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Art News & Views

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Emile Gallé and Art Nouveau Glass

by Anurima Sen

‘Indeed one defines art nouveau glass as by Gallé or inspired by Gallé or derived from Gallé…’

- The Art of Glass:  Art Nouveau to Art Deco

Emile Gallé was born in the province of Lorraine in Eastern France in 1846. Lorraine has always been France’s gateway to Eastern Europe and Germany, and as a direct result, is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. In the eighteenth century, the city of Nancy had emerged as a pioneer in the field of glassmaking, pottery and various other arts, under the patronage of the Duke, Stanislas. Figures such as Gallé and the Daum brothers had helped build up the town’s reputation as the centre of creativity in the decorative arts. Gallé’s father was a manufacturer of mirrors and glass tableware, and eventually expanded into pottery. Gallé received a formal humanist education, concentrating mainly on the classics, art, philosophy, poetry and music. His interest in art led him to sketch naturalistic decorative designs for the family business. He spent a considerable period of time in Germany before returning to Lorraine at the age of twenty-one. Post 1870’s Franco-Prussian War, Gallé set in motion his own glassworks manufacturing company, and merged it with his father’s business a few years down the line. Emile concentrated mostly on glasswork and pottery, and won a gold medal for design at a major exposition of decorative art in Paris in 1884. This was perhaps one of the earliest defining moments of his career. Not only did it earn him fame, but also led to his opening a retail shop in Paris. Gallé’s presence in Paris put him in touch with many influential figures of the day. This sparked off many interactions, leading to the dissemination of Gallé’s ideas as a creative artist and a theorist of the decorative arts. He established the School of Nancy whose goal (according to its statute) was ‘to conserve in modern French objects, as much for objects of simple utility as for those of luxury, the sense of logic in construction, in the rational use of materials, the practical instinct of convenience and comfort, under an ornamentation of elegance, beauty, and intellectuality.’

From 1885 onwards, Gallé forayed into designing wood furniture, having fallen in love with fine and exotic woods quite by accident. As a student he had shown great interest in botany, and this fascination led him to choose wood as a medium of expression. He was attracted to the colour of timbers, like amaranth and satinwood; the variety of grain and figure enabled him to experiment further. Gallé began designing for wood and found craftsmen to carve and inlay production furniture designs. His factory at Nancy continued expanding and employed around three hundred employees. The elite classes clamoured for a piece of Gallé’s craftsmanship, and the production lines ran at full capacity. Gallé was very supportive of using mechanical devices to shape furniture in order to save time and increase productivity. After the initial shaping, it would be turned over to a master carver for the marquetry designs and the final touches.

Despite his prolonged dabbling in wood furniture with elaborate designs, Gallé’s chosen medium remained glass and he created, what is today called, the art nouveau cameo glass. It is here that his interest in botany found its fullest expression- each piece of glassware draws on the flora and fauna Gallé had seen around himself, and they are infused with a riot of colours. He was following William Morris’s precepts before 1880 and was deeply influenced by Chinese cameo glassware. In turn, Gallé’s works had a major influence on the art nouveau movement. His glassware was always, without exception, elaborate whether the type was clear, enameled, stratified, applied, engraved, acid-etched or wheel carved. His foliage designs or landscape decorations imparted a distinct Japanese texture to his work. According to most collectors, Gallé’s work can be divided into two broad categories: his masterpieces and what is known as the ‘industrial Gallé’.

Gallé’s designs were intricate and detailed. The shape of the vessel bearing the complete decoration was drawn on paper, and the descriptions of all requirements were put down in detail. Gallé even specified the precise signature that was to be used.  The Paris International Exposition of 1900 was a watershed event for Gallé. The curvilinear art nouveau style won many admirers, and some of Gall’s most important furniture pieces were showcased at this event.  However, at the end of the 1900 Exhibition, sheer exhaustion caught up with him, and he was found oscillating between clinics and sanatoriums. His attempt to prepare for the 1905 Paris Exhibition did not come to fruition as he died on 23rd December in 1904. He had succumbed to leukemia. His legacy lived on in The School of Nancy which centered itself on the work of Gallé, and offered the clearest example of the rich floral and symbolic direction of art nouveau. This school, founded by Gallé, was joined by the cabinet makers Eugène Valin and Louis Majorelle as well as by the painter, sculptor and goldsmith, Victor Prouvé. After Gallé’s death, Prouvé helped attain international recognition for both the glass factory and the School of Nancy.

When it comes to auctions, Gallé’s stunning works of art attract the attention of collectors all over the world. At Christie’s, in the year 2007, a La Mer table lamp (c. 1900) fetched a sum of $79,356. It is made of glass, is free-blown, and has a wrought-iron stem.

A cameo glass dragonfly table lamp, overlaid and acid-etched with flowering and budding plants and dragonflies, with brass fitments was sold at Christie’s, in 2008, for a sum of $36,797.

An intercalaire glass vase, decorated with flowers and foliage set against a beautiful background of yellow and blue was sold in 2007 for a price of $40,247.

In 2008, a cameo lamp manufactured in 1905 and overlaid with a motif of peonies was sold for $88,139. It has a bronze armature and each arm terminates in a scarab beetle.

This piece of woodwork (c.1900) is carved out of burr-walnut, fruitwood and rosewood inlays. The price realised for this furniture at the 2008 auction, titled 20th Century Decorative Art & Design held at Christie’s, was $106,984.

Moving on to Sotheby’s, at the March 7th 2012 auction titled 20th Century Design including a Private Collection of Mid-Century Design and Ceramic Art, Emile Gallé creations such as a Chrysanthemum vase (lot 211) and an Apple vase (lot 212) are up for grabs. The estimate figures for these vases range between $6,000 and $18,000, reinforcing one’s belief that Gallé’s creations were truly timeless. Similar vases had previously been sold at Sotheby’s at different points of time, such as the Iris vase or the Chinese style Pagoda lamp (sold for 8,125 GBP).

Somewhat similar in design to the Chinese style vase is Gallé’s Apple Blossom vase, sold for 12,500 GBP.

One of the most expensive Gallé article to be auctioned till date is the Marqueterie-Sur-Verre vase. Carved in glass and internally decorated, the pale aqua body is etched with mountains, ice and a single Edelweiss flower. The hammer price for this piece, including the buyer’s premium was 114,500 GBP.

Another such rare vase, exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, decorated in high relief with a trailing wallflower against a finely carved martele ground was sold for 176,000 GBP. An 1885 creation, the Praying Mantis vase clearly depicts Gallé’s interest in the shape, colour and contours of an insect. Auctioned at Christie’s, it fetched a price of $23,220 in the year 2008.

What perhaps ensures Gallé’s lasting popularity with collectors is that he imposed decoration onto useful objects rather than modifying their forms; he brings beauty to utility.  Gallé regarded his creations in wood and glass as bearers of his innermost thoughts; they were a creative representation of his emotions. His vases bear lines of his favourite poets engraved onto them, along with flowers and landscapes, emphasizing upon the spiritual nature of everything. Gallé’s contribution to his field can be aptly summed up in his words: he ensured that his art had ‘a function of human culture, of awakening minds and souls by the translation of beauties in the world.’


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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.