Cycles of Life
Cycles of Life: The Four Seasons Tapestries celebrates the recent conservation treatment of a set of tapestries in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection. They have a rich history but were faced with an uncertain future; when they were acquired in 1952, they could not be safely hung. They remained in storage until 15 years ago, when a project was begun to research and conserve them.
THE COMPLETE SET
Four Seasons Designed c. 1535, woven mid- to late 1600s. Possibly woven at Gobelins Manufactory (France, Paris, est. 1662). Wool, silk, and gold filé: tapestry weave. Gift of Francis Ginn, Marian Ginn Jones, Barbara Ginn Griesinger, and Alexander Ginn in memory of Frank Hadley Ginn and Cornelia Root Ginn.
Spring: Fishing Scene
255 x 266 cm. 1952.544.1
Summer: Harvest Scene
254 x 255 cm. 1952.544.2
Autumn: Vintage Scene
263 x 370 cm. 1952.544.3
Winter: Skating Scene
244 x 388 cm. 1952.544.4
Two parallel stories are told in Cycles of Life in four chapters: the story of the seasons and the story of the tapestries. Spring depicts fishing and gardening, a time of rebirth symbolized by youth. In the same way, the tapestries’ design sprang forth with fresh and popular imagery. Summer, represented by the grain harvest, evoking fertility, continues the story of the tapestries through their production in exquisite materials like silk and gold. Autumn depicts the grape harvest and wine making—celebrating the abundance of nature—but also speaks to the rich history of the tapestries’ circulation over the centuries and acquisition by the museum. Much like wine, the fruits of the weavers were enjoyed over the years with each new owner. Autumn finally heralds winter, a time when animals hibernate while people enjoy cold-weather activities like ice skating. Winter, too, suggests the tapestries’ long rest in storage.
Conservators follow a code of ethics that pledges to do no harm and to prioritize the original object, its stakeholders, and its varied meanings. They typically focus on two goals: treating the object to improve its structural stability and restoring losses so the subject matter can be understood. Only a few workshops conserve tapestries today; Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Mechelen, Belgium, restored Four Seasons during 2018 and 2019.
Treatment begins with surface cleaning using a vacuum equipped with reduced suction. Wet-cleaning removes embedded soiling and decreases acidity. De Wit pioneered a method of wet-cleaning that minimizes handling and bleeding of colors. In less than eight hours, a tapestry can be washed and dried without being moved.
The tapestry is then rolled onto a beam, which holds the tapestry under tension and keeps both the front and the back accessible during treatment. Weak areas and losses are repaired and structurally strengthened using patches of lightweight, dyed-to-match cotton or linen positioned on the back and stitched in place.
Conservators then restore the picture by stitching new thread on top of the bare, exposed warps. If the tapestry is viewed at a distance, this new stitching blends in; but if inspected up close, the stitches are visually different, enabling viewers to understand which parts are original or new. Finally, it is fully lined with linen or cotton to support its weight while hanging and to protect it from dust.
Four Seasons was likely designed in Brussels, Belgium (then Flanders), in the 1500s, but woven in France in the 1600s. In 1662 Louis XIV consolidated Parisian tapestry weaving workshops under the name Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins. Although Gobelins produced hundreds of tapestries, some based on new designs and others derived from old ones, the CMA’s Four Seasons does not appear in extant inventories from the era.
In 1915 Scottish tapestry scholar William G. Thomson brought Four Seasons to light. At the time, this set was in the collection of Balloch Castle, near Glasgow. Thomson said it would be a “national loss if the Balloch set ever had to leave the country.” Nevertheless, Four Seasons did leave Scotland for a new life in the American art market. In 1923 the set was purchased by Frank Hadley Ginn and his wife, Cornelia. They showcased their art collection in their turreted Tudor-style mansion called Moxahela (Algonquin for “bear gulch”) in Gates Mills, Ohio. The tapestries remained in the family until 1952, when the Ginns’ children donated them to the CMA.
The recent conservation of this set of tapestries has ensured that its story continues to unfold. The dazzling materials, fine craftsmanship, and engaging imagery that intrigued so many people over the years have been preserved; the results are now on display for visitors to enjoy.