A Seminal Figure

May 31, 2013  |  Phyllis Schiller


René Lalique Art Nouveau enamel and rose cut and old mine diamond dog collar plaque mounted in 18-karat gold, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2013.

With a career that encompassed two artistic disciplines, René Jules Lalique was a jewelry designer and glassmaker extraordinaire. His fame for many rests on the decorative glass objects he created, from perfume bottles to vases, chandeliers and much, much more. But his sumptuous Art Nouveau creations, while less numerous, encapsulated the aesthetics of a glorious period in jewelry making.
   Born on April 6, 1860, in the rural French town of Ay, Lalique showed an early talent for drawing. An apprenticeship with Parisian jeweler Louis Aucoc taught him the basics of jewelry making. But, points out Yvonne Markowitz, Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it was his studies in England at the Sydenham Art College that helped shape his artistic viewpoint. “He came under the influence of John Ruskin and the Arts & Crafts designers, who were creating wonderful, decorative art where the emphasis was on design and hand-fabrication as opposed to the preciousness of the materials.” Once back in Paris, Lalique turned out high-style diamond jewelry for major jewelers such as Boucheron and Cartier, but the two years he spent in England, says Markowitz, “gave him a new attitude.”

   In 1885, Lalique bought the workshop of retiring jeweler Jules Destape. During the next years, he found his artistic voice, exhibiting pieces that showcased his daring use of nontraditional materials. “He began looking at materials not typically associated with high style, such as horn and wood,” notes Markowitz. “And he began to experiment. He was also influenced by Japanese art, the wood block prints and metalwork. He was an artist on the cutting edge, inspired by what was around him.”
   At the same time, continues Markowitz, Lalique was developing his glassmaking artistry. “He only made jewelry for about ten years and then he became a glassmaker. But a lot of his experiments with glass occurred during the jewelry years. He used molded glass and sometimes the glass is hollowed and enameled on the surface. There is a beautiful delicacy, a soft palette of colors. Pieces have very complex constructions often made separately and then riveted together.”
   By the 1890s, Lalique had moved to larger premises and counted among his clientele the famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt and Calouste Gulbenkian, a wealthy art collector who commissioned numerous pieces now on display at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Lalique also designed pieces for Siegfried Bing’s influential Maison de l’Art Nouveau. In1905, Lalique opened a retail store at the upscale Place de Vendôme. By 1915, he began concentrating on glasswork, occasionally turning out mass-produced, molded-glass jewelry. Lalique passed away on May 5, 1945, in Paris. The company continues today.

   While most jewelers of the day were either fabricators or designers, Lalique, Markowitz explains, was both. “His pieces are beautifully executed. They are works of art in themselves, achieving the highest standard of design and meticulous fabrication. As typical of Art Nouveau jewelry, the reverses of the pieces are beautifully decorated so that when you look at the undersides, sometimes there’s beautiful chasing of the gold, a continuation of designs from the front onto the back. I think it’s probably the most sophisticated jewelry ever made.”
   Points out Daphne Lingon, senior vice president, New York jewelry department, Christie’s, “Lalique brought an artistic vision that was so fresh and so new that it surpassed everything else. He took it to a different level…the workmanship and the quality were exacting. His use of such uncommon materials — the glass and the horn, enamels, nonprecious materials, gemstones chosen not for their value but coloration and transparency — is so unusual and different that he really stands out. If diamonds and precious stones were used, they were accents.”
   Lalique resurrected old techniques, says Markowitz, like plique-a-jour (“open to the light”), a much earlier, seventeenth-century French enameling method. “It’s not so hard doing plique on pieces that are flat but when it’s on curved surfaces, it’s a lot more complicated and his enamelists perfected that.”
   Lalique favored pastels, continues Markowitz. And there were certain stones he liked, such as opals. “He was a colorist, like Louis Comfort Tiffany, and opals were very appealing because you could get opals that look blue green but have a red-orange fire.”
   “When I think of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” says Lingon, “I think of the peacock colors, blues and greens, bold strong colors. When I think of Lalique, I think of a softer pastel palette, or, if the colors are strong, they’re the ones I associate with femininity, like purple.”
   According to Jeff Cohen, N. Green and Sons, Chicago, Illinois, “Lalique’s pieces were very defined; the gold always had great movement, curves, turns. You can spot the early pieces because of the goldwork techniques — not high polish gold finishes but more of a light, brushed texture. His colors in enamels were blues and reds and violets, what you’d see in nature. Dragonflies’ wings were realistic plique-a-jour greens. When you hold some of those pieces to the light, it’s like looking at stained glass.”

   Lalique’s organic interpretations embraced all sides of nature, points out Markowitz, including wasps, bees and beetles. “When a brooch has flowers, there are bugs on them, and some of the blossoms are at their height and some are beginning to wilt, so you get this sense of being caught in a moment in time.” There is also, Markowitz adds, an emphasis on the female figure, “particularly the dreamy figure, like Ophelia, or women surrounded by poppies.”
   Lingon adds a third category of motifs — fantastical metamorphoses that combine, for example, a woman’s head with an insect’s body. Agrees Cohen, “in some early Lalique pieces, the woman has wings or the body of a dragonfly. He incorporated both nature and the female form, associating them both with beauty. He was a master jeweler and a master artist.”
   “A piece of Lalique jewelry is unlike anything produced at any other time,” sums up Markowitz. “His jewelry was of the moment. A great Lalique piece immediately says 1900 France and all the images that conjures. Lalique was a seminal figure in what was an extraordinary, if brief, period in jewelry history.”


A Seminal Figure

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