French designer Emile Gallé is considered to be one of the driving forces behind the Art Nouveau movement. His naturalistic designs combined with innovative techniques made him one of the pioneering glass makers of the late 19th, early 20th century. Taking his inspiration from nature and plants along with a heavy Japanese design influence, it is no wonder the French have been known to describe his work as “poetry in glass.” He developed a technique for the production of cut and incised flashed glass and enameled designs, enhanced by bright colors and transparency of the material. His glassmaking and artistic style was highly influential on other Art Nouveau artists of the time, including the Daum brothers. In 1901 Gallé founded and became the first President of the Ecole de Nancy, the Alliance Provinciale des Industries d’Art to organize and protect the decorative art producers involved in the Art Nouveau movement.
Born in the Eastern French town of Nancy, in 1846 Emile Gallé was destined to become a glassmaker. His father, Charles Gallé was a successful faience and traditional glassmaker with his own factory. The young Emile Gallé began to learn the skills of the craftsman, painting faience and helping to cut and enamel the glassware. After studying botany, chemistry, philosophy and art Émille later went on to learn the technique of glassmaking at Meisenthal before joining his father at the factory in 1867.
Gallé traveled extensively around Europe developing his knowledge of glassmaking by visiting museums and studying the work of other influential designers. He was introduced to techniques such as enameling, which he discovered in the Oriental collection at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, and was fascinated by the cameo works of great designers such as Eugene Rousseau. On his return to Nancy he started to experiment with his new found knowledge. His early work largely consists of clear glass decorated with enamels.
Emile lived during an age of technological, scientific, and political explosion. He revolutionized the art of glass making by combining ancient techniques such as enameling, cameo and inlay with his own influences and industrial innovations. Combining heavy opaque etched glass with Japanese styles, he added an air of mystery to his pieces by carving or sealing a poetic sentence within each vessel, this imaginative and innovative feature soon become the trademark of his work. Gallé's imagination and constant adoption of new techniques transformed glass making into a form unequaled to this day. Gallé believed that his glass vessels should be more than functional containers. Nature was his source of beauty and inspiration. Each bowl, vase, or ewer was inspired in its design by nature balances of light/dark, birth/death, growth/decay, by the violent political ferment of his time, and with the genius to seize the accidental and use it. Upon examination, Gallé's glass vessels contain blazes of color, constellations of air bubbles, shimmering flecks of imbedded metal foils, and often, entrapped figures of insects that seem to float in a haze.
In 1873 he set up his own glass studio and took over his father's glass and ceramics factory in Nancy in 1877. Gallé’s work became well-known after being awarded the Grand Prix the Paris Exhibition of 1878. At the Exhibition he encountered the cameo glass of Englishmen Locke and Northwood. Drawing upon his chemistry background and his love of the outdoors, he transposed the artistry of cameo glass to his productions, and was further influenced by the marquetry designs in the parallel art of furniture making. Gallé opened a small woodworkers shop in 1885 where he began experimenting in marquetry designs in furniture.
Gallé made his mark as a true artist in glass at the 1884 Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where he showed 300 pieces of great artistic variety as well as technical expertise. The Paris Exhibition in 1889 was a breakthrough for Gallé and the Art Nouveau style in general. His pieces began to be widely imitated, notably by the Daum brothers’ factory in Nancy. By 1891, his international fame growing, Gallé exhibited only individual works at the salons where, the importance of his work already recognized, they were acquired by museums and collectors.
In 1894 Gallé built his own manufacturing plant in Nancy and began to create his own designs. Throughout the 1890's in his "Cristallerie d'Emile Gallé", he created abundant new glassworks and employed a team of craftsmen-designers, who worked on his designs and applied his signature after his approval. The factory had 300 employees and demand for Gallé’s work was high. The factory revolutionized the art glass industry by becoming the first to mass produce pieces using industrial techniques.
However Gallé’s hunger for discovering new designs ensured continuous experimentation. He discovered metallic foils could give a desired effect when applied to the glass making process, especially when incorporated into the cameo work. By applying the metallic foils between the colored glass sheets, the end result is a highlighted the effect of the finished details. His enamel work was just as revolutionary. He mixed metallic oxides with glass and suspended them in oil, giving the finished pieces a very different finish after firing.
In those years, Gallé exhibited his Art Nouveau works with great success, winning international awards, recognition through commissions and increased popular demand. Every piece created by his factory was heavily influenced by his passion of naturalistic designs. The effects brought his subject matter to life. The plant life that adorns his pieces is varied and incorporates everything from the thistle to fuchsia, clematis and chrysanthemums. Insects were also a frequent theme, many of his pieces contain butterflies, dragonflies and even insects such as beetles. Another favored decoration was that of landscapes, again Gallé looked to his surroundings for inspiration. He applied these decorative motifs to more than just vases. Gallé produced stunning table lamps, some of which were wheel-carved, a process of cutting into facets aided by a rotating wheel. This technique was originally used and developed in 8th century BC but not perfected until much later in the 18th century, and used innovatively by Gallé.
At the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris Gallé had an outstanding exhibit which included a working glass furnace in the center of the display. The show was highly acclaimed, and Gallé won two top prizes. It was the final triumph of his career. Gallé won many awards throughout his life including the French Legion of Honor, and he enjoyed great popularity and lucrative commissions throughout.
Determined to make Art Nouveau style known worldwide he founded the “Ecole de Nancy” to promote the Art Nouveau style and create a union between art and industry. Membership was restricted to men who had achieved pre-eminence in their particular fields. They included the potter Hesteaux, fine glass makers and fellow Nancy factory owners, the Daum brothers, and furniture makers Victor Prouve and Louis Majorelle. Gallé remained the President of the School until his death in 1904 from Leukemia. The Ecole de Nancy continued to run until 1909 and his widow operated the glassworks together with Victor Prouvè. All of the glass being made continued to bear Emile Gallé’s signature although a star was engraved alongside to indicate the pieces were produced after his death. Production then ceased with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and was not started again until after the war when Paul Perdrizet, Emile’s son-in-law, took over the factory. Paul’s contribution was to add new designs although these were still very much in the same technique and style that Gallé had used throughout his lifetime. Production ceased altogether in 1936 and no more authentic Gallé works have been created since. His artwork lives on in almost every museum around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the Musée du Louvre in Paris.