, texture, and aesthetic sophistication (this now being mostly confined to rugs on
the floor).

Decorative Arts. Leonard Joel Auctions
Brussels, Late 17th century,
300 x 305cm
$10,000 – 15,000

With large wall-filling artworks readily available today, it is easy to miss the fact that this is a relatively recent development. For much of history, and across many cultures, textiles hung on walls; rugs, tapestries, and others were a principal form of interior decoration and expression of their owners’ status and cultivation.  

Of tapestries from the classical age of the art in Europe – from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries – the most commonly seen and affordable on the market today are those of the type known as ‘verdure’ tapestries, woven in French and Flemish workshops during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Their availability to us is fortuitous for their unified and muted cool, natural palette and their broadness of design makes them the perfect foil for bolder pieces of other materials, colours, and textures, even in more contemporary settings.

The defining characteristic of the verdure tapestry is the pictorial depiction of a lush, wooded landscape as the dominant element – sometimes the only element – of the composition, with a consequent unifying dominance of green tones throughout the work. (The word verdure derives from the French word for green.)  

When first used in the early sixteenth century, ‘verdure’ had a more specific and limited meaning than it later came to have, being used simply to distinguish those tapestries that had some verdant element, usually a background accompanying the main human subject, from those tapestries that were entirely figure compositions, as was then typical. The evolution of the verdure tapestry from these confined origins to being a sought-after type in its own right reflects changes in tapestry art, changes in pictorial art generally, and changes in the production of and market for tapestries.

Through the earlier stages of its classical era in Europe, tapestry art reflected the personal and political interests and aspirations of the royal and aristocratic patrons who were the only people who could afford these very expensively produced works of art. Typical subjects were scenes from Biblical and Classical history illustrating a moral point that was intended to reflect well on the owner; scenes reflecting various forms of prowess and success, including battles and hunting pursuits, and those representing courtly life and ideals.

From the early sixteenth century, first in Italy and then in Northern Europe, the liberal ideals of the Renaissance began paving the way for a (relatively) more republican and more mercantile society.  At the same time, in art, landscape was evolving as a genre in its own right, rising from its previously lowly background status, propelled by renewed interest in the pastoral themes in the poetry of Virgil and his Renaissance followers.  

By the seventeenth century, these developments had coalesced: landscape art, usually representing a bucolic Arcadian ideal, was an important, highly profitable genre, patronised by the successful members of an increasingly modern, mercantile, and urban society.  

The evolution of the verdure tapestry to its classic late seventeenth century form is another aspect of these developments. Much as their noble predecessors had done, successful members of European and English society were now dressing their often newly-acquired country houses with tapestries, the broadening of the market for which meant that, for the first time, tapestries could be produced speculatively and be marketed by dealers.

Leonard Joel is very pleased to be offering in our next Decorative Arts auction on 8 August a fine, large, and well-preserved late 17th century Brussels verdure tapestry consigned from a private Melbourne collection.

DAVID PARSONS / Head of Decorative Arts 

Banner Image: Brussels, Late 17th century, 300 x 305cm. $10,000 – 15,000

May 2022