René Lalique’s "L'Anémone des Bois" Brooch
The French artist René Lalique was widely known for his creations of glass, including glass art, perfume bottles, vases, chandeliers, clocks, automobile hood ornaments (for brands like Bentley, Hispano, Suiza, and Bugatti), and, of course, jewelry, which helped to define the aesthetic of the Art Nouveau movement. Widely revered and influential in the decorative arts, Lalique’s glass work has a naturalistic exactness while also exhibiting stylized, elegant lines and ornamentation.
Designing pieces of jewelry as a freelance jewelry designer for notable French houses starting in 1881, including Cartier and Boucheron, he moved to open his own business in 1885, later also creating works for Samuel Bing’s Paris shop, the Maison de L’Art Nouveau, better known as the namesake of the Art Nouveau period. The name Lalique came to evoke the brilliance of jewelry, the wonder of transparency and the brilliance of crystal. A former apprentice to craftsman and jeweler, Louis Aucoc, it was with Aucoc when he learned jewelry-making techniques that he expanded on in his studies at École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. At the time, he broke from jewelry-making tradition by including innovative materials in his pieces; at the time, originality and creativity had been abandoned in favor of more lavish styles with precious stones, but Lalique made the materials he used central to his designs, choosing them for their power, light, and color, as opposed to considering how precious they were. He rejected the trend for diamonds in grand settings, and instead focused on using gemstones like bloodstones, tourmalines, carnelians, and chrysoberyls, together with plique-á-jour enameling for his creations. He combined gold and gemstones with semi-precious stones, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and horn, in addition to enamel and glass. He was the first to pair semi-precious stones with ivory, pearl, coral, enamel, and even glass.
Over the coming decade, René Lalique forged his reputation, winning competitions, exhibiting his work to critical acclaim and creating jewelry for well-known entertainers, such as actress Sarah Bernhardt. His long standing desire to “create something that had never been seen before,” earned him the accolade of “inventor of modern jewelry.” He revolutionized jewelry styles of the period, successfully introducing new materials, becoming a favorite of socialites and being admired by even the most distinguished of his fellow jewelers, with his work being commissioned by the great courts of the time and collected by the world’s wealthy. Lalique's trademark style features fluid lines that resemble the movement of water, and the colors he chose, such as plum, turquoise, yellow, and black, make him the indisputable master of Art Nouveau jewelry design. His favorite motifs were women, animals, and flowers, creating pieces with elegant and fantastic designs, with remarkably few precious stones, reacting against machine production of more manneristic jewelry at the time. At the Paris International Exhibition in 1900, his Art Nouveau brooches and combs attracted great attention from the French elite.
This exquisite “L'Anémone des Bois” brooch is an important example of René Lalique’s early work, even predating his international debut at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. While his most prolific version of the anemone motif was the “Anémone Couronnée,” or poppy anemone, only a few choice pieces depict the “Anémone des Bois” or wood anemone, like this piece. Unlike the poppy anemone, which grew in the balmy Mediterranean summer, the wood anemone was known to the French as the harbinger of spring.
Created circa 1897, the "L'Anémone des Bois" brooch, considered to be a French Art Nouveau masterwork brooch by Lalique, is composed of 18K gold, showcasing Lalique's mastery of plique-à-jour enamel, and also represents one of his earliest explorations of the art of molded glass. The brooch is accented by two oval-cut faceted aquamarines, weighing approximately 8.10 and 3.75 carats. More than any technical mastery or gemological import, the brooch is distinguished by its aesthetics and its deep meaning.
While the forest floor lay dormant, the wood anemone alone reared its small head. Areas where the poor could pick this humble flower were demarcated with signs reading "Les Halles." The wood anemone lined the border of the forest, enticing promenading couples into the forest's embrace for an afternoon tryst. Pure white anemones thus became a symbol of virginal purity, mourning its imminent profanity by carnal desire.
René Lalique knew these traditions well from spending his childhood and summer holidays in the commune of Aÿ in Marne, located on a plateau overlooking the hillsides of Champagne. Two forests dominated the Marne landscape; to the west lay the old-growth forest of Sermiers, and to the east lay La forêt domaniale du Chêne à la Vierge. Promenading in the forest was a popular Sunday pastime for locals, especially as a way to escape the unrelenting dry heat of the noonday sun.
René Lalique expanded upon the theme of carnal desire, using the anemone to allegorize the stages of courtship. Our “Anémone des Bois” marked the beginning of this five-year-long exploration. With its petals slightly closed, the flower embodies the initial "rejet" or rejection of love. Fitting of a depiction of "rejet" the work epitomizes divine symmetry and youthful vigor. The flower's posture relates to local wisdom: villagers could tell rain was coming when the Anémone des Bois closed its petals. By closing its petals, the flower rebuffs the words and sexual advances of the man.
The second anemone in the series has its petals in disarray but receptive to potential pollination. An anemone in this position embodied "l'acceptation de l'amour" or the acceptance of love. The third anemone is the most sensual of the series, two anemones approach a passionate kiss, embodying the "consommation" or consummation. The final anemone in the series was completed in 1901. Titled "Mort de l'anémone" it is Lalique's only representation of the blue anemone. Through the consummation, its petals have been dyed and its purity defiled. In macabre detail, the skeletal structure of the anemone's rhizomes, or underground stems, are put on full view. The plant has been uprooted, and the encounter has finished. Contemporary novelist Émile Pouvillon related the death of the anemone to the act of deflowering in his 1895 short story "Les Anémones sont Mortes." The story's heroine, a young country girl, loses herself in a bout of unrestrained euphoria with her lover. In their rolling about, "Anémones des Bois" are ripped out and bruised.
At the 1898 Salon, the first Anémone des Bois was a critical triumph. Displayed with the second and third anemone in the series, the first was favored for its fully articulated plique-à-jour leaves. In the premier French decorative arts magazine Art et Décoration, the Anémone des Bois was praised for its "candid whiteness" and leaves that suggest "an infinitely complicated and precious architecture."
Our Anémone des Bois, from circa 1897, is resplendent with the technical acuity that made Lalique known as the "master of modern bijoux [jewelry]." In his early years, Lalique personally designed and modeled each mold for his creations in clay. These molds were then cast in iron and coated with a paste of resin and beeswax, hand-tooled for detail. The finish pressed-glass jewel was submerged in a bath of hydrofluoric acid, frosting the exterior. A thin layer of "jade green" powdered enamel was sifted and annealed onto the piece. The venation of each petal was painstakingly cut, revealing the plain crystal underneath. The warm glow of the gold backing gives the piece a breathtaking amber hue.
Both private commission and commercial works of René Lalique are in the collections of a number of public museums around the world, including the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Lalique museum of Hakone in Japan, the Musée Lalique and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in France, the Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim in Germany, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum and the Corning Museum in New York State, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.