Half Drop Hero: Madeleine Porthault
Last winter, I sent my textile-loving aunt my "Blue Phlox" tablecloth, and she immediately pointed me in the direction of D. Porthault for inspiration, noting the free form flowers on bright white linen. Ever since, I have been utterly delighted by each pattern and eager to learn more about the artist behind them...
Much of this post, including the photos, is sourced from the extensive blog of D. Porthault Paris.
A Brief History
D. Porthault is steeped in French culture and history. ‘D.’ stands for Daniel Porthault, who founded the luxury linen brand in Paris in 1920. The story of D. Porthault, however, begins not with Daniel, but with his wife, Madeline.
Madeleine was born Madeleine Bernaud in 1903. In her teens, she worked as an apprentice with Maggy Rouff, a prominent couture designer in Paris from the 1920’s. Maggy gave Madeleine lingerie as her line to sell, and Madeleine was thus trained in dressmaker details such as bias banding, scalloped edging, lace inserts, prominent monograms and the use of fresh, vibrant colors. She was also trained in a couture level production, customer service, and strict standards of quality (D. Porthault).
In this role, Madeleine incorporated silk ribbons, bows, bias trims and the laces of Normandy in her creations. Her artistic talent came to life through tiny roses, daisies, lilacs and posies that she hand painted on to her peignoir sets. Some of her early lingerie designs are pictured below (D. Porthault).
Importantly, Madeleine's floral printed peignoir sets were the first of their kind. She initially focused on flowers (roses were the most popular), with butterflies and dragonflies entering her portfolio later. Madeleine’s hand-blocked designs – many to a client’s unique specifications as to blossom and hue – resulted in nightgowns and robes that added color, romance and whimsy to a woman’s wardrobe (O'Dowd).
In 1929, at the age of 26, Madeleine married Daniel Porthault, who owned a factory in northern France. According to an interview with Charlotte Espinosa, manager of the Embroidery Department at the Porthault House,
"The couple started making lingerie in rue de la Grange Batelière in Paris. But soon, they moved to luxury creations for house linen. Daniel was a visionary when it came to new products and investments. Madeleine worked on the artistic side and knew how to create a precious network of important clients" (de Pourtalès).
In 1934, Madeleine and Daniel received a commission that changed everything.
Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark was so enamored of the little pink roses that Madeleine painted on a fine, maize colored linen that she asked for custom sheets to match her lingerie. The commission was fulfilled and D. Porthault as we know it today was born.
The Impact of Madeleine’s Artwork
Madeleine’s vibrant, joyful style created a legacy that went far beyond linen. Popularity for Porthault’s linens rose in the 1940s, coinciding with a post-war era when joy and whimsy were a far cry from the realities of Parisian life. After World War II, France was a bleak and devastated place in the process of rebuilding itself (O'Dowd).
Until Madeleine’s vision came to life, plain white and ivory linens were all that was available. Thus Madeleine became a heroine of color and print to an audience that was more than ready for such joie de vivre. In addition to printed bedding, D. Porthault also manufactured the world’s first printed Terry towels, swatches of which are printed below.
In terms of the impact of Madeleine's art, it is also worth noting that she built an enduring legacy of luxury that has lasted for decades since she and Daniel launched the brand. Hand-sewn in France from the finest cotton voile and percale, the craftsmanship, quality, and materials of the linens are unmatched. The brand's reputation for luxury has been solidified by collaborations with artists, intellectuals, and leaders in the world of theatre, fashion and society.
For example, loyal clients have included Sir Winston Churchill, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and the Duchess of Windsor. Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly's favorite patterns are pictured below. To this day, Madeleine’s early adherence to high standards of quality set the tone for the company’s ongoing haute couture reputation.
While Madeleine's artful designs and her standards of quality are the most obvious legacies of her brand, what fascinates me most is her unique approach to textile design. She had an unprecedented level of creativity in terms of how to build a truly unique fabric product.
I thought of Madeleine immediately when I read this quote by Kate Teyssier, of UK-based Teyssier, in which she remarks,
“...Being able to create a great textile is as much about understanding the production opportunities – and restrictions- as about the visual pattern itself. Interpreting a design from a flat piece of paper to a stunning textile is a great skill and is an often overlooked, but essential part of the process" (The Fabric Collective).
Madeleine exemplified this understanding in her use of piquant details and dressmaker applications that complimented the colorful designs themselves. From the very beginning of her artistic career, Madeleine was incorporating silk ribbons, bows, bias trims and the laces of Normandy in her textile creations, including the linen’s hallmark scalloped edges and bias trims (Owens).
Madeleine's Design Process
In my mind, there is so much to learn from the design process of D. Porthault that I have categorized it into each element of textile design...
First, in terms of inspiration, Madeleine was known to often visit Monet’s studio and garden at Giverny. She was greatly inspired by Impressionism and was a champion of the colorists, including Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse (D. Porthault).
Translating inspiration to paper, or print, is no easy task. Madeleine's translation of her inspiration was one of her most exemplary artistic skills. For example, it was a visit to the bustling New York city with its yellow taxis and red sports cars that inspired Millefleurs or, “a thousand flowers”, shown below (D. Porthault).
Second, in terms of composition, D. Porthault's current owner Joan Carl, who has owned the company since 2005 with her husband, Bernard, said it best:
“The patterns are never static. It’s never just a bloom—the flowers have movement, as though you’re walking through a meadow" (Owens).
This effect was not an accident. Madeleine aimed to capture the landscape’s gentle breeze in the movement of the lines of each design (D. Porthault).
This "movement" of the design is often the result of an all-over, non-directional print that celebrates both color and the most enduring design element in Porthault’s portfolio – a floral (O'Dowd).
Third, it is worth examining scale as part of Porthault's process. As mentioned, the company's textile printing began with hand painting, then moved to block printing. In the late 1940s, the brand’s printing method changed to hand-engraved screen printing, which continues to this day in D. Porthault’s Normandy workshop (O'Dowd).
Interestingly, the earliest Porthault designs are in a smaller scale due to the need for the blocks used in block printing to be manageable within the printer’s hand. The transition to screen printing allowed larger motifs and pattern repeats, resulting in more fluid designs as well as more vibrant colors, which appealed to Madeleine and soon became a signature of the brand (O'Dowd).
Fourth, and unbeknownst to me before writing this post, many of Porthault’s early designs show a dotted or stippled effect, known as the picotage technique, as a major design element of the pattern. This is the result of a printing technique in which brass pins of various sizes are hammered into the wooden printing blocks, enabling a type of pointillism for shading and detailing within their prints. Three examples are shown below (O'Dowd).
Fifth, Porthault’s color palette is one of the most iconic elements of its design. The colors are bright, fresh, and printed or embroidered on the purest white. Even today, craftsmen in Normandy hand mix each color to achieve the perfect shade. “Each color is printed separately–a red leaf air-dries first on tall rafters before the green for the stem is even laid out” (O'Dowd).
A Personal Anecdote
Madeleine Porthault has been described as innovative, adventurous, and part of Parisian café society in her time. She was part of an elite international circle of fascinating friends. Among them, Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.
Jackie Kennedy was not only a customer of Madeleine’s, but also a friend. They are pictured together in the photo below.
According to Charlotte Espinosa, Madeleine would often visit the White House, where Jackie loved to draw and paint with her children. According to Maison Porthault, some of the paintings created on Jackie and Madeleine's visits were used as inspiration for printed fabrics and embroidered works (de Pourtalès). Jackie is shown at her easel with daughter, Caroline, below.
Madeleine Porthault passed away in 1980 at the age of 76, and Daniel in 1976 at the age of 74, survived by their three children.
It is recorded that, in their home outside Paris, the couple had doors and windows opening onto a vista of trees and flowers, visually bringing their grounds inside of every room (D. Porthault).
From the beginning, Madeleine hoped to reflect the continuous beauty of her garden in her designs. There is no doubt she achieved this dream and then some.
Thank you, Madeleine, for so perfectly preserving the height of springtime in France for generations to come.
De Pourtales, Claire. “Porthault House – Stitching the Best Embroidery for over a Century: Interview with Charlotte Espinosa, manager of the Embroidery Department at the Porthault House.” Les Temps de Broder. August 27, 2020. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://www.letempsdebroder.com/en/articles-en/porthault-house-stitching-the-best-embroidery-for-over-a-century/
“Designer Diaries: Ten Questions with Teyssier.” The Fabric Collective. Accessed February 27, 2020.
“Dressmaker Details and Lingerie.” D. Porthault Paris. February 18, 2020. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://dporthaultparis.com/blogs/blog/dressmaker-details-and-lingerie.
“Mixing & Matching Prints.” D. Porthault Paris. Jun 02, 2020. Accessed February 7, 2021.
O’ Dowd, Sally-Ann. “Who Made That? Creative Inspiration behind D. Porthault.” Sally O’ Dowd. June 8, 2017. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Owens, Mitchell. “The Legacy of D. Porthault.” Architectural Digest Magazine. August 17, 2017. Accessed February 7, 2021.
As I read this lovely post, I glance down to the apron I am wearing that you made a year ago. It has it all- vitality, color and movement. Maybe time to bring it back? And the soft, brushed cotton is beautiful. Just a thought…
A wonderful post, Lea. I especially like the idea of movement in Porthault’s prints. I see not only movement but life in your own designs.
I have always loved her creativity, and it is wonderful to learn more about her. Thank you Lea!
Love knowing her designs are still manufactured from hand-engraved screen prints in Normandy! Toujours la France!