Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Chagall... and Linen Tablecloths

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus, circa 1530

Analysis of the pattern of the tablecloth in the painting,
courtesy of Helena Loermans

A weaving drawdown similar to the tablecloth pattern

A few months ago, I wrote a post about a weaving pattern known as "The Earl's Canvas" -- a 14-shaft Gebrochene design that had been discovered in a 17th-century painting of the second Earl of Mar in Scotland. The painting was of less interest to weavers, actually, than the pattern of the canvas itself, which had been a tablecloth, most likely linen.

A linen tablecloth! I assumed that the poor artist had no choice but to use a table linen instead of a real canvas. Little did I know. 

Recently, through a chance conversation with someone in a workshop I taught, I learned that there are many centuries-old paintings woven on tablecloths in similar patterns -- patterns that are described in weaving terminology as twill diaper design. 

My friend pointed me to the writings of Helena Loermans, who researches these canvases and has a blog devoted to her work: (The full name for the project is the Laboratory for Handwoven Canvas Odemira, based in Odemira, Portugal, where Loermans has lived for some 30 years.)

Her research, to date, has looked at masterpieces by Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Chagall. Weaving on an AVL computer loom, she recreates their canvas patterns in fine linen, emulating and revealing the beauty of the original fabrics.

Reconstructions of canvases used by Titian, woven by Helena Loermans

She also offers gift boxes of her reconstructions for sale, to raise funds for her research -- available by clicking here.

I reached out to Loermans via Zoom and asked her why these masters were using such fabrics for their work. She responded that, while no one yet really knows why, she theorizes that tablecloths were among the few fabrics wide and long enough to serve, without seams, as canvases for large paintings. (Loermans suspects that these linens were in fact seamed, but so expertly that no one can detect it.) 

In a larger sense, the material of the canvas might have been a reflection of the value of the painting. We explored how, just as art deserves a beautiful frame, the culture of the time may have viewed the canvas itself as a statement of luxury and status. Loermans observed that fine linens were often owned by churches, in an age where the church and the nobility were closely linked -- and were perhaps the only groups that could afford great works of art.

An interesting footnote: Loermans told me that the oldest known record of weaving drafts is a collection from 1677 by Marx Ziegler, Weber Kunst un Bild Buch (roughly translated, "The Weaver's Art and Drawing Book"), which is available on The collection holds many patterns similar to those she has reproduced.

In conclusion, for your weaving delight, here is a painting by Velázquez, along with a drawdown of the pattern of his canvas.

 Velázquez, Supper at Emmaus, 1599-1600

Weaving drawdown, courtesy of Helena Loermans

Thanks for reading!


Wabbit said...

Wow! I was an art major and have studied many of the great masters and I never noticed that there was a pattern under the paint. I've looked closely at the brush strokes, the thickness and texture of the paint, and of course, the colors and how they are layered, so I wasn't exactly standing ten feet away. (Until of course, that was as close as they'd allow you to get! In some museums, you can still even touch a Monet if there's no guard in the room. My niece once accidentally bounced a ball I'd bought her in the gift shop into a giant waterlilies canvas at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh.) I will definitely have to have a closer look now! Thank you so much for posting this!

Denise Kovnat said...

You're welcome! As Helena explained, the artists would prepare their canvases with gesso and another layer (can't remember what it was) so that the twill pattern had no texture that affected the painting. I can't say for sure what would happen if you bounced a ball of of one of them, however ;o)

Ruth Henriquez said...

This is so interesting. I weave and I've also been learning to paint, and for some time I have been thinking about painting on twill woven fabrics so that the pattern could show through, at least in some areas. The links and drawdowns you've provided are so helpful for me to learn more about this. I'm interested in how you discovered that paintings were done on table linens. Thank you for this post.

Renaissance Fiber Enthusiast said...

Wow, I had no idea! I just assumed that canvases were the usual ho-hum. But to see them as weaving works of art, in themselves, is incredible and enlightening! Thanks for sharing!

Denise Kovnat said...

Ruth, I first found out about the tablecloth/painting canvas link through weaver and weaving historian Margie Thompson, who is a member of the international group, Complex Weavers. I wrote about her discovery on my blog post of November 17, 2020.

Wabbit said...

Denise, the other layer might have been rabbit skin glue to tighten up the fabric. (Yes, it sounds icky and smells even worse! And as a Wabbit, I take exception to its use!) It's as bad as using flax seed to prep linen singles for weaving. I was an art major before I became a weaver. I've seen the weave structure of plenty of paintings show through the paint and preparatory layers. Renaissance painters did not seem to use as much paint as for instance, the Impressionists did, on the whole. I've always been fascinated by the smooth layers of color (glazes really) that they achieved without building up a lot of texture.

Ruth Henriquez said...

Thanks Denise. I will check out that post.

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