Amalric Walter was born in Sèvres in 1870. He is famous for his work in pâte de verre glass. His father and grandfather were painters of ceramic and Walter grew up with a firm foundation in those traditional artistic skills and methods. He received a lengthy training at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, which provided him with a solid understanding of model and mold-making, painting, and enameling. At the same time French decorative arts were experiencing a creative rebirth as such masters as Gallé and Daum were transforming the techniques, forms, and decorations of art glass. Additionally, artists and craftsmen were exposed to the art of ancient and foreign cultures, prompting experimentation and emulation of the new forms. Pioneer Henry Cros was inspired by Egyptian glass and Greek sculpture to attempt to create a polychromatic sculpture material using crushed glass. Cros was given a government grant in 1891 to finance his experiments at a studio in Sèvres, at the same time that Walter was a student nearby.
Pâte de verre as a basic concept was produced by ancient Egyptian and Roman glassmakers, beginning prior to the first century AD. At its simplest, the process includes filling a refractory mold with granules of glass, heating the glass in a kiln until the grains fuse into a single mass, cooling and breaking away the mold, followed by cleaning and selectively polishing the glass. The benefit of this method is that colors can be specifically placed within the mold, creating elaborate decorative coloring. The difficulties of the process are numerous: mold breakdown, imprecise temperature control, unwanted color flow, gaps in the fused glass, inability to view glass during firing due to mold, destruction the of mold during the firing process, and difficult color placement in a three-dimensional mold. Walter produced editions of his pâte de verre pieces, which means he either perfected the ability to reproduce the molds and waxes in quantity or, in keeping with his formal ceramic training, created a master mold from which to make numerous wax copies. He also excelled at placing and keeping different colors of glass exactly where he wanted them. He developed a glass paste with a high level of lead, which created a softer glass that could be fired at a lower temperature. This was ground into a very fine paste and painted on the inside of the mold before filling and firing.
Following his schooling, Walter went on to work for a factory in Sèvres, which by that time was producing what Cros had termed “pâte de verre.” Another pioneer in pâte de verre, Albert Dammouse, had also experimented in Sèvres and influenced the young Walter. The new generation of pâte de verre artists, extending on Cros’s and Dammouse’s initial experiments, developed unique and individual variations on the process. No member of this new class developed a more original style than Walter, whose training in molding and decoration greatly influenced his art. Working with Gabriel Lévy, a Professor at the Manufacture Nationale, Walter developed a pale translucent form of pâte de verre. Antonin Daum, owner of the famous Daum Frères glass studio in Nancy, offered to buy the rights to Walter’s methods. Walter began working for Daum in 1904, collaborating with designer Henri Bergé to perfect the color strength of the glass.
Walter was offered a studio, kiln, and use of the factory’s resources; in return Daum gained Walter’s expertise in pâte de verre and added the new technique to the factories’ repertoire. The range of materials, knowledge, and skills of the Daum craftsmen brought Walter’s work with pâte de verre to a technical peak. Walter was permitted to work with a number of sculptors, artists, and craftsmen from inside Daum and outside the factory. In the ten years Daum worked for the studio he greatly extended his knowledge of the technique and gained a full mastery of his unique approach to creating pâte de verre.
The Daum factory was closed from 1914 to 1918 due to World War I. After the war Walter decided not to return to Daum, but to establish his own studio. The separation was amicable and Walter was permitted to freely use the models and techniques developed at Daum. Walter, in a practice started during his time at Daum, commissioned various sculptors to assist with mold design, and always acknowledged their contributions. Longtime partner Henri Bergé continued to collaborate with Walter at the new studio. It is because of this that Walter is sometimes seen as a craftsman and technical facilitator rather than the producer of his work. Despite multiple collaborators, Walter’s work remains instantly recognizable in the fusion of color, decoration, and form. The work produced at his studio between 1920 and 1930 is characterized by simple sculptural forms highly influenced by Art Nouveau, decorated by insects, crustaceans, reptiles, or fish. The range of products produced included paperweights, shallow dishes, stud trays, lidded bowls and boxes, pen trays, and inkwells.
Walter’s style and business experienced another drastic shift with the rise of the Art Deco style and the onset of the Great Depression. With the decline of Art Nouveau and consumers’ reluctance to buy non-essential luxury items, Walter was forced to sell in less prestigious venues than he had during his peak in the 1920's. He also commissioned new sculptors Lejan, Corette, and Houillon to update his style. The new pieces were typically bookends, hollow birds and fish used as light-fittings, paperweights, and animal figures. The style was simplistic, with singular color casts and semi-polished surfaces. Despite Walter’s efforts to adapt to changing styles, the studio was forced to close in 1939. Walter left Nancy in 1940 before the arrival of German troops. He returned to his studio in 1945 but did not resume work. Instead he lived a life of increasing poverty and inactivity until his death in 1959. The handful of practioners with the knowledge to produce pâte de verre were notorious for their secrecy, and with the death of these artists, the techniques needed to create the glass were largely lost. However, due to Walter’s collaboration with Daum, and the preservation of the techniques and knowledge developed during his years there, a new generation of artists became interested in pâte de verre and were able to continue practicing this unique and ancient art.