Emile Gallé : Collecting Nature

2018.03.17 — 2018.07.16


The Pola Museum of Art is pleased to present Emile Gallé: Collecting Nature, the first Emile Gallé (1846 – 1904) exhibition at our Museum. The Art Nouveau movement that held sway in France at the end of the 19th century was characterized by curvilinear lines inspired by natural organic forms. Gallé was at the forefront of glass art in this style. He produced a succession of outstanding artworks incorporating his knowledge of the natural sciences, particularly botany and biology, and his outstanding technical expertise. The art production by Gallé, with their plant, insect, animal, and sea creature motifs, can be compared to the act of collecting nature.


Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. Strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Gallé carried out his own studies of insects and plants and perceived of their habitat, the forest, as symbolic of life. The second half of the 19th century saw the popularity of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and advancements in oceanography as well as growing interest in sea ecology. In his latter years, Gallé’s dedication to the themes of the forest and the sea brought him to deep involvement in the art and literature of the Symbolist movement.


This exhibition features around 60 works selected from the collection of the Pola Museum of Art as well as approximately 70 works gathered from Japanese collections. The works span Gallé’s career and highlight his two nature inspired themes of the forest and the sea.


We would like to warmly thank the Woodone Museum of Art, the Kitazawa Museum of Art, The Suntory Museum of Art, the Darvish Gallery Collection, the Hida Takayama Museum of Art, Belle des Belles, the Yamazaki Mazak Museum, and The University Museum, the University of Tokyo, as well as private collectors who all generously lent important works for the exhibition. We are grateful to all concerned who cooperated to make this exhibition possible.

Section I. The Attraction of Enamel Colors

Emile Gallé was born on May 4, 1846 in Nancy, northeastern France. His father, Charles Gallé, owned a glass and tableware manufacturing plant that produced traditional designs in Louis XVI and Rococo styles, and was honored as a ‘Purveyor to the Imperial Court” by the court of Emperor Napoleon III in 1866. While inheriting solid management skills and glass manufacturing and decoration techniques from his father, Gallé was also influenced by his mother, Fanny, from whom he developed a deep love of nature.


Gallé took over his father’s business in 1877. Departure from his father’s style was first noticed at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition where he was awarded the Bronze Medal. The transparent bluish “moonlight” glass he produced with technology he developed gained him influence and earned him popularity in the world market.


Gallé’s technique that allowed application of enamel color to a transparent glass base played a central role in his early and middle periods. It involved firing glassware to which patterns and designs were drawn with a mixture of crushed colored glass and oil. Gallé experimented constantly, exploring various materials and chemical reactions, and developing enamel pigments in an array of colors and transparencies.

Emile Gallé, Vase with Grasshopper Design, ca. 1878 Suntory Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Vase with Thistle Design, ca. 1884 Pola Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Ewer with Dragonfly Design, 1874-1889 Hida Takayama Museum of Art

Section II. The Mysterious Forest

Plants, insects, birds, and small animals are dominant motifs of Gallé’s works. He became attracted to such subjects from a young age under his mother’s influence and also impressed by the anthropomorphic flower illustrations by Jean Grandville, an artist also from Nancy.


Since 16th century, there were public gardens in Nancy, where Gallé was raised, such as the Place Stanislas Botanical Garden and the Lorraine University garden. Nancy’s gardens developed dramatically, particularly from the mid-19th century as the town became a center of horticultural research. In such an environment, Gallé as a boy enjoyed gathering and collecting plant specimens with his friend and became deeply interested in botany.
When the Gallé family moved in 1873 to avenue de la Garenne, a garden was constructed on the premises.


Around 2,500 types of plants were planted, including species native to the Lorraine region, but also from North America, China, and Japan as well. A similar garden was built on the premises of Gallé’s workshop. The trees of these gardens and their seasonally blooming flowers appear as motifs of Gallé’s art. More than simply design elements, though, the plant forms were for Gallé an expression of the process evolution, of buds transforming into flowers, and of the life cycle and transience of nature itself. The words carved into the gate of Gallé’s studio, “My roots are in the depths of the forest” (Ma racine est au fond des bois), convey Gallé’s view of the mystery of life and his existence as a human being connected to plants and small insects.

Emile Gallé, Vase with Poppy Design, ca. 1900 Pola Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Footed Vase with Sponge Cucumber Design, 1884-1889 Pola Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Two Handled Vase with Flowers Design, ca. 1895 Pola Museum of Art

Section III. The Extraordinary Sea

Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published as part of his Extraordinary Voyages (Voyages Extraordinaires) series of novels in 1870. Advancements in knowledge of oceanography in the latter half of the 19th century were widely popularized. Illustrated magazines Gallé’s father subscribed to stimulated Gallé’s interest in the sea. Gallé’s factory expanded production in the 1870s and 1880s, giving Gallé a chance to exploit the popular sea themes. He produced traditional designs with motifs of the sea god Neptune, the sea goddess Venus, and seashells. Gallé’s interest in the sea, though, was still limited.


It was only later, in the period from around 1899 to 1904, that he would focus on sea motifs, including Echinodermata such as the starfish and the sea lily. German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms of Nature sparked his interest in phenomenal sea ecology. Haeckel’s own illustrations of marine invertebrates had organic curves similar to Art Nouveau stylistic features. The best examples of such fluid form may have been the illustrations of jellyfish floating freely and elegantly in water as if unaffected by gravity.


The excellent designs in Haeckel’s book inspired Gallé and gave him ideas for the direction of his decorative art. Had Gallé been able to live longer, his knowledge of natural science and of the underwater world would have developed greatly.

Emile Gallé, Vase with Cnidaria Design, 1904-1905 The Yamazaki Mazak Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Large Cup with Jellyfish Design, 1898-1900 Suntory Museum of Art, Kikuchi Collection ©TAKESHI FUJIMORI

Emile Gallé, Vase with Seaweed and Seahorse Design, ca.1905 Pola Museum of Art

Section IV. Beyond Symbolism

After having been awarded the Grand Prize of the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889 and again in 1900, Gallé’s expression became more poetic and dreamlike. He produced many glassworks that are considered as fine works of Symbolist art. His wife Henriette wrote that Gallé was able to transform the nature of decorative art because of his scholarly exploration as an artist of plants, trees, and flowers. Indeed, Gallé sought to achieve innovation in his craft by infusing his art with what he learned from botany and the natural sciences. Further, his depictions of nature were more than faithful representations. His figures of plant and sea creatures contain strong and mysterious implications of Gallé’s own symbolic message.


In contrast to his spectacular successes at the Paris Universal Expositions, Gallé suffered from health problems and troubles in the management of his company. He died at the age of 58 in 1904. Despite having to fight with illness in the last four years of his life, Gallé continued to explore new themes in his artwork. Gallé’s passion was to portray the structure of plants and organisms precisely, and to capture the texture of the atmosphere surrounding them as well as such features as shifts in light during the course of a day or with the changing seasons. Gallé produced countless masterpieces depicting processes of transformation in constantly changing nature, such as the appearance of a flower starting out as a bud and finally withering away.


As a Symbolist artist, Gallé always stressed his love of nature. For Gallé, nature offered a wealth of inspiration that led poets to sing, that spoke to artists deeply concerned with symbolism, and that unraveled mysteries in the world.

Emile Gallé, Footed Cup with Dragonfly Design, ca.1904 The Yamazaki Mazak Museum of Art

Emile Gallé, Pitcher “La Forêt guyanaise”, ca.1903 Private Collection

Emile Gallé, Vase “Hippocampus”, 1901-1903 Kitazawa Museum of Art