Color and Contour: Provençal Quilts and Domestic Objects

Color and Contour: Provençal Quilts and Domestic Objects

detail of pale purple wholecloth quilt

This collection of quilts and folk objects evokes the atmosphere of the south of France. Provençal needlewomen imbued their solid-color, wholecloth quilts with the light and abundance of their landscape. Inspired by the natural world and equipped with a vocabulary of ornamental motifs, they pulled miles of thread through layers of silk, cotton, and thick batting to create surface plays of light and shadow. Small items made of other materials—clay, metal, and wood—exhibit similar attention to the interplay of form and surface. In the pigments and patinas of these objects, we imagine the sun’s daily arc as it illuminated the colors and contours of the land itself, as well as the region’s hand-wrought textiles and vessels, tools and toys. 

The strong golden sunlight of Provence illuminates all detail. Each leaf, each flower petal, the small curve of a snail shell, the refined form of carved architectural stone, everything that curves and swells, everything that recedes into shadow—all are limned with light… from subtle gray-green olive leaves and pale blue lavender florets to red-burnished pomegranates and golden sunflower petals.
-  From Quilts of Provence

Terminology

Terminology
Terminology

Couvre-lit translates to “bedcover” and implies a large piece that extends over the sides and foot of a bed. A vanne is a smaller decorative quilt usually placed on top of other bedcoverings. A boutis can be any size, but refers to a quilt with markedly high relief. Fenêtre (“window”) describes a composition featuring an inner block of one textile surrounded by a border made of another. It is the only form of pieced work traditional to Provence.
-  Kathryn Berenson, Guest Curator

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition
Pale purple silk taffeta "couvre-lit" or whole cloth quilt

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown
Provence
Circa 1830
Silk taffeta
2005.018.0015
Kathryn Wilson Berenson Collection

An abundant array of floral motifs evokes a sense of prosperity and bounty. Probably made for the bed of newlyweds, the imagery foretells a happy union. The quilter’s expert ability to handle slippery silk and equally slippery silk batting is evident in the near-perfect symmetry of the stitched lines

purple with blue and red undertones, silk taffeta vanne or wholecloth quilt

Vanne
Maker Unknown
Provence 
1840-1860 
Silk taffeta
2008.040.0150
Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

The silk fabric used for the top of this vanne was woven with a blue weft and a red warp which, together, create an iridescent effect the French call gorge de pigeon or “pigeon throat.” The intricate quilting motifs include flowers, leaves, garlands, urns, and hearts

Peach and gold "vanne" made of silk taffeta

Vanne
Maker Unknown
Provence
1850-1900
Silk taffeta
2005.018.0019
Kathryn Wilson Berenson Collection

Geometric lines play against color and form in this fenêtre composition. The softness of its rose and gold silks and dimpled surface are counterpoints to the straight stitching that describes a center diamond grid and a border of parallel lines and diamond shapes. Despite fairly inexpert execution, the work pleases the eye

Golden "couvre-lit" or wholecloth quilt made of cotton

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown
Provence
Circa 1850
Cotton
2011.019.0002

Acquired directly from the armoire of a Provençal family, this bronze bedcover seems to have been meticulously planned. The main element of the quilt’s complex border is a laurel swag that loops over open blossoms and curves around blossoms in each corner. Quilters know from experience how difficult it is to maintain the proportions of designs quilted into corners.

orange cotton sateen "couvre-lit" or wholecloth quilt

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown 
Tavernes, Provence
Circa 1900
Cotton sateen 
2006.028.0009 

A woman from the hills near Marseilles—reportedly the great-grandmother of the dealer from whom it was acquired—worked this boutis in a lustrous, satin-weave cotton. The quilt’s high relief emulates the region’s hills and valleys, and the play of light and shadow on that undulating terrain.

silk "couvre-lit" or wholecloth quilt

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown
Provence
1830-1850
Silk 
2005.037.0004

The quilter used a conventional layout—an elaborate border surrounding a diamond grid center. The acanthus leaf border, however, is rarely seen in Provençal quilting, and may have been an invention of personal significance. The initials "CA" and "C" are cross-stitched on the quilt’s reverse.

large golden "couvre-lit" or wholecloth quilt

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown
Provence
1840-1860
Silk taffeta
2005.018.0020
Kathryn Wilson Berenson Collection

As in most quilting communities, it is likely that quilters in Provence shared ideas and patterns. This large yellow bedcover features diamonds, open blossoms, and trailing floral vines—motifs typical of the Provençal repertoire. The quilt’s three-lobed corner figures are less common, and resemble overlapping hearts.

pink silk damask "vanne" or wholecloth quilt

Vanne
Maker Unknown
Provence
Circa 1870
Silk damask
Private Collection

The challenge of manipulating silk fabric and batting is compounded by thick batting. The pronounced relief in this boutis invites comparison to the carved surfaces of 1870s Provençal furniture and furnishings. Many of the armoires, headboards, mirror frames, and pottery of the period feature similarly three-dimensional suns, garlands, and vases with feet and handles.

silk and cotton "vanne" or wholecloth quilt

Vanne
Maker Unknown
Probably Provence
1780-1800
Silk bourrette, cotton
2005.018.0014
Kathryn Wilson Berenson Collection

As early as the 1500s, Provençal inventories record quilts made of silk. The cloth in this example is woven from bourrette, which are the short, rough strands of silk on the outside of the silkworm cocoon. Bourrette takes dyes unevenly, which accounts for the fabric’s subtle stripes. The contrasting border of this piece was created from strips of a woodblock-printed scarf.

dark purple "couvre-lit" or wholecloth quilt

Couvre-lit 
Maker Unknown
Provence
Circa 1890
Silk bourrette
2006.028.0004 

According to legend, unmarried women in Provençal villages would carve the initials of eligible bachelors into laurel leaves. By evening, future husbands were identified by whichever set of initials had darkened the most. Here, swags of laurel leaves—a Provençal symbol of love—enclose the initials “AEB.” A pair of overlapping hearts appliqued onto the quilt’s backing echoes the romantic theme. 

deep blue cotton "vanne" or wholecloth quilt

Vanne
Maker Unknown
Provence 
1860-1880
Cotton
2006.028.0005

Energy abounds in this piece. Crisscrossing arcs extend from the quilt’s center rosette to its border, where multiple diamonds frame open blossoms. On a bed, the negative spaces created by the quilt’s scalloped border would afford a glimpse of another quilt, and the layering of different colors

Works in the Exhibition
Event Date
Friday, June 15, 2018 to Sunday, October 28, 2018