History and beauty collide in the form of Oriental carpets at the Saint Louis Art Museum

    By: Christina Chastain and MaryKatherine McKeon

    A major exhibition highlighting the extraordinary range of Oriental carpets, The Carpet and the Connoisseur: The James F Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs, opened at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) to collectors, scholars and the curious over the weekend.

    The collection features 51 carpets from various countries, styles and even centuries, along with two Persian “pleasure” tents. Some of the carpets can be dated back as early as the late 14th century.

    Originating in the eastern regions of the world, Oriental carpets have served indigenous populations and attracted foreign admirers for centuries.

    “The installation is spectacular,” said Walter Denny, guest curator at SLAM and professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “The spaces are wonderful. St. Louis has done a remarkable, very professional job.”

    The collection itself came in the form of a gift to SLAM from prominent St. Louis businessman James F. Ballard in 1929 and in 1930. Later, in 1972, the Ballard collection grew with a donation from his daughter, Nellie Ballard White.

    Currently the full collection consists of 110 Ballard rugs.

    “What we have here is the carpets that were collected by Ballard in the last decade of his life,” said Denny. “He continued to collect and some of the greatest things came in that decade”

    Ballard is celebrated for his approach to collecting at a time when most other rug connoisseurs were acquiring classical Persian and Indian carpets. Ballard traveled the world, purchasing Anatolian carpets directly from provincial centers in Turkey.

    “Fascinated by the allure of rugs, their extreme beauty and their symbolic and historical importance, James Ballard set a new standard for carpet collecting,” said Brent Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of SLAM. “His bequest was month the first major gifts received by the Museum, and continues to be a pillar of our collection.”

    The carpets and tents not only boast their beauty and design in The Carpet and the Connoisseur, but lends a history lesson or two to the viewer.

    For example, the role of men and women in preparing and creating the carpets have changed drastically over the centuries.

    “After women had done all the hard work [in making the carpet], it would be the men who take them to market, sell them and pocket the money,” said Denny. “That has changed in the Middle East, most recently in Turkey with the forming of rug cooperatives where they returned to the traditional methods of dying and weaving but with one significant difference: women would sign the carpets as artist on a small leather patch on the back of the carpet. And the women were the members of the cooperative and they took the money home, not their husbands.”

    But one thing has stayed the same after all these centuries of carpet making.

    “Carpets were and still are in certain parts of the world today the one sure fire source of currency for a villager,” said Denny.

    The Carpet and the Connoisseur: The James F Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs is available to view from March 6 through May 8. Tickets are available to purchase in person or through MetroTix.

    The exhibition is guest curated by Denny in collaboration with Philip Hu, associate curator-in-charge of Asian art, an textile conservator Zoe Perkins.


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