French Art Glass: History, Symbolism, and Nature
Nowadays, we associate glass with mundane items that we use every day. Cups. Windows. Reading glasses. When you think of glass, you probably don’t immediately think art. It might be initially challenging to imagine how a green vase could possibly have any deeper meaning than being a place to put your Valentine’s Day bouquet, but looking deeper, every piece of antique art glass is rich in history.
“Art Nouveau” is French for “new art.” The term refers to a type of decorative art that was produced between about 1890 and 1910. Most of the time, art of a particular style or category looks the same. Art Nouveau, however, does not follow this rule. By the end of the 19th century, style started to mean “ideas.” Paul Greenhalgh, Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, says Art Nouveau was” the first self-conscious attempt to create a modern style.”
Art glass embodies history, symbolism, and nature – all wrapped up into one object that’s shape and color take on an almost organic sense –crafted in a way that make you feel like you’re looking at a living creature.
A cameo is a magnificent type of glass art produced by carving designs into layers of differently colored glass. The oldest cameo glass was cut using hand tools, but cameo glass can also be made with a wheel and with hydrofluoric acid, which eats away at the glass. The cameo technique has been seen as early as 30 B.C. in ancient Roman art. Most of the Roman examples had two layers, but some remains have been found that contain as many as five layers. There are only 16 complete pieces of ancient Roman cameo glass that have survived. The most popular color scheme for the earliest pieces of cameo glass was white over blue. White over black was also found.
There is some Islamic cameo glass from the 9th and 10th centuries, but the craft wasn’t perfected until the 19th century. At this time, Roman inspired colors and motifs were abandoned, and the Art Nouveau look came about – featuring flower and plant designs. This was when the world was introduced to the greats – Galle and Daum of Nancy.
When you hear about art glass or cameo glass, the first name that first comes up is Galle. Emile Galle is said to have been the greatest European glass master of all time. Galle was a French native, born in 1846. He studied philosophy, botany, and drawing – all three of which he used in designs for glass, pottery, furniture, and jewelry. He got into the glass business because his father, Charles, owned a glass and ceramics factory Nancy, a city in eastern France. Galle’s early work was clear glass decorated with enamel, but later he began crafting cameo glass – carved with beautiful plant motifs in two or more colors. Shining a light through a Galle cameo will reflect dozens of deep colors – the layers carved into beautiful plant motifs - leaves, flowers, vines, and fruits. Soon, he was internationally known and his work much imitated.
Daum Nancy Glass
The other big name in art glass is Daum. The men of the Daum family were actually lawyers, not glassmakers. Jean Daum, the father, took over a glassworks in Nancy, France and took up the craft in an attempt to pay off a debt. His sons, Auguste and Antonin took over and made the shop, “Verriere de Nancy,” famous. While attending the Paris exhibition of 1889, the brothers were impressed and influenced by the work of Galle. After Galle’s death in 1904, the Daum brothers took the lead in art glass. The Daum family continued producing their exquisite glass products through the generations – starting with Auguste and Antonin whose work is considered Art Nouveau. Next came Art Deco, Crystal, and then Nouveau Pate-de-verre. Daum pieces are signed “Daum Nancy,” and also include the cross of Lorraine.
Lalique glass is another famous type of French glass. Rene Jules Lalique, 1860-1945, is known for his uncolored glass, his perfume bottles, statues, vases, jewelry, chandeliers, clocks, hood ornaments, and more. Rene attended Sydenham Art College in London. After that, he worked as a freelance artist, designing jewelry and eventually opened his own business. He was known as one of Frances most renowned Art Nouveau jewelry makers. In the 1920s, he jumped into the newer category of Art Deco. These pieces aren’t quite old enough to be antiques. Rene passed away in 1945, but his work is still esteemed and treasured today. His granddaughter, Marie Claude-Lalique was also a glass maker who carried on her grandpa’s legacy. She passed away in Florida in 2003. Each and every original Lalique piece is marked “Lalique” and the pieces that were made during Rene’s lifetime are marked “R. Lalique.” This is good news for collectors. Some of Rene’s earliest pieces are marked with his very own thumb print.
Choosing your piece (and spotting a phony!)
The color, the shape, the carving – all of these factors work together to make these pieces extraordinary. Alan Kaplan, of Leo Kaplan LTD., said that most new collectors end up selling the first piece of art glass that they buy because the more they learn, the more they know what to look for. His advice - “Whatever money you spend, you should buy one piece, instead of three.”
Websites like eBay will claim to be selling authentic Galle glass. Although there are, of course, honest eBay sellers, if the item is said to be authentic “Galle Glass”, but is priced at 99 cents or $9.99, it’s probably not authentic. Leo Kaplan’s collection ranges in price from $1,000 up to the 5-figure range.
Real antique Galle glass has multiple layers, intricate detail, and unmistakable quality. Chinese replicas are made in molds and have many flaws. If it’s “made in China,” it’s not Galle. Galle Glass is made in France.
Alan pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to spot a fake when you’re buying from an online site like eBay. He said that many times, the replicas will look authentic in the photo, but when you hold them in your hand, you can feel that they’re not genuine. They lack certain heaviness. The good thing about going through Latique for your purchases is that you can trust our dealers. Peruse their profiles. Go to their sites. Learn about their products.
Choose a piece that fits your style. Luckily, the look of art glass is very broad. You can find something for almost any taste. The green gourd pictured here is a unique and refreshing twist on art glass. If you want something warmer, you can look for something with more earth tones. Of course, how you display your piece is up to you. Art glass works in any room. You may choose to keep yours in a glass display, or have it out as a centerpiece on your dining room table, dressed with fresh flowers, ready to be talked about and admired over supper.
Enjoy Our Dealers and Happy Latiquing Everyone!
Interview with Alan Kaplan of Leo Kaplan Antiques
Video on Art Nouveau Glass from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London: Link to video - http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/a/art-nouveau-glass/