Art to Touch One’s Soul

One of the real joys of being of a certain age is the possibility of making new discoveries. Emile Galle is one of mine.  Such a splendorous name! Full of cachet. As if his parents knew he would be headed for a distinguished, even grand path. His name, French of course, should have an accent slanted right over the “E” in Emile and over the “e” in Galle, so that it would be pronounced something like “A-Meal Gall-A.”  When I encountered Galle for the first time a few months ago, I felt immediately compelled to learn about him. Just three pieces of his art glass housed in a gallery display case, sent me scurrying  to the library. My world expanded.

Though Emile Galle died in 1904, his contributions to the world of  decorative art remain quite alive. He gained recognition in his own time and his art is still celebrated in museums around the world. He is credited with being the first glass artist to attach his signature to his work. Toward the end of his short life — he lived just 58 years — he subscribed to and also influenced the Art Nouveau Movement. He experimented freely in order to become an expert in the techniques of glassmaking. To my surprise, this prolific artist worked not only in glass; he also designed and produced memorable wood furniture. He used the technique of marquetry in both.  It is Galle’s glass, however, with which I have become completely enthralled.

When I first encountered those three cameo glass pieces on display at the Seattle Art Museum, their beauty caused me to gasp.  The exquisite coloration of a small, almost luminous dish, light yellow deepening to light gold almost gave off an aura.  It seemed to wear a halo.  Then a small vase with a ruby floral motif entwined around its body. Finally, the tall opaque vase onto which dark maroon leaves and scarlet globes of fruit decorate its white body that shifts to shades of deep orange to amber. It evoked a certain era, one that seemed a little more refined and romantic than our current one. Elegant. I was smitten.

A quick trip to the Internet produced an abundance of information on Galle.  I learned that he had inherited a successful glass enterprise from his father, Charles, who had established it in the Lorraine area of France.  The production of glass had existed there since the late 1400’s. With that history, Emile, who was born in 1846, could easily have focused solely on the manufacture of utilitarian or commercial glass; his factory produced and sold a lot of it. But Emile Galle’s love of nature, his curiosity about the bugs and insects living among the plants and flowers that he inspected on his ventures in Nancy where he lived as a boy, kindled a desire to study botany, which he did, in Germany, after he finished his studies at the local lycee.  Eventually, he was able to incorporate that knowledge and passion for nature into his unique glass art.

Flowers and insects would become the basis for Galle designs on hundreds of beautiful chubby or cylindrical vases, bottles, cruets, ewers, plates, bowls, perfume bottles, lamps, and even cigar cups. Buds that were about to effloresce and blooms and leaves in decay. Nasturtiums and peach blossoms.  Roses and hydrangeas. Lilies and orchids.  Butterflies, cicadas and grasshoppers.  They all made their way into or onto Monsieur Galle’s  layers of glass.  Who would imagine that spindly legs and beady little insect eyes could adorn a vase or dish that would end up in museums visited by thousands of people from around the world? His imagination and understanding of the natural world applied to limited edition glass objects could even touch the soul.

Photos on the Internet and in some of the several books on Emile Galle give testimony to the variety of this prolific French artist’s designs. But whether colored in the lightest pale pink or sky blue, in orange or a misty lavender, tender representations of nature added to or embedded in the surface of the glass make these pieces unique.  A lamp in the shape of a mushroom incorporates a bronze base curling up a green stem, for example, and seed pods attach to the mushroom “shade.”  Branches and leaves in various phases of growth or  decay, provide a connection to the natural world.  Japanese and Egyptian art designs and philosophy all influenced Galle, helping him to achieve the artistic results he desired. Those subtle influences, combined with the effort he put into learning new techniques, and the expert carvers and souffleurs de verre that he employed, allowed Galle to create pieces that gained him a reputation in his own lifetime and beyond.

Undoubtedly, the best place to become truly acquainted with Emile Galle would be the Musee de l’Ecole de Nancy in France. According to the museum’s website, more than 450 pieces produced by Galle’s atelier can be found there.  This master of glass, both commercial and limited edition pieces, once served as president of the ecole (school) in this historic city. If unable to travel to Europe, Galle’s glass art can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Art Institute, The Minneapolis  Art Institute, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at The Seattle Art Museum, and probably at several others.

copyright 2015 by Raunig-Graham