The Craftsmanship Of Émile Gallé: “Chardons des Sables” Chest of Drawers
Émile Gallé, was a renowned French artist, universally considered to be one of the major thought leaders and innovators of the Art Nouveau movement, most known for his work with glass. Though his designs of Art Nouveau glass art are truly masterpieces, he excelled with furniture as well, creating stunning pieces that were both artful and useful in the home.
Born in 1846 in Nancy, France, what was later to become the hub of Art Nouveau’s most prolific artists, Émile Gallé was almost perfectly born into the movement as the son of a merchant of glassware and ceramics. The budding young artist studied philosophy, botany, and natural science, but, at sixteen, went to work for the family business with his father, making floral designs and emblems for faience and glass. While there, he became fascinated with drawings of plants, flowers, animals, and insects, which are all apparent in his later artistic works, both in glass and in furniture. Some of his works during his time at the family factory were displayed at the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, marking his first foray into exhibiting his art to the general public.
After a brief stint in military service during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Émile Gallé ventured to London and Paris, where he represented his father and the family business at exhibitions there, being exposed to a number of different cultures that the cities were exploring at the time. Following additional travels through Switzerland and Italy, he returned to his birthplace in Nancy and established his own workshop at the family glass factory, where he gradually took charge of the design and production before taking over officially in 1874. By 1883, he had built new sections into the existing workshop that he inherited, officially expanding into furniture. From this time period onwards, he expanded by opening a shop in Paris, London, and Frankfurt, and took part in numerous exhibitions, for which his work was critically acclaimed and won numerous awards. The 1900 Paris Universal Exposition was considered to be the peak of his fame, where he was awarded two Grand Prizes, a Gold Medal, and the title of a commander in the Legion of Honor. The following year, Gallé became the founder and first President of the École de Nancy, an organization of Nancy artists that included Antonin Daum, Louis Majorelle, and Eugene Vallin, dedicated to furthering and expanding the French Art Nouveau movement.
Émile Gallé’s interest in wood can be traced back to 1885, shortly after he took over the family business. As he looked for exotic woods to make sculpted bases for his glass vases, he was intrigued by the extraordinary variety of colors and qualities of the woods imported into Europe from colonies around the world, later gathering a collection of over six hundred wood varieties, which he used to create marquetry in the exact color, shade, and grain he wanted. In his workshop, he employed experienced carpenters, sculptors, varnishers, and experts in marquetry, as well as craftsmen in bronze and iron to craft hardware for his furniture pieces. Gallé trained the craftsmen himself, sending them water colors of floral designs he made from his extensive botany collection, ordering them to use only real flowers and plants as their models. He wrote in 1889, "It is necessary to have a pronounced bias in favour of models taken from flora and fauna, while giving them free expression."
Following this belief, Émile Gallé’s furniture was executed to include every detail and motif including designs of flora and fauna taken directly from nature. Paired with his scientific studies and background as a botanist, he combined his passions as an artist, resulting in rare species of plants being depicted throughout his works. From 1895 to 1904, Gallé’s fluid lines and elaborate marquetry work became infused with elaborate sculptural elements and Asian inspiration. The influence of Japanese art is due, in large part, to his friendship with Hokkai Takashima, a fellow botanist and member of École de Nancy, with whom he shared a botanical dialogue on the book, Shokobutsu mei-i, which held Japanese names for numerous botanical species that Gallé was inspired by throughout his works. The two artists shared a love for a spiritual and symbolic understanding of nature, and something exhibited together in various display windows. It was also around this time when extremely naturalist Japanese objects of the Meiji period, originally discovered in France at the Universal Exhibition of 1867 in Paris, influenced and moved Gallé.
The influence of Japanese art, combined with his own French heritage, is acutely displayed in Émile Gallé's “Chardons des Sables,” or “Sand Thistles,” chest of drawers, which was crafted in 1903, a year before his tragic death brought on by Leukemia. Much of Gallé's later works, including this one, used symbolism and expressed conflict and issues surrounding mortality. The chest of drawers’ central “Sand Thistle” motif alludes to a passage in Victor Hugo’s poem, Les contemplations, Paroles sur la dune, from 1854 (translated to English from French):
Now that, like candlelight, my lifetime wanes
And my tasks are complete;
Now that I, passing years and faced with pains,
Find the grave at my feet,
I watch, high over mountaintop and vale
And ever-surging sea,
Before the beak of that vulture the gale,
The woolen clouds all flee.
So I reflect, hearing the wind's harsh roar,
And the wave''s boundless power
Though summer smiles, and on the sandy shore,
See the blue sand thistle flower.
Like Victor Hugo, Émile Gallé’s sand thistles on the marquetry frontispiece are towards the end of their blooming season. Most of the flower heads have turned dark brown, and three have detached from their rosettes only to blow away in the ocean gale. To understand the extent of Gallé's thematic dedication, one need only look at a blackened sand thistle leaf located in the center back of the commode top. The leaf is of the same value as the aqueous background, rendering it nearly imperceptible. Though seemingly a superfluous detail, the leaf's inclusion completes the piece's narrative: the plant, like the artist, fades into oblivion. While his prior explorations of land-and-sea scenery relied heavily on allegory and ornate, high-relief carving, the "Chardons des Sables" commode is a prime example of Émile Gallé’s aesthetic maturation into a thoroughly modern artist. Gone are the ink and shellac outlines and the sand-shaded wood, and instead, Gallé has taken advantage of the striations, figuring, and coloration of the natural veneer.
The "Chardons des Sables" chest of drawers stands on four short legs with five long drawers in a carcass of walnut. The first and fifth drawer feature umbelliferae friezes, while the second and fourth drawer fronts are veneered with marquetry panels showing sand thistles in front of the sea. The sky background of the second and third drawers utilizes Burmese rosewood, with “storied rays” showcased beautifully in tropical hardwood. For the background of the commode's frontispiece, this ray patterning serves as a secondary pattern to the dominant dark veining; although the sky and sea are represented by different wood species, the storied rays imbue the piece with visual harmony. The striation terminates two-thirds of the way down the third drawer, mimicking the way in which clouds merge into a continuous layer in the deep background, and represent a remarkably seamless transition between the sky and the undulating ripples of the sea. The characteristic dark-veined, swirled-grain, rotary-cut pattern, combined with the pommele markings present throughout, distinguish the wood as Bubinga, a wood sourced from Equatorial Africa with a chatoyant, or changeable luster, effect. The resulting sheen simulates the way that light dapples across the water, ideal for Gallé's desired representation of the ocean.
This work stands out, not only in its exceptional artistic technique, but also marks the culmination of Gallé's scientific career, with its realistic interpretations of the flora and fauna of the scene. While Gallé previously depicted other species of brittle stars, here he has chosen to depict the long-arm, spined Ophiothrix fragilis, or Hairy Brittle Star. Using an astounding economy of means, Gallé articulated these spines using the natural wood texture of the Cocos nucifera, or Red Coconut Palm. The contrasting red-brown, black and light gray-brown fibrovascular bundles of the Coconut Palm respectively articulate the negative space between the spines of the Hairy Brittle Star, the shadows of each individual spine, and the delicate mucosal spines themselves. In another instance of material specificity, the bumpy reproductive nodes on the Bladderwrack seaweed are rendered by Gallé using birdseye-figured Acer saccharum, or Sugar Maple wood.
Émile Gallé's choice of motifs on this chest of drawers’ goes far beyond scientific interest in morphological accuracy. Integral to Gallé's work here in the macchia shrubland scene is the dissimilarity of the stiff and flexible, the brittle and fluid. The Hairy Brittle Stars have sinuous flexing arms, while the thick stem of the sand thistle reads to the viewer as underwater kelp in this milieu. At the point in which the elaborate marquetry of the marine becomes flora, and flora becomes marine, the conceptual unity of the piece reaches its culmination, making it a truly special and functional work of art.