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  • Through the Needle’s Eye: Embroidered Pictures on the Threshold of Modernity
  • Anna Lena Lindberg (bio)

During its early formative years in the eighteenth century, the modern art world was far from its present state of specialization. Both men and women, amateurs and professionals took part in the Swedish Royal Academy’s public exhibitions in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and anybody belonging to one of these categories might receive honorary rewards like gold medals or academic memberships. The structure of the artistic profession was not yet settled, and for a while professional status could be reached in various ways. Some artists, like the portrait painter Ulrica Fredrica Pasch (1735–96), had received their training in a workshop in accordance with the guild tradition. Others, like amateur ladies and gentlemen, were tutored by private teachers. This picture of admissible coexistence is increased by still another possibility, academic training, although with one crucial limit, it was open to males only.

In the collection of the Stockholm Royal Academy of Fine Arts—started in 1735 as the Royal Drawing Academy—all the genres and techniques one would expect to find are represented: paintings, historical ones as well as portraits and landscapes; architectural drawings; graphics; medallions; watercolors; plaster reliefs; sculptures; gems; and so on, all of them acquired since the late eighteenth century, according to the 1773 statutes of King Gustaf III. But there are also four, perhaps more unexpected, assets. Three of these are so called printworks, i.e., embroidered works using black silk stitched on a background of cream white taffeta or satin, in the same fine lines as engravings. The fourth one is a needle painting, done in colored, silky chenille in combination with stitches imitating brush strokes in the manner of an oil painting. At the end of the century, it was the fashion to hang needle paintings, and particularly embroidered printworks, as well as framed copper engravings, on the walls. Both techniques were frequently used for reproducing motifs taken from famous artists like Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, or Angelica Kauffman. But the embroidered motifs were not always copied from paintings. At times they were based on free-hand drawings made by the needle painter or by some other artist. 1 Between 1780 and 1796, the creators of these embroidered works were appointed regular members of the Academy, honorary members or—in one case—agrée (a category most often reserved for students or young apprentices). All four artists were female and their contributions [End Page 503] were all of the same genre, landscapes. It is perhaps surprising to discover that these four embroidered landscapes, apart from being considered decorative by contemporaries, were in fact treated as works of art. Not only were their makers honored by the Academy, they were also reviewed in favorable terms in current journals. As this permissive attitude was soon to be questioned—and later to be dismissed as a ridiculous mistake 2 —it must be asked why they were included at all. In my view, these embroideries are key works in the sense that they represent a most dramatic transitional historical event in the development of the institution of art. What did their shortlived fates as works of art mean to the set of rules established at precisely this moment, rules that were to decide the institutional, professional, and gendered borders of the modern art world?


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Figure 1.

Fredrica Eleonora von Düben, Waterside. Printwork 20.5 x 32 cm, Kungl. akademien för de fria konsterna [Royal Academy of Fine Arts], Stockholm. Photo: Göran Schmidt, Livrustkammaren [Royal Armoury], Stockholm.


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Figure 2.

Ulrica Melin, Vaisseaux dans le port. Printwork 29 x 38 cm, inscribed “cousu par U. Melin,” Kungl. Akademien för de fria konsterna [Royal Academy of Fine Arts], Stockholm. Photo: Göran Schmidt, Livrustkammaren [Royal Armoury], Stockholm.


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Figure 3.

Ulrica Melin, Vaisseaux dans le port. Detail of printwork 29 x 38 cm, inscribed “cousu par U. Melin,” Kungl. Akademien för de fria konsterna [Royal Academy of Fine Arts], Stockholm. Photo: Göran Schmidt, Livrustkammaren [Royal...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 503-510
Launched on MUSE
1998-07-01
Open Access
No
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