A Conversation With Melinda Watt of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Melinda Watt is a Curator in the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as Supervising Curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center. She was a co-curator of Interwoven Globe: the Worldwide Textile Trade, 1550-1800 (2013). Previously, she organized an exhibition of the Museum's collection of seventeenth-century embroidery at the Bard Graduate Center. Melinda has taught a number of course on textile history subjects and organized a series of small, focused textile installations at the Metropolitan Museum.
1. Melinda, why do you love Toile de Jouy?
I love both the technical finesse of copper plate printing on fabric and the huge variety of designs that were produced in the 18thcentury soon after the invention of colorfast printing on cloth in the 1750s. The diverse subject matter, from pastoral scenes to operas to political figures, is an eloquent testament to the creativity of the designers and their quick response to the popularity of this “new” type of textile.
2. How recent was your last visit to the Toile de Jouy museum in France?
I visited the museum once in 2010 and was completely charmed by the setting, as well as being impressed with the work that Director Esclarmonde Monteil and her staff do with limited resources. They were so welcoming and justly proud of what they have accomplished.
3. What are your thoughts and experience with historical textile's influence on the current design world? Do you see any trends? Of course I see the influence of historic textiles everywhere, but I’m biased! So many textile patterns from the 18thcentury have become part of modern design vocabulary, especially those that developed with European textile printing in the 18th century. Traditional florals, from naturalistic to stylized, are perennially popular. I’m pleased and amused to see modern interpretations of Toile de Jouy with designs that could be called subversive, like the Scottish firm Timorous Beasties and their “London Toile” or lighthearted prints like Pierre Frey’s pictorial prints.
4. With all of your inter-mingling with visitors, students, professionals and scholars, what surprises you the most in regards to the understanding/misunderstanding of "Toile"?
Today fabric printing is fast, easy and for the most part relatively cheap, and the fact that detailed copperplate printing and block printing on cloth was ever “new” or expensively is unknown to most people. As often as I can, I remind visitors and students of all of the anonymous professionals whose skills were required to create a successful toile fabric: Oberkampf’s “Les Travaux de la Manufacture” [The Activities of the Factory] designed by Jean-Baptiste Huet in 1784 is a perfect illustration of this, with 18 different vignettes showing many of the steps necessary to create a copper plate or block print.
5. Of the French influence on the colonist's in the 18th c what might surprise us? how big was there influence?
You have to remember that until the US proclaimed independence, most consumer goods and a lot of information about trends in fashion and interiors was filtered, if not controlled, by the British. It wasn’t until the Revolutionary period that trade with France and other countries became more direct.
6. During the planning and execution of "Interwoven Globe" exhibition in 2013, tell me if you learned something that you didn't know prior? Did anything surprise you?
I learned so much during the planning of "Interwoven Globe" that it would be impossible to list everything in this space; the most satisfying and enlightening aspect was working with our lead curator, Amelia Peck, and our team of seven curators. Everyone had something to add from the perspective of their cultural expertise. Perhaps the most important thing that I learned was the extent of globalization prior to 1800: of course we all know about the Medieval “Silk Road,” but the scale of early international trade in both finished textiles and materials was new to me. Amelia approached me about the show in 2010, not long after she developed the final concept, and we were actively working on it for the better part of the three years leading up to the opening in September of 2013.
7. There is an exciting show coming up, "The Visitors of Versailles" ... what can you tell textile & costume lovers reading this?
“Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789),” which opens next spring, promises to be an enlightening and beautiful presentation of life at court in the 18th century – I have to good fortune to work in the office next to curator Daniëlle Kisluk-Groshiede and for years she’s been thinking about this subject and gathering wonderful and often amazing information about the experience of 18thcentury travelers who saw the palace of Versailles. She will pop into my office and say, “listen to this,” and tell me about the latest diary entry she’s reading in which someone described their experiences getting ready to be received at court, for example. There will be some rare and beautiful garments and textiles in the show, and in this exhibition the context in which they were used will be clearly illustrated.
8. I was fortunate to have a behind the scene tour with you where you showed me several exquisite toile examples for your upcoming exhibition..I'm curious what qualifies your selection - Rarityy? Size? Beauty? Genre?
I can’t take credit for our very good collection of Toile de Jouy and other printed textiles- much of the collection was amassed before and during the 1920s when The Met’s first full-time textile curator, Frances Morris, was active. During the early 20thcentury, there was a dual focus on collecting examples for study as well as masterpieces for display in the galleries, and because of this, we have at least small pieces of many of the well-known patterns produced by the Oberkampf manufactory. What I look for now is a combination of beauty in design and workmanship, as well as good condition.
9. Is there a specific pattern that the collection doesn't have? And what do you have an overabundance of (if there is such a thing)!
We would never say we have too much of any textile pattern, for the reason that textiles can only be display for a limited amount of time due to their sensitivity to light, so if we have more than one length of a particular pattern, then we have the chance to display an example more often by rotating similar pieces.
10. How does the museum acquire all of these treasures?
The Met is fortunate to have a strong base of donors of both works of art and funding for purchases. All of the curators are constantly looking at the auction houses and dealers to see what’s on the market. We have a very good collection, but of course it could always be improved!
11. How many toile's are currently in your inventory? And how do you separate the printed "bonne here's & florals from the traditions Jouy's?
We have about 75 pieces that are attributed to the Oberkampf manufactory specifically, and more than 300 copper plate and block printed cottons from France and England. In the past we’ve tended to acquire more of the scenic, pictorial prints, but we do have a nice selection of the “bonnes herbes” and other florals.
12. Do design professionals use or have access to the collection? And what is the museums policy on private viewings?
The Antonio Ratti Textile Center is accessible to the public- students, scholars, design professionals, anyone interested in historic textiles can make an appointment to see textiles in the collection. There are over 30,000 items in storage and while some are too large or too fragile to be retrieved easily, most of the toiles and other printed textiles are available for study. A database of The Met’s collection is available on the website: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection, and the Ratti Center’s hours and policies are available on the website, too: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/libraries-and-research-centers/antonio-ratti-textile-center-and-reference-library. The Museum has had a commitment to making the textile collections available since the first study room opened in 1909, and we’re pleased and proud to be able to carry on this tradition of accessibility.
13. And finally, which of Oberkampf's designs is your personal favorite?
Without question, Oberkampf’s “Les Travaux de la Manufacture.”