This textile piece from our toile collection dates to between 1783 – 1789. It is titled Hommage de L’Amerique a la France (American pays homage to France). The toile is attributed to Jean-Baptiste Huet, a well known French textile designer, and was printed by Jouy in France. Toile du Jouy literally means textile from Jouy. The cloth is made of cotton and was printed by copper-plate.
The textile tells a tale of discovery, success and strength. Convoys of ships are in the foreground, between the central scenes of classically dressed figures alongside palm trees and other ‘exotic’ figures. The female figures central to the textile design represent the alliance between the French and American nations. France is embodied by a woman outstretching her hand and America holds her country’s flag. But why does this textile show such a friendship?
In 1783, the American Revolution came to an end. It also coincides with the same sort of time this cloth was printed – after 1783. Thirteen American colonies defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. If you look closely at the flag you can see thirteen stars denoting each colony. France was an ally to America and aided America’s victory, marking independence from the British Colonies. The United States of America were thus formed. Following the American defeat of the British, the Treaty of Paris was signed to ensure peace.
However this textile does not just tell the tale of accomplishment.
We see a figure crouching behind America. Who is he? He is noticeably dressed differently to America and France. If we compare this figure to other Toile du Jouy, named ‘Dance des Noirs’, African slaves are depicted wearing trousers and no shirts. The man kneeling, wearing just trousers, behind the palm tree is no doubt an African slave. What is the kneeling black individual handing to America? Could it be the Treaty?
Since European exploration began in 1492, black Africans were traded across the globe along the transatlantic trade networks, as described in my Embroidered Maps blog post. It is more than likely that an African slave like this worked on a plantation. He probably was not an enslaved servant working in a home, given the lack of appropriate livery or uniform.
There are also Native Americans behind the embodied America and France. Native Americans wear feathers or leaves in their hair and are dressed in hide-like garments. Those from beyond the western world are seen and captured as exotic. A sense of ‘the other’ is established in the eye of the European who buys this textile. The exoticism of the toile is denoted by the clothes worn and palm trees standing, which are popular during this period. But what does that really mean?
When the Europeans began to colonise the Americas, Native American populations are thought to have decreased considerably. This was for a number of reasons including civil war, ethnic cleansing, introduction of foreign diseases, and slavery. Along with Africans and Indians, Europeans traded those native to America. They could be enslaved, swapped or bought. Before America won the War, Britain controlled much of the land and territories that were rightfully owned by the Native Americans. At the time, the Native Americans were not considered the rightful owners of the land. Within the Treaty, this land was handed over to the United States without informing or consulting with the Native Americans. The Native Americans suffered hugely during this period.
In the textile, the men have bow and arrows, and another has a shield. They are not in attack mode; they are passive. They have lost their land and are watching as America takes their land.
Within this celebratory toile, Native Americans and Africans are side-lined to represent an exotic ‘other’, often exploited, oppressed and enslaved. American Natives and Africans are seen as lesser people than the white Europeans or western faces. Captured as a joyous and momentous occasion for France and America, we see how others were repressed.
If we dig a little deeper into the materiality of the cloth itself the composition of every thread is itself exploitative. In my next blog post, I’ll talk about how slavery was woven into everyday objects for the majority of the British population.
By Vanessa Jones, Assistant Curator of Dress and Textiles
Read Vanessa’s first blog in her Re-framing The Collection series: Embroidered Maps.