At the Met: Carpets of the East in paintings from the West
The cross-disciplinary exhibition opened on March 11 at the Metropolitan Museum explores the way carpets moved and were used around the globe by pairing three seventeenth-century Islamic rugs with Dutch paintings of the same period. The Magazine ANTIQUES spoke to exhibition curator Deniz Beyazit, the assistant curator in the Department of Islamic Art, to understand the origins of the project, and asked Peter Pap, the renowned San Francisco-based dealer in Oriental rugs, to take us through each pairing to understand more about the trade, the carpets themselves, and what they meant to makers in the east and consumers in the west.
The Magazine ANTIQUES (TMA): Deniz, how did this exhibition come about? As a curator in the Islamic Art department, did you choose favorite carpets to feature, and identify paintings featuring something similar; or work backwards from the paintings, then find partner carpets?
Deniz Beyazit (DB): One day I had the idea for the show-I am originally from Turkey and grew up with carpets in the home...I feel connected to them beyond academics. [In designing the show] I though it was more interesting for the public to see different mediums and show how one type of art can be used by artists in other cultures. Also, this was a perfect opportunity to use a wide variety of the Met's holdings.
[Focusing] on the seventeenth century is much more interesting because you see a larger variety of carpets depicted in the paintings, and it allowed us to show a range of types of carpets that are more or less from the same period. That actually allows you to make that link to the trade which at the time was under the control of Dutch Merchants who had the monopoly [over trade] in Iran and the Persian Gulf.
TMA: Can you provide any context for how these carpets fit into the lives of their makers and local owners? Any general thoughts on the Eastern side of this trade?
DB: They were made for export, yes, but most of these carpets, in particular the "Floral and Cloudband" carpet [see figure 1a] were made for local use. Larger examples were used in Iran, while the smaller ones were more easily transported for Europe. This is also true of the ornamental Lotto carpet [figure 3a] which was in use by locals and also made for export. The chessboard carpet [figure 2a] was made for European clientele. The pattern was not common in Islamic world, and there are few surviving examples
TMA: Did you make any discoveries about your work through this project, or come to a new a way of thinking about these carpets, the east/west trade, or how they were used in European houses?
DB: Coming from the middle east, the carpet is something beautiful and decorative, but it is really something practical and protective that you put on the floor. Looking at the paintings you get a sense of how the carpets were used in the west: in the context of religious paintings, on the alters; or depicted as precious textiles on tables [in secular works]. The whole relationship of the elite and middle class families who used the carpets in social rituals, such as having guests visit after birth, gives the carpets more importance.
1a. Carpet from Iran, 17th Century. Cotton (warp and weft); wool (pile); asymmetrically knotted pile; 97 1/2 x 56 1/4 inches.
1b. The Newborn Baby by Matthijs Naiveu (Dutch, Leiden 1647-1726 Amsterdam) , 1675. Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 31 1/2 in.
TMA: What do you see in the painted rug that connects it to seventeenth century Iran? What features help you identify it and tie it to examples like the carpet shown alongside it?
Peter Pap (PP): With its foliate field and border, the painted carpet is typical of rugs woven in Isfahan, Iran, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.... Everything in the painting suggests that the rug draped on the table is of this type; however, the color of the ground is atypical of Iranian rugs of this vintage...which are of a much more burgundy toned red as the dye was typically derived from cochineal which produces a bluer red. As far as we know, there weren't Isfahan rugs woven with the background color that the artist chose in this composition. Did the artist change the color to suit his composition?
TMA: What can you tell us about the motifs and weaving styles shown in the carpet?
PP: During this time period in Iran, painters of illuminated manuscripts were often employed to execute rug designs for workshops to weave. These Isfahan rugs were finely woven with a relatively small knot count, thereby allowing the curvilinear forms of scrolling vines, palmettes and arabesques that you see here. The painter's interpretation of an Isfahan rug is actually rather crude; it doesn't convey the refinement of design or the depth of color of an Isfahan of the period, as you can see in the Met's example).
2a. "Chessboard" carpet, probably from Syria, late 16th or early 17th century. Animal hair (warp and pile), wool (weft); asymmetrically knotted pile; 73 1/2by 51 inches.
2b. A Musical Party by Gabriël Metsu (Dutch, Leiden 1629-1667 Amsterdam), 1659. Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 by 21 3/8 inches.
TMA: Is the chessboard design a common pattern? If so, mainly among Syrian rugs? Did the Chessboard pattern have any larger meaning or symbolism?
PP: The rug in the painting is again quite stylized, and therefore it is difficult to tell whether it is an actual depiction of a chessboard rug. Chessboard carpets are among the most rare and not a design that we see in any other rugs besides the Syrian rugs. The chessboard comes from the Mamluk tradition of rugs woven in Egypt. It is more architectural than the Isfahan [fig. 1a]; when you look at the chessboard rug you see a complex mosaic, not scrolling floral forms. Instead of an ornate garden, it is much more evocative of tile work.
TMA: What do you notice about the painted carpet that helps you identify its age and type?
PP: The chessboard rug that the Met chose to pair with this painting is at least 100 years older than the painting, which depicts a new rug, as evidenced by the perfect fringes. (Very often, when depicted in paintings, these rugs have perfectly intact fringes which suggests that when they were in the artist's studio they were brand new.) It would have been quite rare for a rug to survive with its fringe intact for that long.
3a. "Ornamental Lotto" carpet from Turkey, 17th century. Wool (warp, weft and pile); symmetrically knotted pile, 69 1/4 by 48 3/4 inches.
3b. A Young Woman and a Cavalier by Cornelis Bisschop (Dutch, Dordrecht 1630-1674 Dordrecht), early 1660s. Oil on canvas, 38 1/2 by 34 3/4 inches.
TMA: What can you tell us about the long history of "Lotto Carpets" in general?
PP: Lotto rugs got their name because they were depicted in paintings by Lorenzo Lotto in the mid sixteenth century. The small Turkish village rug that Lotto painted in the sixteenth century is already coming from a tradition that we know goes back to the fifteenth century. This Lotto rug, painted a century later, shows an evolution of design that distinguishes it from its sixteenth-century counterpart. The Met's rug is seventeenth century and is more decorative and less refined than the village rugs that Lotto actually painted.
In many categories of rugs, the design changes from generation to generation and the evolving design reflects the various influences of the weavers of each time period. The late seventeenth century was the tail end of the tradition of this type of rug.
TMA: You mentioned a history of portraying Lotto rugs in paintings. How does this painting fit into that convention?
PP: The use of Lotto rugs on tables in paintings is an uninterrupted tradition from the mid sixteenth century to this date. What has changed is that the first Lotto rugs were used in painting with religious themes, and Bisschop's painting is clearly secular.
"Carpets of the East in Paintings from the West" * March 11 - June 29 * metmuseum.org