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French (Munster), ca. 1810-18

The vogue for interiors and furnishings à l’antique that emerged in late-eighteenth-century France received renewed emphasis during the First Empire under Napoleon I. A wide range of subjects drawn from classical mythology appeared in various decorative arts media including printed textiles. Cottons featuring gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and allegorical figures complemented Greek- and Roman-inspired wall and window treatments, beds and seating furniture. At the same time, the growing use of engraved-roller printing expanded the availability and reduced the costs of these fabrics, sought after by a burgeoning middle- and working-class consumer market avid for the most up-to-date trends in décor.

In their desire to offer attractive patterns and keep up with changing tastes, manufacturers often commissioned designs from well-known artists. This striking roller-printed cotton with its graphic black-and-yellow palette was designed by Marie-Bonaventure Lebert (1759–1836), who trained in the circle of the influential neoclassical painter Joseph Vien (1716–1809). Lebert began designing for printed textiles when he moved to Alsace, working for Pierre Dollfus between 1784 and 1788; by 1796, he was the head designer for Soehnée l’Aîné et Cie (a precursor of Hartmann et Fils) in Munster. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Alsace became an increasingly important center of the French printed cotton industry, and its leading manufacturers, including Hartmann, made significant contributions to innovations in dyeing and printing techniques.

The Four Elements was a popular theme during this period. In the creation of his design, Lebert may have been inspired by a much admired poem, “The Seasons” by James Thomson (1700–48), published in 1730 and subsequently translated into French, including a translation by the naturalist Jean-Philippe-François Deleuze (1753-1835) of 1806. Thomson used the four seasons and related universal principles including the elements and zodiacal signs to symbolize natural, rhythmic patterns, notably man’s life cycle. Here, the Four Elements, personified by classical deities in swirling draperies, appear in alternating, slightly offset vignettes surrounded by clouds, on either side of a wide central band. This column is filled with repeating motifs such as trophies, a fiery urn flanked by salamanders, an eagle, entwined snakes, a basket with paired nets and pendant fish, and a lobster. On the left, holding a wheat sheaf, Saturn/Earth sits between a large cornucopia and a globe quartered with a horse, an elephant, a lion, and a bird representing the Four Continents (Europe, Asia, Africa and America, respectively); at his feet is a split pomegranate and behind him are fruit-laden trees. A pair of dolphins and a putto guide Amphitrite/Water in a scalloped shell through the waves, while another putto offers her a coral branch. On the right, Juno/Air makes her way over the clouds in a peacock-drawn chariot, also accompanied by two putti, one of whom presents her with a butterfly and another who tends to a pair of long-tailed birds. At his forge, Vulcan/Fire energetically hammers a shield to add to the already completed armor at his feet and, in the background, a bat hovers above two Cyclopes toiling at another forge. A narrow band along the right side of the panel features the signs of the zodiac. The hatched triangle-and-dot-patterned ground evokes the geometric simplicity associated with the classical design repertoire and disguises the characteristic shortness of engraved-roller repeats.


A number of surviving pen-and-ink-and-wash drawings in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (1898-21-10a-c, 1898-21-11, 1898-21-12a, 1898-21-12b, 1898-21-13) illustrate the progression of Lebert’s conception for Les Quatre Éléments. Although all include the above deities, the artist eventually dispensed with the elaborate framework enclosing them in his original scheme as well as some of the details; in the final version—in which the elements are identified by their Greek and Roman names—he enlarged their scale and made changes to their poses, the surrounding motifs and the decorative bands to emphasize their impact.

Probably produced in the late years of the First Empire or early years of the Bourbon Restoration, Les Quatre Éléments attests to the dominance of the imperial aesthetic that persisted under Louis XVIII. Panels of this cotton are found in the collections of the Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffes (858.127.1), the Allentown Art Museum (1979.3.1), the Art Institute of Chicago (1993.329), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1929-164-258).

60” L x 33.5” W

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