PHILADELPHIA — In the early 20th century, French entrepreneur Marie Cuttoli developed a weaving school and workshops in Algeria, selling the rugs created in the workshops at her shop in Paris. From that foundation, she went on to revive the French tapestry industry, recruiting the most celebrated modern artists of her time, and bringing Modernism to a broader audience.
Cuttoli is getting her art historical due with Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray, which reopens to the public this Saturday, July 25 at the Barnes Foundation. The exhibition features tapestries designed by Braque, Miró, Derain, Dufy, Le Corbusier, Leger, Man Ray, and others, commissioned by Cuttoli for her workshops.
Born into a provincial French family, and with no formal education past age 16, Cuttoli leveraged her marriage to politician and art collector Paul Cuttoli (the divorce lawyer for her first marriage) to become a fashion and design success. After a wedding in Paris, Paul built Marie a palatial villa in his native Algeria, where she became part of the French colonial presence. A 1925 photograph of Cuttoli, on view in the exhibition, shows her in a cloche and white pumps, resting on a hammock in the shade of a tree.
Dividing her time between Paris and Algeria, Cuttoli amassed an art collection that included Miró, Picasso, and Braque, whom she counted as friends. In 1925 she launched a fashion house and boutique, Myrbor, in the vicinity of the Chanel and Lanvin boutiques on Rue Vignon in Paris. The name combines an Arabic equivalent to Marie, Myriem, with her maiden name, Bordes, reflecting Cuttoli’s vision to marry Algerian craft and European design.
“If you like to see a Léger or a Lurcat or a Picasso on your walls, you will like to wear Myrbor clothes,” said the 1929 A Shopping Guide to Paris.
Myrbor soon expanded into interior decoration. Cuttoli solicited artists Jean Lurcat, Fernand Léger, and Louis Marcoussis to design rugs that would be fabricated in the workshops in Algeria, capitalizing on the European interest in the “exotic” articles of colonial nations.
“While she was providing employment for Algerian weavers to practice their craft, it was for European consumption,” said curator Cindy Kang during a gallery tour. “Although she paid the weavers at market rate, we want to be open that she was inevitably part of the larger system of exploitation. She believed she was doing good in promoting their work.”
By 1926, Cuttoli rebranded her shop as Galerie Myrbor, exhibiting works by Picasso, Braque, Marcoussis, Max Ernst, and other modern artists. To highlight the aesthetic affinities between decorative and fine art, she displayed rugs on the wall alongside the paintings.
When the Great Depression hit, Cuttoli moved the base of her weaving operation from Algeria to Aubusson, a historic weaving center suffering from an economic crisis, not far from her birthplace in central France. Tapestries were the most prized form of textile art, and Cuttoli saw a business opportunity in revitalizing an industry and art form. She commissioned designs from Lurcat and Georges Rouault, the latter of whom had worked in stained glass, another large-scale decorative medium. Collectors of these works included Helena Rubinstein and Nelson Rockefeller.
Cuttoli allowed her artists to experiment with techniques, materials, and scale. In cartoons that served as preparatory works for the tapestries, Picasso returned to his Cubist practice of collaging bits of paper, some of which were wallpaper and textiles. The tapestries would then depict the collaged textiles, echoing the material from form to form. In Braque’s case, Cuttoli worked with existing canvases that mixed paint with sand. She saw the surface textures as analogous to wool and silk, which, respectively, absorb and reflect light. Man Ray brought photomechanical enlarging processes to the tapestry tradition with his rayographs.
As France’s economy continued to struggle, Cuttoli set out to tap the American market, debuting her tapestries at the Bignou Gallery in New York in 1936. There, they caught the attention of Dr. Albert Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation. He purchased several tapestries, including an extraordinary work by aerial view of Paris Dufy. Subsequently donated to the Pompidou Center in Paris, the tapestry is back at the Barnes Foundation for this exhibition. Though faded, the Eiffel Tower and bridges over the Seine are still vibrant. Yet the preparatory cartoon, as well as an app, Artivive, provide a sense of what the original colors may have looked like.
When World War II broke out, Cuttoli was able to flee German-occupied France with help from Dr. Barnes. The tapestries were in an exhibition in San Francisco at the time; they subsequently toured the US for six years, traveling to 21 museums, while she led a nomadic existence.
After the war, Cuttoli lived on and off with her companion, scientist and philanthropist Henri Laugier, while still married to her husband. (It was Laugier who photographed her in the hammock.) The two built a collection of Cubist art; in 1963 they donated the bulk of their Picasso collection to the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in Paris, now housed in the Pompidou Center.
Curator Cindy Kang argues that although Abstract Expressionists rejected modern French tapestry, they were influenced by their allover compositions. In 1949, Cuttoli was named an officer of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, for, among other things, propelling modern art into an “ambitious experiment” (according to Kang’s catalogue essay) with decoration. In 1958, architect Philip Johnson purchased a set of Miró tapestries for the Seagram Building in New York, continuing Cuttoli’s vision of bringing modern art into the business world. Tapestries by Miró are displayed at the Barnes so viewers can see the front and back sides, and examine their knots and construction.
Because of the instability of the world at the time, Kang believes that Cuttoli and other strong women were able to pursue their ambitions, stepping into a position where they could take charge of their lives and work. Cuttoli’s work with modern tapestries paved the way for the large-scale revival of tapestry following World War II. Artists such as Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney, among others, continued to experiment with the medium, thus making their work accessible to broader audiences in corporate headquarters, government buildings, airports, and houses of worship. In many ways, as the Barnes exhibitions makes clear, we have Cuttoli to thank.
Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through August 23. Read more about the museum’s reopening measures and hours here.