Description & Technical information
This superb colourful tapestry, the Ball Game ('Jeu de boules' ), is from a set known as the Loves of Gombaut and Macée representing their carefree sexually enlivened lives as shepherd and shepherdess. Thought to have been based on a set of eight woodcuts by the French artist Jean Leclerc, produced about 1587 and published in Paris in 1596, the scenes extol the ideal pleasures of Arcadian life with explanatory text, both image and word loaded with sexual ambiguity and innuendo.
In the centre of our tapestry, the shepherds play tiquet with a young woman, a ball game similar to croquet. Lifting her dress seductively, the shepherdess declares: 'IE.TE.PRIE.MON.AMY.JACQVET-FAI. TRESBIEN. DRESSER.LE.TICQVET-AVANT.QUA.FRAPPER.DES.BILLETTES’ (‘I beg you, my friend Jacquet, set the mallet upright before hitting the balls’). Suggestively, he replies: ‘PASSER. DEVX.PAS.NEST.PAS.AQVEST.MAIS-POVR. VOVS.SERVIR.DE.NAQVET-JE.LE.VOVS.DRESSERAY.FILLETTES’ (‘If I take two steps, it is not to spy on you, but to be your ball boy; I will set it up for you little girls’).
In the top left hand corner a man and a woman embrace. The man exclaims: ‘TANDIS.QVE.TE.TROVVE.AMON. AYSE-IL.EST.FORCE.QVE.IE.TE.BAISE.MARGOT-ALOMBRE.DV.BVYSSON’ (‘Since I find thee at my disposition, I must kiss thee, Margot, in the shade of a bush’). She replies enthusiastically: ‘IL.NEST.CHOSE.QVI.TANT.ME. PLAISE-CARVN.BAISER.GRAND.DEVIL.APAISE-QVANT. CEST.DVN.BEAV.IEVNE. GARSO’ (‘There is nothing that pleases me so much, for a kiss assuages great sorrow when it is given by a handsome boy’).
In the centre right near the border, a man smacks the bottom of a woman under the gaze of a voyeur: ‘PVISQVE.JE.TIENS.GROSSE.BERG-ADESCOVVERT.VOSTRE.DERRIERE-VOVS.AVRES.CE.COVP.SVR. LAFESSE’ (‘Since I hold thee, plump shepherdess, with your behind uncovered, you will get this smack on the buttocks’). She responds: ‘GOMBAVLT.TA.MAIN.EST.TROP.LEGE-ET.PVIS.CE. NEST.PAS.LA.MANIERE-DEFESSER.FILLE. SANSPROMESSE’ (‘Gombault, thy hand is too free, and then it is not good manners to smack the behind of a girl without promising to marry her’).
An epilogue, which appears in the top right hand corner of a larger version of the Ball Game now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Acc. no. 58.62), refers to 15 year old shepherds amusing themselves playing tiquet in the summer, watching young shepherdesses perform feats of agility, catching glimpses of nakedness with disguised bawdy insinuations ('if, when they leap, one sees the buttocks, it is but a natural pleasure'). This idealised notion of frivolous life on the land legitimised the sort of wanton behaviour found in nature which was considered quite improper amongst the bourgeoisie, for whom these tapestries were ultimately destined. Widely popular in the 17th century, various depictions of the story were produced.
The variety and detail of the vegetation and wildlife depicted in the present work is extraordinary – in addition to an array of different flora, dogs, sheep, goats, herons, cranes, and birds of prey nesting their young and hunting can be seen amongst the streams, brooks and foliage, bridges, mills, towers and towns filling the background.
Other scenes from the series of eight subjects woven over nine pieces portray the different stages of idyllic peasant life with a focus on outdoor activity, sexuality, marriage, old age and death. The most complete set of the series is found in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Saint-Lô, Normandy which, in addition to the present ball game, shows the shepherds’ lives at different ages (eg., hunting butterflies at ten years, dancing and feasting at 20 years and engaged and married at 25 years).
It is possible that the late 16th century engravings by Leclerc and the Gombaut and Macée series originate from or are based on the same earlier textile models which remain unknown. The stiffness of the characters, the use of explanatory text as well as the extremely detailed reproduction of fauna and flora in the foreground is suggestive of an ancient source of inspiration. The text derives from an as yet unidentified shepherds’ literature.
In extremely fine overall condition with a well preserved colour palette of brilliant red, pink, blue and dark blue-green, the tapestry has been cleaned and lined and is ready to hang.
Period: 1600-1750, 17th century
Origin: Belgium, Bruges
Medium: Wool, Silk
Dimensions: 271 x 255 cm (106³/₄ x 100³/₈ inches)
Provenance: With Bernard Blondell, Antwerp
With Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry De Wit, Mechelen
Private collection, Belgium
Literature: G. Delmarcel, A. Volckaert, Flemish Tapestries – Five Centuries of Tradition, exhibition catalogue (Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry De Wit, Mechelen, 1995), no. 11, pp. 44-45
G. Delmarcel, E. Duverger, Brugge en de tapijtkunst, exhibition catalogue (Brugge-Moeskroen, Poortere, 1987), pp. 94, 121, 248-255, 262-265
H. Goebel, Wandteppiche II: Die Romanische Länder (Klinkhardt & Biermann Verlag, Leipzig, 1928)
E. A. Standen, European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985), pp. 171-176
E. A. Standen, ‘Renaissance to Modern Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’ in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 44, no. 4 (1987), pp. 6-56
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