Painting on Chinese patterned silk. Six panels, the decoration of each in four regions, the lowest with birds and flowers, and the upper three with figures taken from seventeenth century French fashion plates, taking part in fashionable past times in garden settings.  Copious floral decoration throughout. Laid to a linen stretcher for stability.     

This set of six panels is datable to the 1680s and, being of such a delicate and fragile medium, is a remarkable survival of the French art of painting on silk. They may originally have been incorporated into a decorative scheme as wall panels, or formed folds of a screen. At this time such screens were certainly popular in the bedrooms and boudoirs of fashionable French ladies and the panels’ appeal to this demographic would have been intensified by their subject matter; figures largely based on French fashion plates, showing superbly dressed ladies and gentlemen in beautiful gardens, undertaking modish pastimes like drinking chocolate or tea, playing games and sitting at their dressing table or à la toilette. However the late seventeenth century was also when such pieces began to be set into walls, as approaches to interior decoration became increasingly integrated.1 Painted silks are often mentioned in French seventeenth and eighteenth century inventories, where they are referred to as Pekin Peint, hinting at the Chinese origin of the technique, but survivals are rare, especially ones in the excellent condition of the present examples.2

The only other known piece of comparable design and technique is in the collection of the Bowes Museum in North East England, and are clearly from the same atelier (as at least one figure exists on both screens), although of of a less elaborate design (figure 1).3 In this instance the four panels remain mounted on a screen, which has been decorated on the reverse with another four panels showing birds and foliage. The style and technique are close, but there are some significant differences in subject matter; there are oriental figures on the Bowes example, alongside some commedia del arte style characters. The oriental figures follow pattern books produced around the turn of the eighteenth century by artists like Peter Schenk, Jean Berain, Antoine Watteau, Johann Christoph Wiegel, Martin Engelbrecht, and Paul Decker. No such figures feature on the present pieces, which instead show exclusively people in fashionable French costumes, including some in official French court dress.

There is little doubt that the panels serve as important recordings of fashion. The Mantua Gown, for example, is worn by the majority of the women. This new garment would dominate ladies fashion for close to a century. It was an all-in-one piece worn over a petticoat; early on the train was allowed to drag on the floor as seen on the panels, but it was later pinned up in increasingly elaborate styles into the eighteenth century. It replaced separate bodices and skirts, and instead of elaborate detailing, relied much more on fine textiles for impact, which increasingly came from the far east, as seen in contemporary fashion plates (figure 2). The female figures on the present panels are clearly based on similar plates, like Dame de Qualité en deshabillé d’Esté of c. 1695 (figure 3). The plates, like the figures on the panels, bear the fashionable accessories of the period including fans and the elaborate fontange headdress. These high, lacy pieces were named after Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Fontange. There are also other feminine vogues on display here; the lady reclining in the tent is shown deshabillé, relaxed and slightly undressed, a trend which at the time was interpreted as being Persian.4 This figure is reminiscent of the extraordinary presentation of Louis XIV’s Mistress Madame de Montespan on a fan panel in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in an interior that is now widely accepted as being the Trianon de Porcelain, built by Louis XIV in 1670 (figure 4). She also appears on the Bowes Museum screen. We also see a lady wearing men’s riding gear, a fashion that remained popular with the elite throughout the seventeenth century, as seen in fashion plates like Madame La Marquise de Haute-Fille en habit de Chasse by Robert Bonnart (figure 5). In a similar way to the ladies’ mantua, around the same time, it became fashionable for men to wear suits comprising a coat, waistcoat and breeches. The men on the panels are wearing these newly fashionable ensembles, and some wearing dress required at the court of Louis XIV, particularly the famous red-heeled shoes. One man walking into a tent is sporting a uniform and holding a baton, and is thus likely to be a Maréchal of France, close to the rendering of Louis Joseph, Duc de Vendome, by Nicolas Arnout (figure 6). Another gentleman is clearly recognizable as being a portrait of Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, the king’s brother (figure 7). Some of the figures wear red coats; this color was extremely fashionable at the French court, and would be adopted by the king as the uniform of the order of St. Louis, the most senior French military order of honor.

Other fashionable activities are in evidence; a group sits down to enjoy a beverage together, probably tea or chocolate. The drinking of tea, coffee and chocolate was a pastime reserved for the richest in society and was deeply subject to fashion. In 1699 the Duchess d’Orléans wrote of the Duchess de Retz “when she drinks coffee her ladies are obliged to dress as Turks, and she does likewise; when she drinks tea, Indian dress is worn”.5 The rendering on the screen is most like the engraving Un Cavalier et une Dame beuvant du Chocolat, Bonnart Paris 1690 (figure 8). Similarly, a female figure plays at a board game, close in composition to Henri Bonnart’s Dame de Qualite Jouant au Solitaire of 1695 (figure 9) and another sits at her toilette or dressing table, a process that was, at this stage, taking on an increasingly ritualistic significance and was depicted in innumerable prints and engravings. Behind this lady a loggia with a blue and white roof, which is perhaps a reference to the Trianon de Porcelain. Built on the edge of the park at Versailles in 1670 by Louis XIV, the roof was covered with tin-glazed earthenware tiles in imitation of Chinese porcelain. The flying goddesses are among the most interesting figures on the panels and seem to be a composite of several different sources. One is a set of engravings of female figures representing the four elements by Jean Mariette; the goddess with her billowing cloak resembles the element of air (figure 10), whilst the figure pouring water from an urn, the element of water (figure 11). Two of the goddesses are shown with peacocks, which are one of the main attributes of Hera, the Queen of the Gods in the Greco-Roman tradition, whose chariot was drawn by such birds. Lower on one of the panels is what looks to be the goddess Venus traveling across the surface in a charming chariot with paddle-wheels drawn by dolphins. A similar but not identical image of the goddess is present on the Bowes museum example.

Painting on silk was a traditionally Chinese art, going back centuries; in China it was much older than painting on paper, which was not invented until the first century AD. It is an art form that remains active to this day and is thus one of the oldest painterly traditions in history. The European copying of the technique is related to other reinventions of oriental decorative processes, as was seen with porcelain and lacquering. The taste for objects of this kind was influenced by the sensational Siamese embassy that visited Louis XIV in 1686, bringing with it gold, tortoiseshell, fabrics, especially silks, and other assorted decorative items including 1,500 pieces of porcelain.6 In December of the following year the Grand Dauphin himself took delivery in his apartments at Versailles of “a tapestry of white taffeta, painted with Chinese figures and birds,” a description which sounds close to the present set of panels.7 The panels were likely the creations of the Parisian merchants who dealt exclusively in luxury goods. These Marchand-Merciers, became skilled at copying and adapting products, increasing their appeal to the market yet further.8 Jacques Savary de Brûlons, Inspector General of the Manufactures for the King, confirmed that “it is certainly advantageous to a merchant to invent new fashions with fabrics, if he can supply them fast”.9 The Mercure de France, the publication that led fashion in the late-seventeenth century, mentions the incredible painted silk screens of the dealer Périgon, who is recorded as being a frequent supplier to Louis XIV.10 Gautier was another merchant who had a real skill for this, presenting his clients with “satins and taffetas on which were represented in very bright colors, diverse figures of men, animals, birds and flowers which excited general admiration”.11

The fashion for painted silks would not wane for many decades; in 1738 the writer Jospeh Du Fresne de Francheville claimed, “since the discovery of the Indies, the European passion and especially that of the French for painted fabrics and cloths of the east keeps growing”.12 Painted silk would go into widespread use in France in the eighteenth century, where its production was stipulated as one of the responsibilities of particular artists in the Garde-Meuble, the department responsible for the furnishing of the royal palaces; Alexis Peyrotte, who was described as “Peintre et dessinateur du roi pour les meubles de la Couronne”, counted it among his duties.13


  1. Anna Jolly Ed., A Taste for the Exotic: Foreign Influences on Early Eighteenth-Century Silk Designs, Riggisberg, p. 11
  2. John Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century, London 1992, p. 217
  3. Bowes Museum FW.296 – little is known about the provenance of the Bowes screen, except that it was in the collection of the founders of the museum John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Chevalie, who acquired a collection of French decorative arts of the most exceptional importance, mainly by buying at auction in Paris in the late nineteenth century.
  4. Jolly op. cit., p. 204
  5. Whitehead op. cit., p. 53
  6. For more on the Embassy of 1686 see Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Orientalism in early modern France : Eurasian trade, exoticism and the Ancien Re égime, Oxford 2008
  7. Stéphane Castelluccio, Le prince et le marchand: Le commerce de luxe chez les marchands merciers parisiens pendant le règne de Louis XIV, Paris 2014, p. 256
  8. For more on the marchand-merciers see Carolyn Sargentson, Merchants and Luxury Markets : the Marchands Merciers of Eighteenth-Century Paris, London 1996
  9. Castelluccio, op. cit., p. 258
  10. Ibid, p. 80
  11. H. Belevitch-Stankevitch, Le goût chinois en France au temps de Louis XIV, Paris 1910, p. 196
  12. Ibid, p. 192
  13. Whitehead op. cit., p. 21

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