Archive for Chantilly lace

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: The Duchess of Alba

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on August 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Queen Elizabeth, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Goya Duchess of Alba

Francisco Goya, Mourning Portrait of the Duchess of Alba, or The Black Duchess, 1797,
oil on canvas, 210.2 x 149.3 cm
(Hispanic Society of New York)

No people are more associated with the fashion of black lace than the Spanish. No lace is more linked with black than French Chantilly. And no painting more delightfully illustrates these intertwined traditions than Goya’s 1797 portrait of the Duchess of Alba.

The Dowager and Her Devotee

Goya painted many portraits of Dona María del Pilar de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, possibly even as La maya desnuda. Were they lovers? That’s a question that’s set tongues to wagging since the liaison in Andalusia that produced the portrait above.

Certainly, they were an unlikely pair. Goya’s humble origins would have placed him well out of social range of the Duchess (second in line behind the Queen) were it not for the fact that he had been appointed court painter for Charles IV in 1789. Goya was charming; the Duchess was flamboyant and provocative. She had endured a loveless, childless marriage. Her husband, the 13th Duke of Alba, had died the year before and, according to custom, the Duchess retreated to her summer residence for a period of mourning. Goya followed, making numerous sketches, etchings and paintings of her over the many months. From the many sketches of that period which are not of Dona María, but resemble her, it is clear that she was never far from his thoughts.

Goya places her in a landscape unencumbered by distractions, she alone holds the viewer’s gaze. He depicts her in mourning costume;  though a style more likely worn by the maja, or peasant classes in Spain, than by the aristocracy, it is by no means simple or austere.  A black lace mantilla, which alluringly snakes itself around her, performing double duty as a headdress and fashionable shawl over her traditional Andalusian ruffled mourning dress.

Chantilly mantilla

Mantilla of Chantilly lace with velvet insets.

On the Dowager’s fingers are two rings, one stating “Alba,” the other proclaiming “Goya.”  The Duchesse also points words—sólo Goya (“Goya alone”)— on the ground in front of her. The first word was hidden for many years by paint and varnish, but when it was revealed after a cleaning in 1960, speculation heated up once again. The record shows that Goya and Dona María parted unhappily after their sojurn in Andalusia. It remains a mystery as to whether sólo Goya represented her true feelings at the time or just his secret wish.

The Duchess  died at 40 under sinister circumstances. The mantilla passed largely into history, though black lace is still worn by many women of an older generation as a religious head covering in some countries and by all non-Catholic female dignitaries meeting the Pope. Chantilly lace, of course, was immortalized in the Big Bopper song.

La Dentelle

Undoubtedly the best-known of the black laces, Chantilly is a bobbin lace worked in silk threads, rather than the more common flax or cotton. Named for the French town of its origin, Chantilly is distinguished by its fine Alençon-type réseau (netting) and outlined motifs—mostly floral patterns. The strong but comparatively light weight of this lace once made it suitable for an especially wide range of fashion accessories—the delicate covers of parasols and fan pages, as well as large shawls, although sizes of the latter was severely limited until 1758, when a French lacemaker from Calvados discovered the invisible seaming technique called point de racroc.

Chantilly Lace

Shawl made of black Chantilly lace (made in Bayeaux), mid-19th century.

Black lace first arose as a fashion need in the 16th century (predominantly as a symbol of mourning or matronliness). By the 17th century, equal quantities of black and white Flemish lace show up in purchase records. Regrettably, portraits of the era serve as the only record of the uses of black lace; almost none of the early specimens survive, because the iron-oxide mordant used to fix the black dye caused the threads to rot. (Synthetic dyes would fix this problem in the 19th century.)

The earliest Chantilly laces were made from cream-colored, not black, silk threads.  Blonde, as it was called, was a fragile lace, since the thin passive threads were required to support the heavier worker thread. Moreover, at the time it was thought to have no real artistic value, and thus was not considered fashionable. Further there was a huge demand from Spain and her colonies for black lace.  Legend also suggests that in the mid-17th century, Catherine de Rohan, local Duchesse of Longueville, established a school in her nearby castle at Étrepagny, thereby putting Chantilly on black lace-making map.

Whatever the reason, local lace-makers were able to overcome the traditional difficulty in working with hard-to-see black threads. Over the years lacemakers there experimented—with twisting and netting, grounds and motifs—eventually settling on the distinctive two-twist tulle ground and elegant flowers and garlands in relief for which Chantilly became known.

Diego Velázquez—Lady with a Fan, 1635

Diego Velázquez, Lady with a Fan, 1635
oil on canvas, 95 x 70 cm
(Wallace Collection)

Given the proximity of production to Paris, Chantilly lace soon became fashionable with the French court. Chantilly thrived under Louis XIV‘s patronage of lace and received a further boost with the arrival of his Spanish-born queen, María-Terésa, who widened the scope of its use. Although it remained in fashion through the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the French Revolution proved generally disastrous for lace making in France. Production in Chantilly ceased after large numbers of lacemakers, viewed as royalists, were guillotined in 1793.

Vintage Chantilly lace, 20th century.

Napoleon sponsored its revival in the years between 1804 and 1815. By the 1840s, Chantilly reached the apex of its popularity, although by this time the majority of lace in the Chantilly style actually came from Bayeux, Calvados and Grammont (Geerardsbergen) in Belgium, where the lace was produced more cheaply. Although revived once again in the 1860s, sadly high-quality imitations were then being manufactured on various machines. The demise of the shawl at the end of the 19th century sounded the final death-knell for hand-made Chantilly lace.

Wider Connections

Susan Waldmann—Goya and the Duchess of Alba

Goya: Crazy Like A Genius (Robert Hughes documentary)

Museo Virtuale delle Arte Tessili (a rich resource on the needle arts)

A Lace Lover’s Diary

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Series Prologue

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on June 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Editor’s Note: Today Venetian Red begins a short series on the history of lace, as depicted through seven portraits that span five centuries. Lace is delicate and fragile textile, and much of what we know about the styles and customs of lace, especially before the 17th century, are derived from the clues provided in paintings.

This is the first installment in the series. Other chapters include: Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in this series.



Duchesse Bobbin Lace Collar, ca. late 19th century.

It is the one costly wear which never vulgarises; jewels worn without judgment can be rendered offensive to good taste in their too apparent glitter, but lace in its comparatively quiet richness never obtrudes itself and is recognised in its true worth and beauty only by those whose superior taste has trained them to see its value. . .

—Mrs. F. Nevil Jackson, A History of Hand-Made Lace, ca. 1900.


“It’s difficult to see why lace should be so expensive; it is mostly little holes.”

—American author Mary Wilson Little (ca. 1904)


Chantilly Fan19th-century fan with Chantilly lace covering.

It’s safe to say that the average person today doesn’t think much about lace as a fashion statement. Prince aside, if it is worn at all by average people, lace is usually worn mainly by women and then generally out of sight in undergarments or as part of a specific “costume.” (We’re thinking of brides and Madonna.)  Since machines fabricate pretty much everything in our world (including lace), it’s easy to understand how a frilly item once made laboriously by hand, never mind an article of clothing once de riguer for men, seems outmoded and quaint.  Lace hasn’t disappeared (lace as table top linens is still widely available), but it has been relegated to the fashion specialty bin.

Yet, for many centuries, lace enjoyed a substantial and luxurious life as a fashion accoutrement. The history of lace is intertwined with the history of another class of luxury goods—fine art.  It’s no accident that northern Italy and Flanders, the two pillars of lace-making during the era of its greatest prominence—the 15th through 17th centuries—rose to become principal artistic centers. Local populations made affluent through trade with the East were eager to telegraph their prosperity and power through display of their de luxe possessions.

16th c laceCuff of Maltese lace, probably 17th century.

Technically different from woven fabrics, true lace (vrai dentelle) is an ornamental open-work textile produced by looping threads around one another to form an intricate pattern. Lace is related to, but distinguishable from, other open-textured woven fabrics such as gauze; from knotted openwork such as net and macramé; from tatting; and from knitted openwork like crochet. Textile experts refer to these forms as “Other Laces.”

The origin of lace is speculative. Open-work fabrics were certainly produced in the ancient civilizations. However, the earliest existing samples of openwork, which date to dynastic Egypt, are simply woven fabric with holes created by removed threads, not lace as we understand it. (These are often referred to as drawn thread work). Because the fishermen’s net, among the oldest of human implements, is a form of lace, many textile experts believe that lace derived from netting, not from embroidery, its other cousin.

Punta in Aria lace panel, 1620Punta in Aria lace panel, ca. 1620.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that looping threads around each other became the accepted method for making lace. Beginning in the 15th century, lace proliferated, along the way acquiring both prosaic names for the places in which it originated—Belgian, Irish, Reticella, Chantilly, Valenciennes—as well as more poetic names relating to its various styles—Point Arabe, Punta in Aria, Ave Maria. Regardless, all descend from two common ancestors—Punto Tagliato and Point Coupé. Hand-made lace is still made according to one of two techniques: by using a needle to interlock the threads, principally an Italian method derived from passementerie, or through the interweaving of bobbins wound with threads, a method associated principally with Flanders.

Beginning in the mid-18th century, machines have also produced lace.  With large-scale improvements in production made during the Industrial Revolution lace came within the financial reach of the middle class. Gradually machines replicated most of the lace patterns previously made by hand.

19th century table linen.

Once a vital visual ornament and a viable alternative to jewelry, lace, like other forms of decorative ornament, fell out of favor during the 20th century.  Perhaps, it too was a victim of the severe modernist aesthetic. As architect Adolf Loos proclaimed at the dawn of the 2oth century: “the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”

Despite this condemnation, one cannot fail to appreciate lace as a luscious form of decorative adornment.

Queen VictoriaAlex Bassano, Portrait of Queen Victoria (for her Jubilee Celebrations),
1887
(Note the exquisite veil in the Florentine style.)

Portraits offer us an insightful commentary on the evolving varieties of lace and the style conventions associated with them. Conversely, the depiction of this delicate substance might well be the best test of a painter’s virtuosity.

Wider Connections

Judith Gwynne—The Illustrated Dictionary of Lace
Lace collections around the World
Evolution of Lace
A Lace Lovers Diary
Is the veil of modernism lifting? Lace Trends for 2008

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