Gaspard Grégoire: the secret of velvety colours

Gaspard Grégoire (1751-1846) came from a family of Aix-en-Provence silk merchants. He is the inventor of painted silk velvets, made following a very precise technique which he developed in Paris before being disgraced following his difficulty in creating works of large dimensions – indeed a condition which was incompatible with his previous unique and unparalleled success. It’s not made by mottling, as an infinite amount of colours is needed, nor by pulling so that the reverse side displays the same colours, nor by simply painting or printing on the finished cloth. Grégoire’s velvets are the result of a double craftsmanship – combining looming and painting to perfectly reproduce his subjects.

The silk velvets bring together two threads in one loom, one named the “canvas” thread and the other the “hair” thread. The “hair” thread is much longer than the “canvas” as it needs to be folded along a series of iron grooves, creating a number of little loops, which are finally selected by the worker using a plane to reveal this vast collection of silky plumes. Gaspard Grégoire worked all his life to produce velvets with dyed “hair” threads, calculating the percentage of distortion and the required distance between the two strings to create a network dense enough to allow the smooth running of the whole fabric. The impossibility of applying the same technique industrially, delayed the homages which he would finally receive at the end of his life.

His dedication and talent were sadly ended by the destruction of his papers some days before his death, and he left this earth without any spiritual inheritors. Only his small pamphlets on colour theories, written even before Chevreul became interested in the question, have come down to us, displaying the 1350 composed and graduated dyes of primary and secondary colours. A number of his miniatures are displayed in museums and one example, a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, was presented in Paris in 2011 at the exhibition Trompe-l’œil at the Musée des arts décoratifs.