Aubusson, a site inhabited since the Iron Age

Aubusson is located at the confluence of the rivers Creuse and Beauze.

Legend has it that some Saracens settled on the banks of the Creuse after Charles Martel defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers in 732AD.

La Maison du Tapissier in Aubusson
La Maison du Tapissier in Aubusson

Truth or legend?

What we know is that the site was already inhabited during the Iron Age.

Indeed, excavations unearthed traces of human occupation in a place called Camp de Châtres.

Gallo-Roman architectural vestiges also show that Aubusson was an active town some 2000 years ago.

Texts from 936 then referred to the city of Albuciensis; by the late 11th century the name had evolved into Albuconis.

The origin of that name is uncertain.

However, it could have originated from a Celtic word meaning craggy, or could just be the evolution of the man’s name Albucius.

The origins of the Aubusson Tapestry

What is certain is that Aubusson is a name known worldwide!

In the 14th century, the town’s weaving workshops started to produce the wonderful tapestries that made its reputation.

The origin of the Tapisserie d’Aubusson is, however, also subject to polemic!

Some believe that the Saracens introduced weaving in the 8th century.

A theory yet to be proven, however, quite plausible, when you consider that the Berbers still produce tapestries and rugs of the highest quality.

Others think that Flemish weavers settled in Aubusson when Louis I of Bourbon, the city’s patron, married Marie of Hainaut in the 14th century.

They argue that Aubusson weaving industry started to flourish at that time.

Aubusson was indeed a perfect place to set up weaving workshops.

The acidity of the Creuse’s waters helped de-grease wool and fix the dyes.

Aubusson’s flourishing weaving industry resulted in a high demand for wool and therefore stimulated local sheep breeding. From a drawing by Huet – wool – 1786

Aubusson tapestry iconic patterns

The traditional Aubusson tapestries are known for their iconic Verdures.

This style, mainly based on plant decoration such as trees and foliage, remained highly popular over the centuries.

Aubusson Tapestry - Verdure - Louis XIV Collection - wool-silk - 1671
Verdure – Louis XIV Collection – wool-silk – 1671

Another emblematic decor are Hunting Scenes.

They indeed enjoyed the same reputation as the Verdures as soon as the 16th century.

Many antique Aubusson tapestries represent unicorn, wild boar, wolf and even lion hunting scenes!

Religious scenes were also very popular.

Numerous tapestries therefore represent mythological scenes and scenes from the life of the saints, and the Old Testament.

Aubusson and the great painters of the 17th and 18th centuries

Aubusson workshops worked in collaboration with renowned painters, whose drawings were used as models for the creation of masterpieces.

Many tapestries were based on Isaac Moillon’s drawings after 1665, when Colbert granted the status of Manufacture Royale to the Aubusson tapestry workshops.

Aubusson Tapestry - Eole from a drawing by Moillon
Eole from a drawing by Moillon

Moillon, who was painter to the King, was indeed the first of a long list of painters who collaborated with Aubusson.

The most famous painters were Jean-Joseph Dumons and Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

The latter became the artistic director of the Manufactures Royales de Beauvais and des Gobelins in 1734.

Then came Francois Boucher, renowned for his mythological and pastoral scenes, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Huet, Charles Le Brun and Jacques-Nicolas Julliard, a pupil of Boucher, whose spirit of innovation brought the factory to new heights .

Francois Finet was a characters painting expert of the 18th century; his reproduction technique of flesh was unparalleled.

Jacques Barraband was the last pre French Revolution high profile painter to contribute to the creations of Aubusson tapestries.

Aubusson workshops after the Revolution

The manufacture and its marvelous productions were ransacked and burned during the Revolution!

Aubusson Tapestry - From a drawing by Huet - wool - 1786
From a drawing by Huet – wool – 1786

The weaving workshops fortunately reopened a few years later under the Napoleonic Empire.

However, the quality of the productions decreased.

Indeed, the creation of large wall tapestries was discontinued and gave way to the production of small rugs.

These more ‘ordinary’ creations revived the tapestry industry and saved the manufacture from ruin.

However, the spirit of creation and innovation and, therefore the artistic quality of the tapestries, decreased significantly throughout the 19th century. La Maison du Tapissier in Aubusson

Revival of the Aubusson tapestry

The French State founded the National School of Decorative Arts of Aubusson in order to revive the tapestry industry.

Aubusson tapestry by Lurcat
Aubusson tapestry by Lurcat

However, it was not until 1917, when the painter and engraver Antoine-Marius Martin was appointed director, that the establishment experienced a renaissance.

This revival was consecrated at the Exhibition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925.

Aubusson indeed exhibited works made from the drawings of leading painters and promising young artists of the era.

The decisive point was the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in 1937.

This was indeed on this occasion that Martins’ successor, Elie Maingonnat, met Jean Lurçat.

A painter and ceramist, Lurçat revolutionised and fully revived the art of contemporary tapestry.

Aubusson tapestry today

In 2009 UNESCO added the Aubusson Tapestry to the ‘ List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

Aubusson is today a generic name.

The wonderful tapestries are therefore created in several accredited workshops.

Aubusson tapestry by Lurcat
Aubusson tapestry by Lurcat

From the 16th to the 18th century, each Aubusson tapestry had the name of its workshop of origin, often with the name or initials of the artist, woven into the weft.

Contemporary tapestries bear the logo of the workshop, the signature of the artist and a weaving reference number.

Here are two fabulous museums that will allow you to discover these tapestries:

1- The Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie relates the evolution of  tapestry since its beginnings.

2- La Maison du Tapissier displays a genuine tapestry workshop.

3- Finally, the Galerie de la Manufacture des Gobelins in Paris.

Department of Creuse – Limousin region
Coordinates: Lat 45.954090 – Long 2.168938

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Maison du Tapissier – Drawing by HuetEole from a drawing by Moillon

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