November 14, 2012

At The Met: European Lace, and the Pleasure of Fine Craftsmanship

Cravat (detail), late 19th century, probably Austrian; linen, needle lace; 7 x 29 in. 
(click on images to see enlarged, in a slide show)

Is is possible that after all my years of wandering the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I can still find something new and surprising, a place I'd overlooked? Yes: while walking through the Medieval galleries last week, I saw a staircase leading down to the small gallery of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center.  On view was an exquisite selection of lace, in an exhibition entitled "Gems of European Lace, ca. 1600-1920". The works in the show were indeed precious, objects of the most remarkable fineness, that drew me in closely in an attempt to notice every little detail. This piece, with its three dimensional quality, is almost like a minute relief sculpture of gorgeous floral patterns.

Cravat (detail), wider view of first image. See the entire piece at this link.

I took photographs at the show, but I used the images from the museum website, aside from the one below. At this link, you can see a dozen of the pieces in the show; when you click on them, you can then see high resolution images with lots of detail, and so can wander through the magical worlds of these laces and think about women toiling over them for months on end.

Cravat End (detail), late 17th century, French; linen, needle lace (point de France); 11 x 15 1/2 in. 
See the entire piece here

Of course such demanding and refined craft could only be at the service of the elites. This work, with a hunting theme, was made for the marriage of Louis XIV's grandson.

Cravat End or Rabat (detail), mid 18th century, Flemish; linen, bobbin lace (point d'Angleterre); 13 1/4 x 17 1/4 in. See the entire piece here

And this piece, also a hunting theme, was said to have been made for the Austrian empress. I love the details of spots on the horse and bristles on the boar. Much of what comes down to us, what survives to display in museums, are the objects that belonged to, and were made for, society's elites.

Handkerchief (detail with ferns and butterfly), possibly designed by Emma Radford, second half of 19th century, English; linen and cotton, bobbin lace (Honiton); 14 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. 

Handkerchief (detail with ferns and bird). See the entire piece here

Whatever their provenance, I am grateful for the opportunity to look with intense pleasure at these delicate works. I am in awe of the details of image and interconnecting tissue. In this handkerchief, the sway and rhythm of ferns and leaves is so natural and so beautifully observed. That this imagery is at such a tiny size makes it all the more astounding. 

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, 1669-71; oil on canvas, 9.4 x 8.3 in. 

How could I have a post on lace without showing Vermeer's famous painting of The Lacemaker. A young woman bends quietly to her task, making bobbin lace, which is woven from multiple threads, while needle lace uses a single thread. The attention Vermeer paid to the movement of forms and light heightens our awareness of the hands at work, the eyes upon the lace, and the grace of the activity.


  1. The artisans are never valued as they should be. It's sad to see so many of these arts of craftsmanship die out from lack of usage or a market for their work. Lovely stuff.

    1. I think this has died out because of the sheer expense of making a fine piece like those above, needing months and months of labor. Many people still make lace as a craft pursuit.

  2. Such beautiful work, and I love your observation that the work was done in service to the elite. But then, so much fine craftsmanship was. They may go unrecognized, sadly, but their work survives as testament to their diligence and craftmaship. Thank you for sharing such gorgeous work.

  3. Amazing work. I can't imagine sitting at such a task for months. I can imagine how proud one would be to have such a treasure.

  4. Thanks for binging this to my attention. I haven't been to the Museum in years and may be going in December. I will have to seek out this exhibit.

  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed seeing these works, Rick and Lisa and Sarah. Thanks for the comments.

  6. These are fine examples of exquisite work. Thank you for sharing them. Btw, Cat Bennett sent me the link to your website. I am thrilled with your work.

    1. You're welcome, Christine, and thanks for looking at my work; I"m glad you like it.