This week, our showroom floor was lined nearly head to toe in a rainbow of tigers.
The most recent additions from Josh’s passionate search for the most diverse, sought-after tiger rug designs this last year has yielded the most interesting fruit — the exciting beginnings to a new line of pictorial rugs long anticipated by our team. From the drama in their varied designs to the meaningful subtext of each cultural take on the style, all of these things have begun to come together as one of Josh’s next glimpses into handmade rug trends. The beauty and cultural significance of Tiger rugs in history easily merit their own discussion, but in the many gifts they’ve given us of late they have turned our attention to the under-appreciation of pictorial rugs in our industry.
Rugs have always offered limitless potential for conversation, but pictorial rugs and tapestries are arguably among the most bold, decorative and culturally significant creations in each handmade rug tradition for the sheer intricacy of their craft alone. French tapestries with lavish human depictions, Persian rugs with regal hunting scenes, Chinese Peking rugs with sophisticated mythology — these are only a few among the most venerated ancestries of the style.
A pictorial rug, sometimes called a portrait rug or tableau rug, is any kind of rug or carpet that depicts elements of scenery, life, or living beings. At a glance, some of the most popular styles depict human figures, animals, vivid settings, and levels of detail and civilization beyond inanimate geometric or floral styles.
Beyond being incomparable feats of art and hand making, pictorial rugs hold an important role in reflecting the daily life of their origin, and especially reflecting a more elaborate conveyance of the spiritual attitudes and customs of the weaver—ranging from the bold, primitivist tribal allusions of Moroccan rugs to the grandiose aristocratic scenes brought to life in French tapestries just to mention some of the noteworthy handmade pictorial rug traditions.
Essential to understanding the rich role of pictorial rugs in history is that the oldest handmade rug in history is, in fact, a pictorial rug.
The 5th-century pictorial rug known as the Pazyryk rug is believed to be the oldest carpet in existence — estimated to be from 400 BC — currently located at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia since it was discovered in Kazakhstan in 1949. Among the many ancestral techniques used in handmade rugs — including but not limited to hand weaving, flat weaving, hand knotting, hand hooking, hand tufting and more — this rug remains the oldest-known example of hand-knotted rugs in human history.
Of all the design elements of the Pazyryk rug that helped archaeologists understand more on the tribes of the period and region than ever before, the specific pictorial allusions to varied mythical creatures and horseback riders offered a glimpse into both the capabilities of the tribes as artists and the tradition of storytelling among the oldest tenets of rug making. Pictorials are certainly over the top in their varied realism and the sheer intricacy of diverse yarns needed to man such an immersive portrait — no matter the culture of origin — but they are nothing else if not the purest expression of a rug’s power to tell a story.
Spanning all varieties of handmade rugs, Kilims and tapestries, classic Persian rugs are often regarded among the most abundant and world-renowned popularizations of pictorial styles. Given their history and wide-spanning influence in countless other styles of rug making, some of the other most famous lineages in classic rugs have a tether to the various traditions and tribal attitudes in Persian carpets.
Depictions of people and human figures in antique and vintage rugs and tapestries are arguably the most quintessential to the history, and often the appeal, of lineages embracing this style. Varied cultures practiced equally varied styles of human pictorial representation to suit both cultural and decorative needs.
Turkish and Moroccan rugs and Kilims, for example, were believed in many interpretations to embrace primitivist geometric figures to relay spiritual aspirations, especially in Moroccan tribal rugs where these figures often represented the protection of families, healthy marriages, healthy children and a whole range of subjective enchantments. European rugs and tapestries were — among many differing motivations for human pictorial creations than that — often commissions for aristocracy or the work of specific workshops both pioneering and meeting the trends of 18th century high fashion.
The same variety can be said for rugs, especially tapestries, depicting scenery like beautiful murals of nature or country life, but in our experience some of the most rare rugs, Kilims and tapestries have honed in on setting pictorials without allusions to humans within.
Access and emphasis on varied materials, like silk and mohair, throughout history plays a key role in the evolution of all pictorial rug and tapestry styles, just as travel and cultural diffusion affect the preferences of the market in a certain period and the creations that ensue. Many antique agra rugs depicting humans alongside animals in grand hunting pictorials, for example, drew heavily on the Persian hunting pictorials like those in Tabriz rugs, Kerman Lavar rugs, Kashan rugs and other styles in that family to the same extent as they and other Indian rug traditions developed their own distinctive styles over time.
Similarly, Bessarabian rug and Kilim weavers drew abundant influence from Turkish weavers in their rich yarns and distinguished takes on European, often French, styles of humans, as well as floral and animal pictorials in their creations throughout the late-18th and complete-19th centuries. Some of the vintage Bessarabian Kilim rugs we’ve added to our own collection exemplify the luxurious creations born of this diversity, but we’ll always have a special home in our hearts for Josh’s favorite French tapestries for the sheer luxurious quality and refinement they enjoy.
Each historic attempt in the vast multitude of those depicting humans in pictorials can be best appreciated in the context of that lineage. With or without settings and scenery in those depictions, allusions to people in rugs are among the best examples in capturing the soul of a people when we look at the master weavers from culture to culture.
Animal depictions in varied classic rug styles have equal merit when understanding the culture of a rug-making society through a pictorial lens. Some of the most striking, fabulous works of art were born of both the most casual and the most sacred homages to earthly and mythical creatures alike in the history of handmade rugs.
Beyond pelt and hide rugs — which can be argued to be a form of pictorial rug depending on the level of recognition from the original animal — animal rugs enjoy a veritable kingdom of varied styles, from subtle allusions in geometric figures to the unmistakable, jaw-dropping beauty of realist depictions like those seen to no small extent in Persian and Chinese rugs, to name a few.
While no style of pictorial rug is any less a labor of love than another, the sheer range of animal styles also connotes the range of casual and sacred meanings in their depictions. We’ve seen an interesting variety of animal depictions among mid-century Turkish rugs, for example, likely remarking the trend of rustic charm and levity in visualizing roosters and horses, whereas antique Chinese rugs depicting dragons are a consistent nod to the beast as a symbol of power, divinity and fortune among many important cultural themes of antiquity.
True to the inspiration for this blog, tiger rugs are another fabulous example of the variety of cultural interpretations and styles in classic pictorial rugs that have made it to the market today. The ode to tiger rugs recently added to our Homage Collection, for example, draws on a notable inspiration from India, where the tiger is the national animal with a history of representing authority and cunning. Tibetan tiger rugs like those that inspired a few of our other creations, however, have a similarly profound cultural significance sometimes used for meditation mats in monasteries, other times as symbols of warding and nobility.
Subtextual themes of power and daring prevail across the spectrum of varied tiger rugs in history just as visual themes of bold colors and honorific symmetry persist. In that same vein, Persian rugs perhaps embody this range of casual and intense cultural animal depictions the same way antique Persian rugs draw on a wide variety of animal depictions — tigers, birds, deer, lions, snakes and even dragons have remarked the sense of flair and grandeur in Persian culture that has influence rug making from lineage to lineage. Further to their credit, some Persian pictorial rugs have boasted the most impressive diversity and quantity of colors in their weave, as well as an impressive scale like that of the rare Persian palace-size rugs embracing pictorial patterns.
Variety remains crucial to understanding the many attitudes toward animal representations in rugs, especially since not every culture is bound to the religious and mythological storytelling in pictorial rugs of this nature. Some of the hooked rugs in our collection, for example, draw on equally intricate designs with more casual attitudes of folk art and farm life similar to the sensibilities in Bessarabian Kilims, to an extent. The air of these pieces might read less regal than joyful, but every bit as charming in their use of color and almost granular texture. Hooked rugs, at least among those recently added to our collection, tend to be smaller in size as well, lending a wider array of decorative possibilities and portraiture.
Once designers and decorators understand the preference of presence of the pictorial pattern in the project, the varied styles lend themselves to a more impressive array of applications than most would consider for such a collectible, yet particular, rug style.
Wall hanging projects are among the most welcoming to both tapestries and rugs with regal and dramatic sensibilities, but farm houses, country homes and similarly rustic interiors can be made all the more beautiful with the consideration of a pictorial rug to match their levity and folksy charm.
Needless to say, over the years we’ve hosted a notable variety of collectors who come to us seeking rugs based entirely on country of origin, cultural subtext and family ties. The experience is always one of kindred spirits, given that these clients share a profound connection to the styles and motifs, but the potential admiration for the fabulous, iconic aesthetic of pictorial rugs has risen in our other colleagues as well of late.