Treasures from the Vault: Émile Gallé

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Lately, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art has made a concerted effort to increase our collection of contemporary glass, regularly exhibiting the dazzling works throughout the galleries. We know the names of Dale Chihuly and Harvey Littleton… but what about Émile Gallé? Though we often consider Littleton the “Father of Studio Glass”; Gallé led the way in French decorative arts, including glass and furniture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, let’s discuss Gallé’s pioneering innovations in glass-making during the Art Nouveau movement.

Émile Gallé was born in Nancy, France to Charles Gallé, a successful faience (tin glazed pottery) and furniture producer. As a teenager, Émile became a successful botanist, collecting plants from across the region as inspiration for drawings of plants, animals, and insects. These initial drawings later became patterns for his glass-making. He went on to study philosophy and botany in Weimer, Germany, before heading to Meisenthal, France to apprentice at a glass factory in preparation for inheriting his father’s business. Before that happened, however, he enlisted in the Franco-Prussian (Franco-German) War (1870-1871), which ended in defeat. After returning, and a few years of transition, Émile took control of the family business in 1874. In an effort to rebrand, in 1883, he built a new and larger warehouse for glass, faience, and furniture making. He also built a garden so that the workers, who he personally trained, were able to work directly from the plants. It was crucial to Gallé that his designers worked from real plant models, but from there he allowed them freedom in their artistic expression.

A cylindrical vase. The bottom is a deep, dark orange that turns white at the top. Circling the vase are plants. You can see the signature of the artist at the top of the base.
Émile Gallé, French, 1846-1904. Boxelder Maple Vase. Glass, 19th century. Gift of Mrs. Mary P. Bosch, 1991.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Gallé specialized in what is known as cased glass, when the glass is combined into different colored layers and blown together with a clear layer, resulting in layers of glass that he then cut or etched to add depth to the pattern. Notice how the base of both vases have multiple colors? With his early works he used clear glass and layered naturalistic designs with enamel, a method of combining powdered glass with a pigment to achieve a painted-on quality. He then began experimenting with tinting the clear glass and became well known for his “moonlight” blue clear glass, which was transparent glass with a slightly blue hue. From there, he developed bright, vividly colored glass. Apart from experimenting with glass, he carried his naturalistic and creative eye into wood furniture. It began when he was looking at different samples of wood bases for the glass vases; Gallé was intrigued by the variations of wood and their varnishes. Visually, this resulted in an impeccable inlay of landscapes, table legs shaped like tree legs, and ornamental pieces of petals and leaves.

There’s no denying Émile Gallé’s influence in the Art Nouveau movement when looking at his body of work. Art Nouveau dominated art, architecture, and decorative arts from around 1890 through to 1910 with its natural forms, movement, and asymmetrical designs. Originating from Japonisme, a French term to describe the influence of Japanese art in western Europe following the reopening of trade with Japan in 1858, there was a surge in collecting Japanese woodblock prints, specifically those of Hiroshige and Kunisada (see below). Thanks to new technologies in printing and publishing, accessibility, and exposure of art to the public exploded. Art Nouveau artists were now able to publish their art in magazines or poster form easily, reaching a larger, diverse audience. Notable artists, along with Émile Gallé, include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and architect Antoni Gaudí.

While the English were known for their technical perfection, Gallé and the French Art Nouveau artists were recognized for their shaded colors, floral motifs, and use of imperfections (to their benefit). Gallé, as a knowledgeable botanist, had a fondness for floral motifs, particularly because of their symbolic meaning. For the discerning viewer, for example, the works in our collection depict the lady’s slipper flower and the boxelder maple tree. The lady’s slipper is a symbol of capricious beauty; it is known to be a difficult plant to propagate and takes several years to bloom! This vase (below), only five inches tall, is small and unassuming yet packs bold and striking color, similar to the plant! Our other vase, which depicts the boxelder maple tree, is a more dominating size, at thirteen inches, but calm and peaceful in color. The boxelder was a popular plant in Europe for its medicinal value, as well as its presence in folklore and mythology as representing life, death, and rebirth; it was even thought to have kept witches away! Gallé, and his designers, work with life-size plants is reflected in relation to the size of the vases they adorn.

A pink vase with a dark base shows a lady slipper's flower and leaves.
Émile Gallé, French, 1846-1904. Lady’s Slipper Vase. Glass, 19th century. Gift of Mrs. Mary P. Bosch, 1991.06. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Just as contemporary glass makers push the envelope with what their media can accomplish, so artists in the past did; innovating and expanding the boundaries of what the materials could do. It is always interesting to look back on what now appear as simple techniques that were revolutionary when they were discovered. Émile Gallé dedicated his life to searching for more answers and, as a result, further advanced glass as an art form.

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