At the turn of the 20th century, the flora and fauna of the sea, oceans and rivers was one of the motifs adopted in the revival of the decorative arts: critics and commentators agreed it offered a fruitful source of new and original, natural forms.
Emile Gallé was no exception, as during the last years of his life he focused on developing marine subjects as decorations for his creations.
This theme was not, however, new in his work, as he had used it in the 1870s, but during this period it took on an entirely different dimension, which, in 1904, culminated in the Hand with Seaweed and Shells , of which the Musée d’Orsay has the most accomplished example.
With a cylindrical shape, this vase seems to ripple and swirl, movements enhanced by the engraved decoration. Conjuring up an image of the eddies in shallow water in this way serves as a background for representations of engraved shells, applied, and with some highlighted by the inclusion of gold leaf in the paste.
As was often the case, Gallé chose colours to evoke the underwater depths that were not at all natural - here he uses red.
Contemporary commentators interpreted this polychromy in different ways: the remains of a wreck, light filtered through seaweed, jellyfish or coral, the effects of the sun shimmering on the surface of the water, reflections of mother of pearl, etc., recognising the link between the symbolic dimension and naturalist accuracy that characterised Gallé’s work in this period of his life.
Thus, the aquatic models offered him an endless source of subjects and artistic and technical challenges. But above all, he found in them a pretext for demonstrating his magnificent talents as a glassmaker.