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: A Gift of Laces


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A large and important group of laces has recently been presented to the Institute through the generosity of Mrs. Ridgely Hunt of Washington, D.C., thus very felicitously rounding out the existing collection. A distinguished connoisseur of laces, Mrs. Hunt assembled this group during a long residence in Europe, and in her gift expresses a recognition of the growing importance of the Art Institute as well as a desire to place fine examples of a vanishing art in a community where they will be appreciated and be of use for study and exhibition purposes.The current exhibition in gallery B-18 has been entirely composed of Mrs. Hunt's laces, which range from the drawn and cut work of the Italians in the mid-fifteen hundreds, through the sumptuous point and bobbin laces of Venice and north Italy, to the filmier examples of the French and Flemish of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and include as well modern provincial work made in such far-flung areas as Malta, Brittany, Madeira, Ireland, Java, and the Scandinavian countries.While many crafts, such as jewelry, metalwork, pottery, and glass, were practiced in all their delicate perfection hundreds of centuries ago, the art of lace-making appears to be, relatively speaking, a recent one. Both Italy and Flanders claim the distinction of inventing lace, through the Italian claim is more likely to be the true one. For while no lace pattern book appeared in Flanders until 1597, such a book, published in Zurich some forty-five years earlier, proved that bobbin lace was known in Venice before 1526, though cut and drawn work and simple needlepoint had been made well over a century earlier. The inventory of the great Sforza family, for instance, made in 1493 when a division of the property was made, lists a number of laces among the jewels and rich materials.The casual visitor may at first find this distinction between bobbin and needlepoint lace confusing and troublesome. Strictly speaking, all needlepoint laces are made with a needle and thread, using one stitch only, the buttonhole stitch, in varying sized and degrees of tautness. Bobbin lace, on the other hand, is made with threaded bobbins which the lacemaker twists in and out, between and around pins placed in specially arranged patterns. It is not always possible for the unaided eye to distinguish between point and bobbin lace, though with a strong magnifying glass the buttonhole stitches of the one and the woven effect of the other will at once stand out clearly. And, as one may wonder at the delicate intricacy of the work, one may also sigh for the patient worker whose eyesight was sacrificed that others might be beautifully and fashionably adorned.But all laces, it is true, were not made merely to satisfy the vanity of mortals. Workers were commissioned by the Church, always a lavish patron of the arts, to make altar cloths and frontals, chalice veils and vestments. One of the early examples of lace in the present exhibition probably formed the end of an altar cloth. Dating from about 1600, it is of the cutwork known as reticello, combined and alternating with bands and squares of embroidery.Reticello was also made so that no cloth whatsoever was visible, the effect being entirely one of a strong linen lace, with bold geometrical designs crisply united by straight lines, sometimes picoted, sometimes not. There are several examples of this type of lace in the current exhibition, one of them with a pointed border which at first glance appears to be one with the band above it. Close inspection, however, shows it to be sewn on, and not reticello at all, but of a type of lace known as punto in aria, meaning stitch in the air. This somewhat effervescent definition springs from the fact that the invisible underlying foundation is neither solid nor of linen, as in reticello, but is composed merely of threads laid down in a prearranged pattern and then overcast with buttonhole stitching.When Catherine de Medici came to France in 1533 as the bride of Henri II, the lace she brought with her as part of her dowry was reticello. Clouet, in portraits of this Queen of France and of other members of the royal family, shows wearing ruffs edged with reticello which quite possibly she herself had made, being a skillful needlewoman. Among the attendants that came with her from Florence was Federigo Vinciolo, a noted lace embroidery designer, who became a well-known figure at the Valois courts. Doubtless he was usually present when, either at Blois, Chenonceaux, or Chaumont, Catherine would gather the ladies of the household together, and according to Brantôme, pass the long afternoons at needlework, “at which she was as perfect as possible.” Perhaps these afternoons might have been less long had Henri's affections not been engaged elsewhere.Throughout the sixteenth and most of the seventeenth century, punto in aria was enormously popular throughout Europe. The ruffs worn by Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers were frequently edged with “piccadills” of this lace, and it appears over and over in later portraits by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals and many other painters of that day. Equally fashionable for “collar lace,” and also painted in all their elaborateness by the same artists, were those made in Genoa and Milan, bobbin lace of tape-like texture, the latter especially in scroll-like designs and twists held together by small brides or links. These brides were sometimes also bobbin-made, but frequently they were added with the needle after the main design was complete, resulting in a lace of mixed technique. But the most beautiful, sumptuous, and costly of all Italian laces were made in Venice. This is hardly surprising, since life itself was more sumptuous in Venice than anywhere else in Europe. While bobbin laces were to some extent made there, it is the Venetian needlepoint that is so justly famous. This is of three main types, all, closely related. Gros Point, together with Rose Point, constitutes one class; Flat Point the second, and Grounded Point the third. Gros Point differs from ordinary needlepoint in relief in that the thread or cordonnet that outlines the pattern is first thickly padded before being buttonholed. This produces a heavier, richer effect, very much in the spirit of the Renaissance. Rose Point differs little from Gros Point, but the patterns are smaller, brides play a more important part in the design, and the picots are more abundant. A type of Rose Point now known to be Venetian but long thought to have been made in Spain is the so called Punto di Spagna, of which there are several fine examples in the present exhibition. Punto di Spagna often reveals a design of Moorish influence, but in all cases the lace is of rather solid, flat workmanship, outlined with a moderately raised edge and frequently showing beautifully designed flowers connected by thick brides.Venetian Flat Point is distinguished by the absence of the raised outlining cordonnet; the brides are also important in the general design and are tipped with frequent and spiky picots. A variety of this lace is the famous Coralline Point, of which there are several beautiful examples in the collection presented by Mrs. Hunt. This delicate yet brilliant type of lace, an attenuated variety of Rose Point, was in demand by people of fashion in all the capitals of Europe. The relief is almost entirely absent, and the leaves of the scroll have completely disappeared, leaving a winding maze of narrow, coral-like ramifications ending in a small flower. Legend has it that Coralline originated when a lace-worker of Venice took for her design the net of her fisherman lover in which pieces of seaweed and coral were enmeshed, and though the general effect of Coralline is indeed a wonderfully organized tangle, the story has a strongly apocryphal flavor.The Venetian Grounded Point, or Point de Venise à Réseau is the final outcome of this desire for delicacy and lightness. Though a needlepoint like the others, the thread used is infinitely finer and the effect at first is of a bobbin lace, particularly because of the réseau, or net ground. Two examples of this type, which was inspired by the more gossamer laces than being made in France and Flanders, are in the present exhibition.From the sixteenth century on, such vast amounts of French money had been spent in Italy on laces that Colbert, Louis XIV's Minister of Finance, decided to put an end to it, and in 1665 he started a small factory at Alençon, with thirty workers he had brought from Italy. This was the real beginning of the great lace industries of France and Flanders. From that time on its prosperity skyrocketed—a very apt term, incidentally, since, like all such devices, it had eventually to come to an inglorious end. This, however, did not happen until the nineteenth century, when the passion for lace-trimmed clothes died down.The most beautiful and elegant of the northern needlepoint laces were those made at Alençon and Argentan. At first both these establishments copied the old Venetian points, but by 1675 they were producing the lighter, more gauzy lace now called Point d' Alençon and Point d' Argentan. As the two towns were close together, and workers in each place familiar with the lace made in the other, it is natural that they should be strong similarities, but Point d' Argentan has always had a slightly heavier, bold quality.The inventories of households in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reveal incredible sums to have been spent on laces. It was worn almost equally by both men and women, at their necks, wrists, and feet. Both Queen Mary and Queen Anne of England had a mania for laces, particularly the exquisite, filmy laces of Mechlin, of which there are a number of examples in the collection presented by Mrs. Hunt. Mechlin is a bobbin lace, with a peculiar six-sided net réseau and designs that tend toward four-petalled flowers. Also characteristic was the snowflake or fond de neige in the ground.Early Valenciennes is easy to confuse with the work produced at Mechlin, though for the serious student a strong magnifying glass will clear up many troublesome differences: the number of threads used in the mesh, for instance, the number of twists each thread is given; these and other indications are like directions on a small-scale road map.It was not until about 1715 that Valenciennes began to be popular, but by 1725 this lovely lace, delicate but strong, had reached the height of its perfection, and between three and four thousand lace-makers were employed in the city alone. Because of the number of bobbins and pins necessary in a piece of any width, Valenciennes took very much longer to make than any other kind of lace and brought huge prices. It took a worker ten months, working fifteen hours a day, to finish a pair of wrist ruffles. And when one considers that Valenciennes always made in damp air, preferably cellars, since moisture affected favorably the resilience of the thread (the effect on the workers seems to have been irrelevant), perhaps we should look at this lovely lace in somewhat the same spirit that we gaze upon a beautiful memorial to the dead.After the French Revolution, the great days of lace-making were over. To be sure, it was revived briefly under Napoleon—Josephine alone, with her five hundred lace-trimmed chemises, must have given more than a negligible impetus to the moribund industry—and in the Second Empire also there was a renewal of activity in lace-making. Winterhalter painted the Empress Eugénie more than once, great wide flounces of Chantilly or Point de Gaze adorning the swaying crinolines that were then the fashion.Mrs. Hunt's collection includes many examples of this nineteenth century period, and looking at them, one can almost see the Imperial court in residence, perhaps at Compiègne, perhaps at the Tuileries; hear the light quick tunes of a Strauss waltz, and, growing louder in the distance, the frightening sounds of war; the war of 1870; that brief prelude to the end of an era of great elegance. But in this collection of laces, the elegance not only of that short-lived Empire is summed up, but also of the brilliant centuries before it.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Panel of Gros Point De Venise, Italian Needlepoint 1630-1660. From the collection of European laces presented by Mrs. Ridgely Hunt.
  2. Genoese Bobbin Lace for Collars and Cuffs, made from a Reticello design. Italian, XVII Century.
  3. Collar of Punto Di Milano, Italian, XVIII Century. The elaborate design is of bobbin lace, connected by brides of needlepoint.
  4. Lappet of Mechlin Needlepoint. Flemish, XVIII Century.
  5. Border of Punto Di Spagna, Venetian, XVII Century. This type of needlepoint was made for use in Spain.
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Source: "A Gift of Laces," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 31, no. 6 (February, 1942): 18-23.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009