Almeric Walter was born in Sèvres in 1870 and is famous for his work in pâte-de-verre glass. His father and grandfather were painters of ceramic and Almeric grew up with a firm foundation in 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 mould 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 Sévres, 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, prior to the first century AD. At its simplest, the process includes filling a refractory mould with granules of glass, heating the glass in a kiln until the grains fuse into a single mass, cooling and breaking away the mould, followed by cleaning and selective polishing of the glass. The benefit of this method is that colors can be specifically placed within the mould, creating elaborate decorative coloring. The difficulties of the process are numerous; mould breakdown, imprecise temperature control, unwanted color flow, gaps in the fused glass, inability to view glass during firing due to mould, destruction of mould during firing process, and difficult color placement in a three-dimensional mould. Walter produced editions of his pâte-de-verre pieces, which means he either perfected the ability to reproduce the moulds and waxes in quantity, or in keeping with his formal ceramic training, created a master mould from which to make numerous wax copies. He also excelled at placing and keeping different colored glass exactly where he wanted them. He developed a glass paste with a high level of lead, which created a softer glass which fired at a lower temperature. This was ground into a very fine paste and painted on the inside of the mould before filing and firing.
Following his schooling, Walter went on to work for a factory in town, 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 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 moulding 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 Freres glass studio in Nancy, offered to buy the rights to Walter’s methods. Walter began working for Daum in 1904, teaming up with designer Henri Berge to perfect the color strength of the glass.
Walter was offered a studio, kiln, and use of the factories 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 of 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 One. After which Walter decided not to return to Daum, but to establish his own studio. The separation was amicable and Walter was permitted to use the models and techniques developed at Daum freely. Walter, in a practice started during his time at Daum, commissioned various sculptors to assist with mould making, and always acknowledged their contributions. Long time 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 between 1920 and 1930 at his studio 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 experiences 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 consumer’s 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. Almeric 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.