Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets

The Savonnerie and Aubuson carpets are an entirely French production that replaced Persian carpets in Europe for nearly a century, but how and why? In the 1500’s a group of weavers from Flanders settled in Aubusson and established tapestry weaving known for their exquisite nature and hunting scenes. It was called Aubusson tapestries named after the village it came from. Fast forward to the 1600’s and Europe is gripped with fear. The mighty Ottoman Empire is on their doorstep threatening to invade, the Catholic Church is threatened by the growing Protestant movement and France is practically broke from funding Holy wars and importing goods from the Middle East.

All of a sudden the Ottoman Empire starts to crumble bit by bit after another failed attempt to invade Venice and for a moment Europe breathes a sigh of relief knowing that the dreaded invasion seems more unlikely by the day. The Silk Trade Route is still occupied by the Ottomans, so with their new found strength and freedom the European kingdoms set out to find other routes to East, because Europe’s taste for Oriental goods is insatiable. As often happens in times of extreme duress, the arts provide an escape for many and results in the production of some of the best artworks. This is exactly what happened. The Catholic Church realized the “threat” posed by the Protestants and in a bid to retain public support they decided to make Biblical stories and scenes available to the “mostly uneducated” general public in ways they could understand, in a time that art was only in the hands of the church, royalty and the wealthy. They commissioned painters and sculptors to produce new and more dramatic paintings and sculptures with more power, movement and drama than what was ever seen before. This was to be the start of the Baroque art era and from the Church’s lead, the elite and wealthy would follow. The Baroque art flowed into architecture and design and just like that Europe entered a new style era.

During that time Pierre DuPont, who obtained the knowledge of weaving a Turkish knot in the Levant, started producing his own carpets in Paris at a fraction of the cost of imported Persian carpets. Kind Henry IV, monarch of France, all too aware of France’s weak financial situation took advantage of this and allowed DuPont to set up his workshop in the Louvre. In so doing he ensured that the wealthy bought “local” and thus French money stayed in France. By the time King Louis XIII became the ruler the popularity of Monsieur DuPont’s carpets had grown, so the king procured a defunct soap factory for DuPont and his apprentice, Simon Lourdet, to set up a larger workshop to produce more carpets. The French word for soap is savon, so the carpets manufactured in the “soap factory” became known as Savonnerie carpets. The business belonged to the King and DuPont had the sole patent rights to produce these French carpets. King Louis XIII, entirely in love with the Baroque art, requested DuPont to change the design of the carpets to Baroque and so the carpet designs included more florals, swirls and curls, darker colours and more elaborate lines. Savonnerie carpets now had an original, proudly French design and so, French carpets became the new craze in Europe. The king offered it as gifts to other kings and the wealthy purchased the rest.

After the death of the king, the elite requested the French carpet weavers to use lighter colours and softer, more natural patterns, which led to the Rococo art era. Soon Royal commissions were sent to Aubusson as well for very large tapestries to be woven in the new Rococo style and instead of using it on the walls, it was now also used on the floor as flat weave carpets. Having survived much French upheaval and turmoil, the Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets adapted to the tastes and times, but its gentle demise by the late 19th century, would eventually be caused by the rekindled love affair between Europe and Persian carpets. It is a love affair that has survived to this day, but so too did nostalgia of the once great French carpets and they are now sought after antiques the world over. A wave of retro Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets also started again during the 20th century and these reproductions are once more in the market.