René Lalique: A Genius of French Decorative Art
by Anurima Sen
René Jules Lalique was a French glass designer, jeweller, maker of stunning chandeliers, clocks, automobile hood ornaments and the creator of spectacular perfume bottles. He was born in the year 1860 in a village called Ay, in France. Two years later, his father moved to a suburb of Paris with his entire family. However, Lalique was never fully able to dissociate himself from the countryside where he was born, and he kept returning to Ay for his summer holidays. This affinity for his childhood home is seen in his practice of imbuing his works with naturalistic details.
In the year 1876, after his father's death, Lalique began his apprenticeship under the jeweller and goldsmith Louis Aucoc and attended classes at the Ecole des arts Décoratifs. Prior to that, he had also attended College Turgot and studied drawing with Justin-Marie Lequin. In a bid to perfect his art, he moved to London in 1878 and attended the Sydenham Art College. It was here that his graphic designing skills improved and he honed his naturalistic style as a jeweller. This training helped him carve out his own niche as a designer with a penchant for incorporating elements of nature in his drawings. 1880 marked his return to Paris where he was employed as a jewellery designer for firms such as Cartier, Destape, Hamelin, Jacta, Boucheron and many others. He was also working as a freelance designer for M. Vuilleret and Auguste Petit. With Varenne, he started a two-year old partnership to provide designs to jewellery manufacturers. Those designs, now of great value, bore the stamp of Lalique & Varenne.
In the next five years he opened his own workshop and started working on jewellery that rejected the use of large diamonds or gemstones. He always ensured that his creations were understated, yet artistic, and never flamboyant. At the height of the Art Nouveau movement, apart from creating memorable jewellery, he transformed mundane articles such as hair-combs, brooches and buckles into miniature works of art by embedding them with gemstones such as bloodstones, tourmalines, cornelians and chrysoberyls together with plique à jour enamelling and inexpensive metals. It is for this reason that Lalique is often referred to as the inventor of modern jewellery. The public took notice of Lalique post the 1889 competition organized by the Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs on the theme of drinking vessels. He was awarded a cash prize and the second prize for his Thistle Flowers goblet. Lalique started designing stage jewellery for Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress and patron of Lalique's, and this move escalated his popularity considerably. At the age of forty-eight Lalique created his first perfume bottle, commissioned by Coty. Little did the two men know that this would be recognised in later years as one of the major steps in the perfume industry as far as presentation and packaging was concerned. Their intention was to present fine perfumes in artistic containers at affordable prices. Lalique and Coty united talents and produced perfume flasks that were exquisite. At first, the engraved and embossed labels were very small. Lalique integrated the label into the overall design of the perfume bottle and later unified the design motifs of bottle, stopper, label and container to create one whole work of art.
After 1911 Lalique devoted himself to creating glass articles, such as chandeliers, as well as designing car mascots for the Citroen, Bugatti, Rolls Royce and many others. Lalique was known for the infusion of Art Deco sensibilities in his work.
Around this time he also branched out into the field of metalwork and produced inkwells and daggers that bore his favourite motifs of poppies, anemones, dragonflies and scarabs. It can be said that Lalique's diverse career choices were a result of the changing tastes of a world marked by the Civil War and the World War. Lalique's factory closed during World War I and it was not until 1921, with the return of Alsace-Lorraine to French governance, that he reopened, this time in Wingen-sur-Moder in the Bas Rhin. Historically, this region has been a glassmaking centre because of the proximity of the large forests which provided an abundant supply of wood for the furnaces in the early days of glass making. He created walls and columns of lighted glass, transforming the public's notion of the ways in which glass could be used as a decorative article. He produced stylish, yet useful, glass objects and aimed to make them cost effective for the consumers.
In 1933, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs presented a retrospective exhibit of all of Lalique's work in various media. This was an occasion of highest honour for Lalique, since such exhibits usually took place posthumously, as an acknowledgement and marker of one's artistic talent. This exhibit and the publication of his Catalogue des Verreries de René Lalique (1932) marked the highpoints of his life as an artist in glass. This publication is both comprehensive and detailed, and the illustrations of the 1,500 or more glass objects from Lalique's workshop make the catalogue an invaluable resource for the collector.
When it comes to auctions, it can be easily said that Lalique's perfume bottles receive high bids consistently. Most R. Lalique bottles have sold for over $100,000. At a recent auction, a Lalique Art Deco figure of a cougar brought $39,000one of the highest prices paid for Art Deco Glass. On October 11, 2006, at an auction titled An Exceptional Collection of Art Nouveau Jewels, an aquamarine, glass, enamel and diamond 'Thistles' corsage ornament by him was sold for $228,000 whereas the estimate was at around $120,000-$180,000. The lot description reads:
Centering upon a cushion-cut aquamarine, flanked on either side by a symmetrical articulated pair of thistles, made of sculpted bluish green tinted glass, within an openwork rose and old European-cut bow-shaped frame, decorated with green and blue enamel spiked stems, the reverse with gold engraving, mounted in 18k gold, circa 1905, with French assay marks, in a Lalique green leather fitted case, the exterior stamped J. De B.
Signed Lalique for René Lalique.
At the same auction was sold another Lalique creation: an enamel, baroque pearl and gold chain. It was estimated at about $15,000-$20,000, but it fetched a neat sum of $60,000! Made in circa 1905, and decorated with beautifully crafted pale green enamel berries, it bears the jeweller's marks for Lalique.
In 2009, at the Rare Jewels and Objets d'Art auction, a suite of Art Nouveau diamond, star sapphire and enamel 'Thistle' jewellery by Lalique fetched a price of $482,500. The necklace bears an intricate latticework design in colours such as dark blue, lavender and pink with rose-cut diamond leaves and thorns. Mounted in 18k gold, and made in circa 1900, each article has been signed Lalique.
At another auction (Important 20th Century Decorative Arts) in 2000, a pair of molded glass panels depicting athletes was sold for a princely sum of $204,000. This was commissioned by the couturier Jacques Doucet in the year 1912. His vases, from the 1930s (such as the Bacchantes vase or the Terpsichore vase) were auctioned off at a price of around $50,000. Among his metalwork, Poisson (a glass and chromed-metal lamp, 1931) fetched a price of $42,000.
The world still remembers Lalique for his imaginative use of coloured glass enamels, rock crystal and innovative designs in which he combined gold with female figures, birds, fish, insects, animals, flowers and fruits. His art is both cherished and feverishly collected even today.