René Lalique – Enchanted by Glass at the Corning Museum of Glass
By Kelley Jo Elliott, Curator
Glass is a wonderful substance. Everything makes it an incomparable plastic medium in the hands of an ingenious artist, offering his imagination and talent almost limitless scope for discovery.
From 1884, when his first jewelry designs were displayed at the Musée du Louvre, until his death, René Lalique (French, 1860–1945) created stunningly beautiful and original objects, first in the Art Nouveau style and later in the Art Deco style. He embraced change, set fashion, and created and nurtured a company whose products were made not only for the rich and powerful, but for the middle-class consumer.
Lalique was a master artist and designer who sought to create beautiful objects that incorporated a variety of materials. But the medium he preferred was glass. He studied the properties of glass in order to achieve his artistic vision, and he used a variety of glassmaking techniques to make his works. Although Lalique was an innovator in the mechanized making of glass objects, it would be incorrect to identify his works as mass produced, for every object was handled by hand at multiple stages of its production. This customized production is what sets Lalique glass apart in beauty and quality.
Born in 1860, Lalique spent his childhood exploring the fields, forests, and gardens of Ay, a rural village in northeast France. He attended school in Paris, where he became skilled at drawing, and at age 12, he won first prize in a drawing competition. After his father died in 1876, Lalique worked for two years as an apprentice to the esteemed jeweler Louis Aucoc (French, 1850–1932). At Aucoc’s studio, he learned the skills necessary to be a master jeweler and goldsmith.
By 1885, Lalique was a well-known jeweler in Paris, and by 1891, he had begun to research and experiment with glass. Glass was a more forgiving and less expensive material to work with, compared to ivory or gemstones, and it was an endless source of inspiration for Lalique.
Lalique’s first pieces of jewelry were in the style known by the French as joaillerie, in which settings and compositions were designed to enhance and highlight precious stones and metals. Eventually, Lalique and other French art nouveau jewelers would become known for a different type of jewelry called bijouterie. Bijouterie focused on the overall composition and color of the jewelry, incorporating into the design combinations of semi-precious stones and nontraditional materials such as horn, bone, enamel, and glass. Once Lalique transitioned to a career in glass, he never completely abandoned his love for jewelry, which he later created using pressed-glass elements.
The apex of Lalique’s jewelry career can be traced to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, an influential world’s fair that was attended by over 50 million international visitors. There, 100 examples of Lalique’s original art nouveau jewelry and objets d’art were exhibited.
By 1909, Lalique was producing elegant glass perfume bottles for the famed French parfumer, François Coty (French, 1874–1934), and designed some 16 bottles and stoppers for Coty perfumes between 1909 and 1913. He continued to produce bottle designs through the 1930s for perfumes made by Gabilla, Guerlain, Lucien Lelong, D’Orsay, Roger & Gallet, Worth, and others. Lalique also designed scent bottles under his own name—unassociated with a specific company—into which consumers could put their favorite fragrance. Lalique’s success with the French perfume industry set the master jeweler firmly on the path to becoming a master glassmaker.
In order to keep up with production, Lalique rented a larger glass factory in the Paris suburb of Combs-la-Ville in 1909. In addition to perfume bottles, Lalique designed and produced decorative vases, tableware, lighting fixtures, automobile mascots, architectural glass, and desk, smoking and dressing table accessories.
Lalique’s first all-glass display in his showroom at the Place Vendôme was in December, 1912. For the opening, he designed a dark green, pressed-glass medallion as an invitation. One side of the medallion was impressed with a relief decoration of mistletoe; the other bore the inscription: “Invitation to the Exhibition of Glass by R. Lalique in December 1912, 24 Place Vendôme, Paris.” A 1912 catalog by the Norwegian art critic and arts commissioner J. Nilsen Laurvik complimented Lalique’s judicious use of the machine in his glass production.
Herein lies the true strength of René Lalique, whose accomplished craftsmanship has enabled him to utilize the services of the machine without in the least affecting the artistic quality of his productions. In his hands it is no longer mechanically meaningless; it has become a tool of the artist wherewith he may communicate his ideas to a greater number than was ever possible to the craftsman of old.
J. Nilsen Laurvik. René Lalique.
New York: Haviland & Co., 1912, p. 12.
In 1913, Lalique hired the sculptor Maurice Bergelin to manage his cire perdue (lost wax) casting and blowing workshop. In 1914, with Bergelin’s help, Lalique applied for a patent related to the production of cire perdue. To create a cire perdue object, the first step is to create a positive wax model. The wax is covered with a refractory clay or plaster mix and allowed to dry. It is then heated to permit the wax to melt out of the interior, resulting in a hollow mold. Glass is then introduced into the mold, either by being blown or by being cast, and is then slowly cooled (annealed). Finally, the mold is carefully chipped away from the glass, leaving behind a one-of-a-kind object.
In 1921, Lalique completed construction on a new factory in the Alsatian town of Wingen-sur-Moder, in eastern France. Glassmaking was already an established industry throughout the Alsace region, so Lalique was able to recruit local glassmakers to work at his factory. At the Wingen plant, which is still in operation today, the scale and quantity of Lalique’s glass production increased.
The social role of women dramatically shifted in the 1920s. This New Woman voted, drove cars, was more relaxed in her behavior and appearance, and she often smoked. Among the pressed-glass items that Lalique designed in the 1920s were ashtrays and smoking accessories marketed to the New Woman, as well as glass radiator caps, or automobile mascots.
Lalique was drawn to glass for its unique properties, one of which is its ability to transmit, reflect, and diffuse light. He used this inherent quality of glass to great effect in his lighting designs. Of the 16 patents applied for and issued to Lalique during his career, four involved the use of light.
One of the most recognizable Lalique objects is the vase. Between 1909 and 1942, Lalique designed over 450 different styles of vases, using three glassworking techniques: mold-blowing, mold-pressing, and blowing into a cire perdue (lost wax) mold.
Although Lalique applied for, and received, a number of patents related to the mechanized making of glass objects, it would be incorrect to identify them as mass produced, for every object was worked by hand at multiple stages of its production.
Just as the 1900 Exposition universelle marked the apex of Lalique’s career as a jeweler, the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes marked the apex of his career as a glassmaker. Lalique’s glass was displayed throughout this groundbreaking exposition in Paris, which defined, and gave its name to, the art deco style. Stylized motifs drawn from nature, glorified depictions of machines, bold colors, and scantily-clad, classicizing renditions of the human figure characterized this new artistic trend.
In addition to constructing his own pavilion at the exposition, in which he presented many of his cire perdue vases, Lalique built a 40-foot high, illuminated pressed-glass fountain called Les Sources de France (The Springs of France). The fountain featured large glass statuettes depicting 13 different women from ancient Greek mythology.
Lalique wrote an essay, “Glassware,” as the preface to the exposition’s catalog and guide, in which he praised the exposition’s organizers for including so much glass, and he extolled the virtues and possibilities of glass as a decorative and architectural material.
When asked to describe his creative process in a 1925 interview with the French art critic Maximilien Gauthier, Lalique revealed two of his primary sources of inspiration — women and nature — both of which can be seen in almost every piece of jewelry and glass he designed:
I look, I observe: the woman, the child,
the flight of a bird … a tree harmonious
in the light like a fish in water; suddenly,
the harmony of a form, a pose, a gesture,
a movement, imprints itself in my mind and does not leave, it combines with other compositional elements that I have seen;
when this has been mulled over for a long time in my mind, the work is ripe,
and I have only to pick it.
Maximilien Gauthier. “Le Maître Verrier René Lalique à l’exposition des arts décoratifs.” La Renaissance de l’art français et des industries de luxe, no. 9 (September 1925), p. 419.
Lalique received numerous major commissions for decorative architectural glass for buildings, luxury cruise ships and trains in the 1920s and 1930s. Among these commissions were the decorative glass panels depicting blackbirds and grapes that he designed around 1928 for the Le Train bleu, or the Blue Train, which featured dark blue sleeping cars. This luxury train was built and operated by the Belgian International Sleeping-car Company, owners of the famed Orient Express.
In 1932, Lalique created a large sandblasted glass panel for the Wanamaker’s Men’s Department Store in Philadelphia. John Wanamaker opened Wanamaker’s Department Store in 1877, which was the first department store in Philadelphia, and one of the first in the United States. In 1932, the Men’s Store opened a few blocks away.
With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the international market for luxury goods declined, causing Lalique to permanently close his Combs-la-Ville factory in 1937. Three years later, World War II forced the temporary closure of his factory at Wingen. Lalique died on May 9, 1945, at the age of 85, the day after the Allied victory was declared. The Wingen factory was reopened by his son, Marc Lalique, later that year, an effort that ensured the survival of his father’s company to the present day.