The beautiful glass vases made by Émile Gallé, a leading figure in the French Art Nouveau movement

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Milica Sterjova
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Although Paris was deeply involved with the beginnings of the Art Nouveau movement, it was not the center of the style in France. The city where Art Nouveau truly thrived was Nancy in north-eastern France. The town is particularly known for a number of famous glass-makers who lived and worked there. One name stands out in particular above all the rest: Émile Gallé.

The Nancy-born artist is considered one of the most important personalities in the French Art Nouveau movement. An amazingly talented glass maker, Gallé employed innovative techniques with creative naturalistic designs, creating marvelous pieces which the French often described as “poetry in glass.” Although he also designed furniture and pottery, he remains most famous for his glass objects.

Émile’s father was a successful furniture and faience maker who had his own factory in Nancy. After studying glass making in Meisenthal, Émile returned home to work with his father. The incredible craftsmanship Gallé possessed was partly due to his trips around Europe in order to research and learn about other artists’ work. He brought back new ideas, designs, and techniques which would have a major influence on his later work and glass produced in the Art Nouveau style in general.

Gallé first started with enameled clear glass pieces, but in his later work created an original style introducing heavily colored opaque glass with etched or carved plant patterns. His first major success came at the Paris World’s Fair in November 1878. Here he won the Grand Prix, which commended him as an energetic and refreshing artist.

Glass vase from 1896 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Author: Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC0 1.0

Even more important for Gallé and the Art Nouveau movement was his presentation at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. This is when he became truly appreciated internationally, and his work was recognized as the leading example of the rising style of Art Nouveau. In the following years, his work and techniques were used by other notable artists.

Vase Encolies by Gallé, 1902. Author: Cédric Amey. CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1895, Émile opened his own glassworks in his home town. Here he created and produced his own designs as well as the designs of other fellow artists. The manufactory worked quite well; Gallé’s pieces were in high demand.

The factory employed about 300 people, producing a large number of items in the years that followed. Gallé’s reputation drew many glass designers and craftsmen to the factory including the remarkable Eugène Rousseau. Despite the fact that he employed talented designers and artists, Gallé remained directly involved in the creation of new designs.

Vase ‘Helianthe,’ 1898, glass – Bröhan Museum, Berlin.

Perhaps inspired by the botany he studied in his youth, his work was largely characterized by floral motifs. Although he designed various glass objects, it seems like vases were the focal point of his work. Gallé developed and patented an influential technique called marqueterie-de-verre. The technique was similar to marquetry employed in furniture-making and involved pieces of heated glass being pressed into the liquified surface of the vase.

Émile Gallé vase ca.1899-1900. Author: Sailko. CC BY 3.0

In 1901, together with several other artists, Gallé founded École de Nancy (The Nancy School). He was named the president of the newly formed movement which had the goal of promoting Art Nouveau around the globe. The other members of the school were also acclaimed names, including the Daum brothers who were also well-known glass makers, the famous furniture maker Louise Majorelle, the furniture and glass designer Victor Prouvé, and many others.

Glass vase made in 1901. Author: Sailko. CC BY 3.0

Émile Gallé died of leukemia in 1904. The School of Nancy remained active until 1909, and Gallé’s factory continued to produce high-quality glass even after his death. When World War I began, production was temporarily discontinued, resuming after the war had ended.

Glass vase at the Fin de Siècle Museum. Author: Sailko. CC BY 3.0

Unfortunately, the factory never quite regained the status it had before the outbreak of the war. Production continued until 1936 when it ceased permanently. The outstanding glass work of Émile Gallé is today a part of many museum collections around the world. Many of his pieces are kept in the Museum of The Nancy School opened in 1964 and devoted to the magnificent artists who founded the School and promoted Art Nouveau style.