Toiles de Jouy, by Aziza Gril-Mariotte
Toiles de Jouy, now there’s an expression that strikes a chord with everybody. Some people immediately think of an old house in the countryside and happy memories; others think of granny’s old tat and a faint whiff of mustiness. This fabric, with its blue or red print, has become the epitomy of good taste, nodding to the nostalgia of the Old Regime – plenty of reasons then to either love it or loathe it. You might think that the antithesis of toiles de Jouy, a bit hit with the aristorcracy, would be the check fabric made by Cholet, popular with the masses. But you’d be wrong! Legend aside, historical reality demonstrates that this fabric was bought by city dwellers who dreamed of a Rousseauesque rural idyll.
The fashion for cotton fabric stems back to the XVIIth century when Indian cottons voyaged to France on ships owned by the East India Company and ticked all the right boxes for consumers but their arrival soon generated the hostility of French textile manufacturers. In 1686 the State, worried about cash draining out of the Kingdom, imposed a strict cotton embargo. For over 70 years royal authorities continued to impose punishments to reinforce their ban – fines, imprisonment, trips to the galleys and even the death penalty for smugglers – but the prohibition ultimately failed and when the ban was revoked in 1759 this event was hailed as a victory of the people.
The story of the toiles de Jouy began in England when manufacturers adopted the technique of using wooden blocks to print motifs on cotton fabric. Mordant replaced ink to affix the dye – madder for red and indigo for blue – revealing the delicacy of the copper plate engraved designs. From 1770 French textile manufacturers printed large-scale landscape compositions featuring plenty of pastoral scenes buzzing with people and animals. This cloth dubbed character furnishing or character monochromes was a resounding hit with a bourgeois clientele.
Jouy fabric created by Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf became all the rage because the prints were designed as if they were real paintings. The manufacturer used the services of artist Jean-Baptiste Huet to catch the fancy of a clientele that loved genre scenes and Flemish XVIIth century art. After the French revolution pastoral themes went into overdrive. They would be rediscovered at the end of the XIXth century by fans of the Old Regime who saw Marie-Antoinette at Rambouillet reflected in the pretty faces of the farmers’ wives in the print.
Aziza Gril-Mariotte is maître de conférences in History of art at the University of Haute-Alsace, and a spécialist of the Indiennes and artistic creation in the textile industry of the XVIIIe and XIXe centuries.