Zuber: The Art of French Scenic Wallpaper

International Terminal

Aug 10, 2019 - Apr 12, 2020

Zuber: The Art of French Scenic Wallpaper

The French have manufactured several types of wallpaper over the centuries, though their nineteenth-century handcrafted scenic landscape papers are arguably the most spectacular. This unique wallpaper created a breathtaking panoramic experience with all the walls in a room covered with non-repeating scenes. These mural-like papers transformed rooms, providing the opportunity for viewers to be swept away to an exotic place or immersed in an exciting period in history. Produced in full-color as well as grisaille, or gray tones, panoramic papers were intended to be hung at eye level in large rooms where they were certain to impress visitors. Ample sky fills the tops of panels to allow for trimming to various ceiling heights. Trees or other natural formations were often integrated into the design to create a natural break between scenes to accommodate doors, windows, and other room features. Scenic papers enjoyed a golden era in both Europe and America from the first decade of the 1800s until the 1860s, though they remained in print well after this period. Zuber et Cie is the only remaining firm that fabricates these papers today.

Jean Zuber (1773–1852) began working as a sales representative for a wallpaper firm at the age of seventeen, in Mulhouse, France, before relocating the company to Rixheim, France, in 1797. By 1802, Zuber had become its sole owner, naming the firm Zuber et Cie. Zuber soon began producing panoramic papers and quickly gained prominence for his meticulous attention to detail and exquisite colors and designs. Generating a set of scenic wallpaper entailed a considerable amount of scrupulous planning and design. Zuber worked closely with artists who first submitted preliminary small-scale sketches for approval before rendering full-scale enlargements, which served as models for the hand-carved printing blocks. It requires anywhere from over one hundred to several thousand blocks to create a scenic paper set Zuber’s artisans craft beautiful skies, which they carefully paint with large brushes before the rest of the imagery is block-printed onto finely-made paper. 

From 1804 to 1860, Jean Zuber and his successors offered twenty-five different scenic papers beginning with Les Vues de Suisse (1804). Designed by Pierre-Antoine Mongin (1761–1827), it depicts many famous tourist attractions in Switzerland. Mongin also designed L’Hindoustan (1807), which paints an exotic picture of India in vivid colors. A romantic, classical composition in grisaille featuring architectural elements dotting a tranquil garden, Les Lointains was first offered in 1825. During the 1840s and ’50s, Zuber et Cie emphasized indigenous flora and fauna in several panoramic papers. One of the most captivating, Eldorado (1849) features lush vegetation and showcases the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Still in print today, it requires 1,554 blocks, 210 colors, and twenty-four lengths.

Zuber et Cie’s magnificent scenic wallpapers continue to captivate present-day patrons. The firm uses the original antique printing blocks, which the French Ministry of Culture has declared as historical monuments. Over 150,000 woodblocks are stored in the factory’s medieval cellars. Presented here are a number of individual panels from L’Hindoustan, Eldorado, and Les Lointains.

Very special thank you to Zuber et Cie for making this exhibition possible; thank you also to Brian D. Coleman, author of Zuber: Two Centuries of Panoramic Wallpaper and John Nalewaja and Jim Francis of Scenic Wallpaper Installations.

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