Monday, December 23, 2013

The Time of the Star

The museum collection contains nearly a dozen pieces by the famed French glassmaker, Émile Gallé (1846-1904), one of the major forces in the French Art Nouveau movement.  His pieces, which feature beautiful enamel work (as seen on this example) or cameo glass, received praise beginning with the Paris Exhibition of 1878.  At the height of his popularity, his company in Nancy employed over 400 artisans in his glass division alone.  The firm also manufactured ceramics, furniture and small objets d’art.

The hexagonal barrel-shaped vase, measuring 12-1/2 inches in height, dates to the late 1880s and was originally displayed on the mantel of the bedroom used by the Glessner’s daughter Fanny, as seen above.  (The vase stands at the far left end of the mantel shelf).  It is currently displayed on the dresser in the courtyard bedroom.

An overall design of snow laden bamboo branches, with two brown-toned birds is clearly influenced by Japanese art objects, which Gallé began collecting in 1872.  Gallé first saw nearly 2,000 pieces made by Japanese artisans at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 where he represented his father’s firm, Gallé-Renemer, purveyors of ceramics.  In 1871, still representing his father’s firm, Gallé traveled to London for the Exposition there.  During that time, he visited the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) and saw their Japanese collection.

The process of creating a piece such as this began with the creation of the design which would be transferred to the body of the vase using a sepia-colored paint.  The piece was then fired at a low temperature to affix the design to the body, a process called “le petit feu,” or little firing.  Enamel was then applied following the sepia lines.  Two types of enamels were used - translucent enamels which could be fired at a medium temperature, and opaque enamels which required a much higher one.  A single piece might require several separate firings.  This piece features enameling in blue, gold, green, brown, and black.

If the piece was to be engraved as well, this process followed enameling.  Occasionally, a portion of the piece might be flashed (covered with a thin sheet of glass of a different color from the body) then engraved to let the underbody show through.  This can be seen at the base of the vase where the layer of “snow” is etched with the Gallé name. 

Gallé was a deeply religious man, and many of his pieces feature religious symbols.  This vase features the Chi-Rho, one of the oldest Christograms, consisting of the Greek letters chi (x) and rho (p), the first two letters of Christ in Greek.  Above the Christogram are found the Latin words “Tempus Stellae,” meaning “time of the star.”  The phrase is taken from the story of the arrival of the wisemen in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child.  The Latin version of Matthew 2: 7, “Tunc Herodes clam vocatis magis diligenter didicit ab eis tempus stellae quae apparuit eis” when translated into English reads,  “Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them.”

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