The Elaborate Art Nouveau
Furniture of Émile Gallé
by Jeesoo Walker,
On Wednesday, April 27, 2022, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will hold a single-owner sale, The Ira Simon Collection: Sold for the Benefit of the Art Institute of Chicago. Offering more than 300 lots, the auction is sourced with material from the late Ira Simon, an avid, longtime collector from Chicago who specialized in works by both Tiffany Studios and Émile Gallé. Both are well represented in the upcoming sale, which, as its title suggests, will support the Art Institute of Chicago.
Émile Gallé’s Innovative Art Nouveau Design
Ira Simon’s keen eye and refined sensibility helped him acquire an inimitable assemblage of art and objects with a focus on early 20th century design crafted by some of the most cherished makers within Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, Arts & Crafts, and Art Deco. After starting his career as a graphic designer for a toy company, Simon gradually turned his passion for art and design into a full-time occupation, whereby he bought and sold antiques and performed appraisals for auction houses and other clients.
Included in the auction on April 27 are 14 lots of furniture and decorative objects featuring sinuous outlines, bold figural carvings, and intricate marquetry details by Émile Gallé (1846-1904), a prolific designer and artist as well as a leading figure in the French Art Nouveau movement, whose versatility in various mediums left a lasting legacy in furniture, glassware, and pottery.
Well-preserved Art Nouveau period furniture has become exceedingly rare over the years due to manufacturing techniques that demanded the careful treatment of wood, which allowed no room for error, as well as the somewhat fragile nature of the design elements. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers is fortunate to have the opportunity to offer these uncommon and impressive pieces of furniture and other woodworking examples by Émile Gallé from the Ira Simon Collection.
Design Philosophy of the Art Nouveau Movement
Influenced by the philosophies of other “new design” movements in Europe, such as the Arts & Crafts movement in England and the Secessionist movement in Vienna, the Art Nouveau movement originated in France circa 1895 as a departure from and resistance to machine-made, mass-produced commodities and emphasized individual craftsmanship. Appalled by tall, rectangular industrial buildings lacking any organic ornamentation and warmth, the forerunners of the Art Nouveau movement began by designing houses and buildings and added custom-built furniture and decorative objects to match the architecture.
Alastair Duncan states in his book Art Nouveau Furniture (1982), “The Art Nouveau era brought the concept of ensemblier to maturity. […] The Art Nouveau philosophy of integrated design brought a decided change; a room had to be planned in its entirety, and furniture designers were forced to show much greater diversity.” Characterized by “whiplash” curves and organic, naturalistic forms, Art Nouveau designs frequently incorporated motifs like flowers, trees, insects, small animals, and landscapes. Other major design influences included French Rococo, Gothic Revival, and traditional Japanese aesthetics. These inspirations came together to create a unique style that borrowed elements from the past and another part of the world. Art Nouveau furniture, on top of having these attributes, typically came with high polished finishes, was produced from rare, exotic woods, and possessed a fine, handmade quality that established an exclusive market for wealthy clients, due to the high manufacturing cost.
Biography of Émile Gallé and His Celebrated Art Glass
In 1846, Émile Gallé was born and subsequently raised in Nancy, a small, riverfront city in the northeast of France, which is situated in the present-day Grand Est region (and the eventual/former province Alsace-Lorraine). Since the Gallé family manufactured and sold glassware and ceramics, Émile was exposed to the industry at an early age. He received his primary education in philosophy and natural science at Lycée Imperial in Nancy until the age of 16 and then continued his studies in Germany for another four years.
As a young man, Gallé took a special interest in plants; not only did he learn botany from Dominique Alexandre Godron (1807-1880), an accomplished botanist and the director of the Botanical Gardens of Nancy, he also collected plants and took painting and drawing courses on the subject. Gallé started working as an assistant at his family’s factories by creating small decorations in both glass and ceramic.
For a brief period, Gallé then received the necessary training in glass fabrication in Meisenthal and came back to the family business. Some early pieces he made during this transitional phase were exhibited at the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris. After serving in the Franco-Prussian War in the latter half of 1870, Gallé traveled to various major cities in Europe, during which time he represented his family’s business and visited museums. These trips broadened his knowledge of Egyptian and Asian decorative arts, which would influence some of Gallé’s later designs.
In 1874, at the age of 28, Gallé became the head of the family glassware and ceramics business, known as Maison Gallé-Reinemer. He was able to grow the firm exponentially while overseeing design processes and even training the designers himself. Gallé had high expectations for his employees, who were to use only realistic images of flora and fauna; he prevailed upon his staff “in the acceptance of the falseness and mediocrity of prettiness without character or in opulence without spirit.”
The Maison Gallé-Reinemer operation gained international recognition and was presented with numerous accolades when Gallé works were exhibited at three major expositions in the late 19th century: the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris.
Gallé’s Elaborate Art Nouveau Furniture Designs
Gallé’s involvement with woodworking and furniture began around 1885. He came across imported exotic woods in search of plinth materials for his small objects and saw the potential in them. He soon established his own workshop to build furniture using imported woods of various origins and appearances. Ultimately, Gallé accumulated hundreds of different types of woods in a range of colors, shades, and grains in order to create pieces of furniture that would meet his high standards of beauty. With multiple employees working on different stages of furniture building, Gallé developed a streamlined operation and machines were also employed for parts of the manufacturing process. This method drew criticism from members of the English Arts & Crafts community, who overwhelmingly emphasized a return to handcrafted furniture production. Nevertheless, Gallé continued his furniture making venture with supreme quality in mind.
In Art Nouveau Furniture, Alastair Duncan also references Gallé’s remarks on this matter from La Revue des Arts Décoratifs (1900): “New perspectives have been realized by the processes of carving, drilling, moulding and engraving by sandblasting, and gouging, all more rapid and economical than manually. The naturalist school should not ignore honest principles which offer inestimable advantages […] The economics of the machine, as frequently seen in our epoch, provide a greater saving in costs than the additional grace and beauty warrants.”
Gallé often collaborated with like-minded artists and makers in Nancy, including Victor Prouvé (1858-1943), who produced glassware and furniture designs for Gallé. Despite the selective use of machinery, Gallé held up the same principle of only utilizing motifs taken directly from nature and shunning anything artificial. As a result, Gallé furniture boasts incredibly lifelike details; the overall high degree of craftsmanship elevates these wooden creations to works of art. No surfaces are spared from rich ornamentation, which is always expertly designed and executed.
In the auction of The Ira Simon Collection: Sold for the Benefit of the Art Institute of Chicago on April 27, the rare Libellules (Dragonflies) hall console (Lot 203) is a prime example of Gallé’s excellence in design. The center leg in the shape of a dragonfly captures the attention of a viewer. The bulbous eyes, textured wings, and raised prothorax support the table top while the segmented abdomen seamlessly flows down to the ground. The ornamental frame at top with cut-out carvings of dragonflies in flight adds a dramatic effect. Even more dragonflies appear to be flying across the sky at sunset through the middle as inlaid adornment. The back panels as well as the middle and bottom shelves bear bold iris decoration with butterflies hovering about. Two small drawer pulls are also in the shape of butterflies. In typical Gallé fashion, the console provides a feast for the eyes with every inch adorned with naturalistic decorative elements and no surface left blank.
For the Gallé étagère (Lot 204), one would have to observe every corner to discover each of the small creatures and plants hidden in plain sight. Looking at this form, its true-to-life inlaid thistle decoration on the lower-left, front cabinet door catches the eye most of all. The inlaid decoration in fact extends to the side of the étagère, where the plants are seen on a steep hill. Many carved bats can be found from the four feet to a cut-out decorative panel in the middle. A large moth is attached between the bottom shelves, while a snail crawls down the middle divider. Behind the snail are more inlaid panels featuring sunflower marquetry design. Above the slender support columns, each coiled in different places, acanthus leaves adorn the four top corners. Although the purpose of an étagère is to display decorative objects, it is not an overstatement to say this Gallé piece is itself a work of art.
As for the Vitrine aux Blés (Wheat Showcase) /
display cabinet (Lot 207), it features bold details from top to bottom. The gallery on its crown is adorned with a cast-bronze, cut-out frieze of five butterflies. Delicately carved wheat is placed over the glass door and two larger-than-life heads of wheat adorn the side edges of the display case. The back panel inside the cabinet has inlaid grass decoration while the bottom front and side panels show morning glory flowers. The juxtaposition of asymmetrical elements creates a harmonious and satisfying ensemble.
L’École de Nancy and the Design Legacy of Émile Gallé
Beyond his individual contributions within Art Nouveau, Émile Gallé was committed to creating a strong community of artisans and craftsmen in his hometown of Nancy, aiming to establish a “provincial alliance of the industries of art.” His efforts came to fruition when the École de Nancy opened its doors in 1901 in collaboration with other highly accomplished artists and designers in the vicinity, including Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), Antonin Daum (1864-1930), and Eugène Vallin (1856-1922).
Although Gallé passed away in 1904, shortly after the École de Nancy was founded, his business as well as the school persevered until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After the war, Gallé’s son-in-law took over the company, but he lacked the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing market and was eventually pushed out of the business, with all operations eventually ceasing in 1936.
Gallé strove for perfection in his art and business and it is safe to say his visions came true during his lifetime. His innovative production techniques and styles greatly influenced other makers throughout France. His artistry and legacy are still widely recognized around the world and his works are desired among museums, scholars, and collectors alike.