When the Getty Museum in Los Angeles began its research for the exhibition catalogue of “Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV” in 2014, its conservation team and decorative arts curator found a key to one of the largest pieces in the show, left behind by its makers. This made it possible for the team to identify most of the people and their occupations in the 1667 tapestry. Combined with technical information about how the piece was made, the Getty Publications department decided to commission the children’s book Thérèse Makes a Tapestry by Alexandra S.D. Hinrichs, illustrated by Renée Graef, in an effort to engage young viewers in the exhibition.
The book tells the story of Thérèse, a girl who lives in France with her family in the late 1600s, a time when girls worked at spinning wheels to wind yarn onto spools but weren’t allowed to weave tapestries. Yet Thérèse makes one in secret as a gift for her beloved father, and when the king sees it he says, “I must have this one... it is beautifully made.” He then encourages Thérèse to continue making tapestries.
Getty’s children’s books often come together by means of artistic serendipity and timing. “In developing these books, Getty Publications often looks for ways that Getty collections, exhibitions, and research can enrich our titles and make them unique,” said Getty senior editor Elizabeth Nicholson. In this case she saw an obvious connection between the young weaver and the “Woven Gold” tapestry exhibit, which would make for a strong children’s book. Nicholson interviewed Graef and Nicholson and thought that the two would collaborate well. “Curator Charissa Bremer-David and her team were able to photograph the colors of the threads on the reverse sides of the real tapestries, which had been protected from light while the fronts became faded over hundreds of years,” Nicholson said. “This later enabled Renee to depict the tapestries in their original colors.”
Nicholson compares the format of Thérèse Makes a Tapestry to Marguerite Makes a Book (1999), a popular Getty title by Bruce Robertson about a girl in medieval Paris who learns to make an illuminated manuscript. “We then commissioned Alex and Renée and they brought Thérèse to life.” The Getty approached the two women separately; both had worked at American Girl but did not meet until the book was completed. Thérèse is Hinrich’s first book, but her background in children’s literature as well as French history made her the right candidate to write the text. “She did a lot of her own research,” Nicholson said, “and she fashioned all of the characters and gave them their roles, personalities, and adventures. The relationships she created among Thérèse and her father, brothers, and Maman make the story touching and very real.”
“This was an amazing collaboration, where everyone was so invested in Thérèse,” said Hinrichs, who has lived in Maine since leaving American Girl and has a masters in the history of childhood. “She just took over at some point, and it was a wonderful experience for me.”
Graef, whose books have won awards including two from the Society of Illustrators, is best known for the Kirsten series for American Girl, her illustrated Nutcracker (HarperCollins, 1999), and several My First Little House titles (HarperCollins); Graef served as creative consultant for that series. Like Hinrichs, she has a background in historical fiction. “I first became acquainted with the Getty children’s books at a conference for the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators in Los Angeles,” Graef said. “I was incredibly impressed by If (Sarah Perry, 1995) and Marguerite Makes a Book, and was delighted when Elizabeth [Nicholson] asked me to work on Thérèse.” She and Hinrichs met for the first time at the book’s soft launch party in December at the museum. “It was fantastic to stand in front of the tapestries and see the inspiration for Thérèse together.”
The final spread in the book is Graef’s painting of the Chateau of Monceaux/Month of December tapestry, which is in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The characters created by Hinrichs for the book, in authentic period costume, stand before it in admiration of the woven masterpiece. “I wanted to make readers feel what it’s like to stand in front of a masterpiece at a museum and look at it,” Graef said. Fashion scholar Kimberley Chrisman-Campbell made sure that all of the hairstyles, clothing, and even shoes were accurate. In turning the pages of Therese Makes a Tapestry readers can experience an authentic visual tour of a world long gone.