Sensual. Organic. Groundbreaking. Art Nouveau proved to be all of these things and so much more. A movement intended both to elevate the status of the craft-based artisan while also rebelling against the sterility of industrialism and the academic system of fine art, Art Nouveau changed the face of art history by redefining art and the role of the artist in the execution of their vision.
From Art Nouveau architecture and furniture to jewelry and textiles, during Art Nouveau’s relatively brief existence, this revolution in artistic ideals permeated nearly every facet of the decorative, and eventually, fine arts. In particular, it was the art of the glassmaker that experienced a markedly significant elevation in both perception and creative skill.
Explore the history of Art Nouveau glass through the artists that shaped this global movement: Emile Gallé, Auguste and Antonin Daum, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and René Lalique.
Emile Gallé (1846-1904)
“The aim of my work: The study of nature, the love of nature's art, and the need to express what one feels in one's heart.” – Emile Gallé
Born on May 4, 1846 in Nancy, France, Emile Gallé seemed destined for a career in glassmaking. Nancy was well-established for its glass artistry, and his father, Charles Gallé was an established faïence (ceramic) and glassmaker with his own successful manufactory, the Maison Gallé-Reinemer. It would be here under the guidance of his father that the young Emile began to learn the art of glassmaking while simultaneously indulging his academic interests in philosophy, botany and chemistry. In 1867, Gallé joined his father working full-time at the Maison.
Gallé’s glasswork, even at its earliest stages, was heavily influenced by nature, with his very first pieces incorporating enameled floral motifs painted upon clear glass. He was an avid botanist his entire life, collecting plants and insects from which to study and draw inspiration. He was even elected Secretary-General for Nancy’s Société centrale d’horticulture.
Gallé traveled throughout Europe studying works at museums and private institutions, gaining insight from ancient glass antiquities to Japonesque masterpieces, and everything in between. It would be Gallé’s trip to the British Museum in 1871 that would alter the course of his art career. Enamored by the famed ancient Roman cameo glass artifact known as the Portland Vase, the intrepid artist began experimenting with cameo glass upon his return to Nancy.
His melding of ancient tropes with modern technology led to the evolution of Gallé’s most incredible and distinguishable oeuvre. Color was a dominant force in all his designs. Galle’s method of layering various colors of glass and exposing the base layers via precise acid etching gave birth to some of the French glass master’s most memorable creations. Layering metallic foils between the glass prompted the discovery of exceptional highlighting effects that breathed life into Gallé’s naturalistic motifs, and the incorporation of air bubbles into the molten glass added a textural element never before seen in the medium. He even continued in his experimentations with enamel, mixing it with metal oxides to create absolutely breathtaking, glistening effects that were revealed only in the final firing.
Taking all of his revelations into account, Gallé had the ability to create the most picturesque landscapes and give life to any flora or fauna known to man within his majestic glass. His showing at the 1878 Exhibition Universelle and a decade later at the 1889 Exhibition catapulted Gallé to international fame. His organic, flowing patterns captivated the global audience and effectively gave relevance to the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement.
Along with Louis Majorelle, Auguste and Antonin Daum and other pioneers in Art Nouveau, Gallé founded the ç to expand the scope of the Art Nouveau movement. The institution had the goal of blending artistry with industry from all areas of the decorative arts and making arts, or art deco, more accessible for people from all walks of life, not just the elite. Gallé served as the first president of the school until his death in 1904.
Auguste (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1930) Daum
Nancy is also the birthplace of the renowned Daum family glassworks. The company was founded in a fortunate stroke of serendipity by notary Jean Daum in 1878. Daum had absolutely no glassmaking experience but instead ended up acquiring the floundering Sainte-Catherine glassworks as payment for his legal services.
During this time, the primary output of the manufactory consisted of watch crystals and glass tableware. But Daum’s lack of both business and technical experience weighed heavily on the business, that is until his eldest son Auguste joined the glassworks in 1879. With no experience in glassmaking or the industry, Auguste took it upon himself to learn everything he could about running the glassworks effectively saving the business.
It would be his brother Antonin, who joined the family business in 1887, that would bring the artistic influence the Daum firm needed to truly excel. A student of the leading Lunéville and École Centrale schools of design and engineering, the youngest Daum actively sought to incorporate Art Nouveau creativity into the firm’s glass.
Daum’s participation in the 1889 Paris Exhibition Universelle, where they showcased their table glass amongst the masterpieces of Gallé and other leading art glass creators was a tremendous inspiration to Antonin, who immediately began working on his own designs. Free-blown, voluminous vases, lamps and other vessels enveloped in rich cameos of florals, animals, and even the themes of celebrated operas of the day were the focus of Daum’s production. The utilization of hydrofluoric acid and glass layering techniques allowed the firm’s craftsmen to create a wide range of visual effects. With Auguste at the helm of the business and Antonin directing the creative side, Daum soon proved to be a dominant force in Art Nouveau.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the stage upon which the Daum brothers would showcase their cameo creations with exceptional success. The firm’s acclaim grew throughout their showings at subsequent international exhibitions, with the Paris Exhibition Universelle of 1900 being their most triumphant, with the firm walking away with the Grand Prix and Antonin being made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Some of the most gifted glass artisans worked for Daum, including Victor Marchand, Jacques Grüber and Eugéne Gall, who would remain with the Daum firm for over 40 years. With the influx of such superb talent, Antonin established an in-house design school to train glass craftsmen and to research new techniques, such as the use of gilt between layers of glass, powdered glass to achieve textural effects and the inventive use of enamels to provide dimension and additional color.
One of Daum’s most impressive techniques was the use of pâte de verre, or “glass paste”. The method is essentially a “lost wax” casting process that uses powdered glass blended with a binding agent to create the paste that is then placed in a mold and fired, ultimately achieving dynamic shapes that can vary in thickness and display intense color.
When Gallé founded the École de Nancy in 1901, the Daum brothers joined the fold and greatly contributed to the advancement of the Art Nouveau style. Upon Gallé’s death just three years later, Daum effectively continued in the founder’s footsteps and became the driving force behind the movement.
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
“God has given us our talents, not to copy the talents of others, but rather to use our brains and imagination in order to obtain the revelation of true beauty.” – Louis Comfort Tiffany
Founded in 1878 by Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Tiffany & Co. founder and jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, Tiffany Studios stood at the forefront of American Art Nouveau. Though he worked in nearly every decorative medium imaginable, even serving as the first Design Director for his father’s Tiffany & Co., it was Louis’ glass creations that left an indelible mark upon the art world.
Well trained in painting and design, Tiffany traveled extensively throughout Europe and Northern Africa gaining inspiration from the bounteous decorative styles he encountered along the way. By 1878, Tiffany & Co. was gaining great acclaim at the International Exhibitions for its innovative silver, with Louis often accompanying his father and exhibiting his own paintings. It would be in this environment that the younger Tiffany would encounter the fantastic works of European decorative artists, particularly those of the glass masters.
Tiffany first began his experiments in glass in 1875. Focusing upon stained glass, the gifted artist found methods by which to give his glass a unique appearance, imitating folds, texture and overall consistency to craft his famed and majestic stained glass windows that soon became known as “paintings in glass”. Tiffany quickly became the leading art glass creator in the United States. His clients included the likes of Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt and even the White House.
The artist was in a constant state of experimentation. Perhaps Tiffany’s most iconic discovery occurred in 1881 when he created his first pieces of “favrile” glass. Inspired by the delicate iridescence found in specimens of ancient Roman glass, Tiffany set out to replicate the look with outstanding results. Termed “favrile” or “handcrafted”, his technique produced freely shaped forms distinguished by an almost glowing iridescence that possessed an uncanny dichroic trait that separated his creations from those of any other glass artist in the world. From remarkable floriform vases to his most recognizable lamps, his favrile glass allowed people to enjoy the beauty of nature year round through the beauty of his glass.
René Lalique (1860-1945)
Born in the province of Champagne on April 6, 1860, René Lalique displayed his artful gifts at a young age, winning is first award for a drawing he composed at the age of 12. When his father died in 1876, and needing a way to help support his family, he saw an opportunity to take advantage of his artistic skills when he enrolled at the École des Arts Decoratifs and apprenticed to Parisian jeweler Louis Aucoc. Here, he learned the arts of jewelry making, designing and sculpting, all skills of which would impact his future glass masterpieces.
Art Nouveau Jewelry would be the first medium through which Lalique placed his mastery of Art Nouveau style on display. By the close of the 19th century, his jewelry creations made him an international figure, counting numerous celebrities and members of the social elite amongst his clientele. His winning of several exhibition prizes and creation as a Knight of the Legion of Honor solidified his importance in the art world.
Despite this success, Lalique yearned for a greater artistic challenge, and by 1900, he expanded his horizons into the realm of glass. In just 10 short years, Lalique transformed into a master glassmaker, creating everything from vases and car hood ornaments, to chandeliers and perfume bottles. His motifs are said to have focused upon “females, flora and fauna”, highlighting asymmetrical, undulating lines and sensuous curves encountered in the natural world.
By the onset of World War I, Art Nouveau had fallen out of style, making way for the Art Deco style that featured more streamline, geometric motifs versus the curvilinear, organic designs of its predecessor. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that Art Nouveau would reclaim the spotlight once more and drawing the interests and appreciation of an entirely new generation.
Through the efforts of all these remarkable men, an entire movement was born. Though the Art Nouveau artists and designers collectively worked toward the common goal of gaining a greater respect for the decorative arts that was on par with that of the fine arts, as individuals, their unique takes on glass workmanship and design represent far more than a bygone era, but rather a giant leap in the evolution of art itself.