(TOILE DE NANTES). ~ [La Caravane du Caire. Nantes: Petitpierre et compagnie, c. 1785-1790].
Large printed cotton fabric fragment (580 × 750 mm). Very minor fraying at edges, traces of old folds and a few minor spots, otherwise excellent.
This toile fragment depicts scenes from Grétry’s popular opera La Caravane du Caire (1783) including the central slave market scene in which an Egyptian pasha chooses between an Arab and European women as potential slaves. With several subsidiary scenes, including a mosque and crescent-topped obelisk, this printed design is a remarkable evocation of an imaginary encounter between the Christian and Islamic worlds. As a fabric for interior decoration it was destined for curtains, hangings or upholstery.
Toile prints, often referred to generically as ‘Toiles de Jouy’ after the products of the famous factory at Jouy-en-Josas, just south of Versailles, were one of the great successes of French industrial production, but are often overlooked as examples of popular iconography. This example from Nantes is printed using the mordant technique, in which the design was printed from large engraved copper plates using an invisible mordant. Once the cloth was placed in dye (scarlet red in this instance) the colour adhered only to the mordant-printed areas, being entirely washed away from the remaining blank background. The result is a remarkably bold and sharp image of impressive dimensions and with extraordinary detail. Varieties of toile designs are almost countless, but it was common for them to reproduce scenes from history, legend or other artforms such as theatre and opera. Since an opera such as La Caravane du Caire may never have been printed in illustrated editions, these fabric prints are fascinating graphic survivals.
‘La Caravane du Caire was the most successful of Grétry’s lighter large-scale works, being seen at the Paris Opéra frequently up to 1829, in more than 500 performances.’ (New Grove). Its complex plot begins with the caravan travelling to Cairo, including a slave-trader Husca and two slaves, Zélime (the daughter of a nabob) and her French husband Saint-Phar. The tale turns upon the interactions between French protagonists and their Arab counterparts. Zélime is purchased at the slave market (depicted on our toile) by the pasha for his harem, in preference to various Europeans presented for his consideration (including musicians and dancers, also partly depicted here). Through various rather unbelievable devices, Zélime and Saint-Phar are ultimately freed and reunited. The tale is a classic example of the French ‘arabesque’ vogue, considering social mores and philosophical questions through their examination in exotic, usually eastern, circumstances. Provenance: from the collection of textile historian and curator Josette Bredif. Toiles de Nantes des XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, 9 décembre 1977-29 janvier 1978, Musée de l’impression sur étoffes de Mulhouse, 1978, 39 (reproducing a near complete fragment of c. 960 mm with a further layer of scenes above those surviving in our portion).