Bernard Van Orley’s tapestry designs for The story of Romulus and Remus, 1524
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Bernard Van Orley’s 1524 preparatory drawings for tapestries depicting The Story of Romulus and Remus have, until now, been largely ignored by art historical scholarship. The only signed and dated drawings in the artist’s oeuvre, they serve as a valuable tool for establishing a system of attribution for Van Orley’s work, particularly in tapestry. Van Orley was the leading tapestry designer in Brussels during the first few decades of the sixteenth century. He was the official court painter to Margaret of Austria and enjoyed a continuous stream of high-end commissions, which he used to experiment with new techniques in representation and compositional arrangement. Van Orley’s career thus exemplifies the significant changes in Flemish tapestry production that occurred during this time. This study examines all aspects of the drawings’ creation from their commission to their possible application in the weaving process. There is no surviving documentation regarding the commission for the project. A tentative case is made here for Margaret of Austria as the patron, working on behalf of her nephew, Charles V. The choice of subject and narrative treatment are considered in the context of the rising popularity of classical themes during the Renaissance. Stylistically, the drawings represent the moment of convergence of artistic influences on Van Orley from his contemporaries in both Italy and the North. From its origins through the late fifteenth century, tapestry was intended as a two-dimensional decorative wall hanging. Van Orley’s development of a distinct Brussels style blurred the distinctions between the viewer’s space and the narrative image. This new concept extended both the width and depth of space in tapestry and lent itself well to dramatic historiated designs that rivaled developments in contemporary painting. The drawings represent a definitive design stage within the complicated, multi-step collaborative process of Brussels tapestry production. The fact that they survive in such good condition is evidence of their importance as possible workshop models and later on as collectible works of art.