This rhythmic pattern of meandering flames and smoke is one in a series of four woven fabrics, which together represent the four basic elements of nature: earth, water, air and the one depicted here, fire. The Four Elements were a popular theme throughout the history of decorative arts, as seen in this drawing from about 1815. This textile reveals another motif that may be less familiar: the salamander.

The brave little salamanders woven into this design face the fierce flames and billowing smoke plumes head on. For centuries in France, the salamander had been associated with courage and immunity to fire. In particular it was the symbol of King Francis 1 who reigned from 1515 to 1547, and employed this allegorical motif liberally.

This fabric was designed by Yvonne Clarinval and manufactured by Tassinari & Chatel in Lyon specifically for the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs. Clarinval’s use of the nationalistic amphibian harkens back to King Francis’s châteaux at Fontainebleau and Chambord, and would have conjured up memories of the grandeur and power of French tradition, an important theme at the exposition.

Carly Lewis is currently earning an M.A. in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons. She has a B.S. in Textile Design from Philadelphia University and is focusing her studies on gender issues in regard to textile design practices in the 20th century. 

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