Sunday Masterpiece: Herati Carpet

Herati Carpet
Herat, Eastern Persia (modern Afghanistan), late 16th century
Cotton foundation, wool pile, 213 x 148 inches
Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna

Maybe not what you were expecting to see here?

If I had unlimited resources, I'd naturally buy paintings, but I'd probably spend more money collecting fine rugs. I've been interested in them for many, many years. Like most of my hobbies, that interest waxes and wanes, but lately I've been spending a lot of enjoyable time looking at good carpets.

There's a tendency to see them as simply being decorative objects, but in my opinion that's a huge mistake. A well-made rug can exist on exactly the same aesthetic plane as a well-made painting. In fact, as a painter, I often feel I have a lot to learn from good rugs, particularly in terms of color harmonies. The searingly beautiful image below is a detail from the above piece. You won't see a more beautifully balanced, vibrant palette in Vermeer.

I can only imagine the amount of time and effort that went into planning and composition of this great piece... to say nothing of the actual weaving. I'm guessing there are in excess of 9.5 million knots in this carpet, each one done by hand. Yes, 9.5 million. I couldn't find the actual knot count in the literature, but I'm taking a stab at 300KPSI (knots/square inch). That might even be conservative. By the way, there probably was a division of labor with a massive carpet like this; the artist-designers most likely were not a part of the large team of weavers.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston actually has a substantial collection of great rugs, but most of the time they're in storage. That is also true of almost every other museum I've visited. If they have good rugs, they just don't display them (I know there are specialized textile museums, but I'm talking about major art museums, which for most people is their only chance to see new things). That's a crying shame, really. I'm sure if people had the opportunity to see these items in a proper display setting, they'd come to appreciate them for what they are: amazingly beautiful works of art. (In fairness, the MFA did have a special exhibit of their collection at some point in the 90s, but these rugs are not shown as part of their regular displays).

Those who are interested in learning more about fine rugs can look visit this online exhibit at the Weaving Arts Museum (the first few pages are a political/historical background which you might just want to click through). There's also a nice introductory exhibit at the Met museum website.

Finally, speaking of Vermeer, he totally grasped the beauty of a good rug. They appear in at least 8 of his 35 known paintings. It might just be my own bias, the real star of this painting is not the maid.

Johannes Vermeer
A Maid Asleep, 1656–57
Oil on canvas; 35 x 30 inches