Magic Carpet: Carpets in paintings 1

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, I’m rolling out the carpet, red and otherwise, to look at an aspect of painting which is all too often hidden in the gloom: carpets and floor coverings. Although they have a long history in many parts of the world, European countries were relatively slow to adopt carpets and other materials with which to cover the floor. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that they started to appear over the bare stones or wood which had sufficed for centuries.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1285–1348), The Presentation in the Temple (1342), colour on panel, 257x 168 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Patterned tiles or stones were often used to give depth to paintings even before Brunelleschi discovered how to perform optically accurate 3D projection. As in so many early modern paintings, Lorenzetti’s floor patterns in The Presentation in the Temple (1342) look convincing. But compare their vanishing point with that of other parts of his painting and they’re not coherent.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), The Art of Painting (c 1666-8), oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Black and white marble floor tiles are a common feature in Vermeer’s paintings. In his late The Art of Painting from about 1666-8 they not only add depth, but the artist manipulates their sharpness to deliver his own unique optical effects. The high tonal contrast between the tiles is softened in the foreground, and sharpens as you look deeper into the picture.

At this time, carpets in Europe tended to be confined to the very wealthy, and were small rather than wall-to-wall.

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1828), oil on canvas, 422 x 343 cm, Musée du Louvre. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether in 1603 the dying Queen Elizabeth I of England, shown by Paul Delaroche in this painting from 1828, was laid on a makeshift bed on assorted carpets and animal skins I don’t know. At the time it would have been a mark of her opulence.

Carpets were first manufactured in volume in Europe during the eighteenth century. By the middle of the following century, many homes could still only afford a few small carpets, but they were starting to tell their own tales.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), “Lord, Thy Will Be Done” (1855), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 46.4 cm, The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s “Lord, Thy Will Be Done” from 1855, the small and threadbare piece of carpet tells you more about this young mother’s social status than any other object in the room.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

It was perhaps Whistler who first drew attention to the carpet as a work of art within a painting, as in his Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65). As shown in the detail below, he painted the carpet very loosely, more for effect than in fine detail.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (detail) (1863-65), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Carpets also became popular in narrative paintings. Plutarch’s original account of how Cleopatra was smuggled into the presence of Julius Caesar states that she was inside a bed-sack, which fits rather well with their subsequent affair. When Gérôme came to paint this, in his Cleopatra before Caesar of 1866, he preferred the more recent version in which she was hidden in a large roll of carpet.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), With the River (1869), oil on canvas, 110.7 × 190.4 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon decks a mediaeval boat with carpet in his With the River from 1869. The young man is rowing a beautiful young woman along, presumably hoping that she will be his bride. She’s sitting on an ornate carpet which dangles over the side of the boat.

By the late nineteenth century, it appears that almost everyone had a few carpets.

Giovanni Boldini (1842–1931), Peaceful Days (The Music Lesson) (1875), oil on canvas, 35.5 × 25.4 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

In Giovanni Boldini’s Peaceful Days (The Music Lesson) from 1875, a younger boy sits on a vividly-decorated carpet studying an epée, with a cello behind him. Judging by their dress and surroundings, these two are at least comfortably off, and well-carpeted.

Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910), The Scholar (1878), oil on canvas, 45.5 x 90 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the finest carpets in Europe have come from Turkey and the Middle East, and it’s only appropriate that some of the best paintings of carpets were made by the great Turkish artist Osman Hamdi Bey, who studied under Gérôme and Boulanger in Paris. In his superb Scholar from 1878 he shows us what carpets are properly used for.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Dolce Far Niente (The White Feather Fan) (1879), oil on canvas, 49.6 x 36.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There was also something indulgent and sensuous about lying back on an exotic carpet, in the way that this woman is in John William Waterhouse’s Dolce Far Niente or The White Feather Fan (1879). She’s plucking feathers from the fan and watching them rise through the air, a perfect way to while away the time, it seems.

Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (Михайлович Васнецов) (1848–1926), The Flying Carpet (1880), oil on canvas, 165 x 297 cm, Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum Нижегородский государственный художественный музей, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Carpets might be some of the last objects you’d expect to become airborne, but almost anything can happen in Russian folk tales such as those about Ivan Tsarevich. In Viktor Vasnetsov’s Flying Carpet (1880) the hero flies through the sky with the Firebird in its golden cage. This was influenced by stories of flying carpets in the Thousand and One Nights.

José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), The Carnival in Rome (1881), oil on panel, 38.8 x 54.4 cm, Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga, Málaga, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

When not being flown, or taken outside for a good beating to rid them of dust, it seems that brightly coloured carpets were hung over the balustrades of balconies at carnival time. This is shown here by the Valencian painter José Benlliure during a trip to Italy, in The Carnival in Rome (1881).

In tomorrow’s article, I’ll look at the rich history of carpets in paintings of the end of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth.