Exposition au musée

Hand With Seaweed and Shells, Emile Gallé's Artistic Testament

From June 16th to September 12th, 2004
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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Emile Gallé-Modèle d'écritoire en faïence à décor de faune et de flore aquatiques : coquillages, hippocampes, ophiures, escargots, anémones et algues
Emile Gallé
Modèle d'écritoire en faience de forme rocaille, à décor de faune et de flore aquatiques, vers 1889
Musée d'Orsay
Don de M. Jean Bourgogne, petit-fils d'Emile Gallé, et de son épouse, 1986
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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When he designed Hand With Seaweed and Shells, Emile Gallé knew he was about to die. Since 1900 he suffered from a "pernicious anaemia" no doubt linked to his professional activity, rife with potential poisons. At the end of his life, this illness had considerably limited the sick man's daily working time, though he continued to produce until the end. Hand With Seaweed and Shells is therefore one of the very last, not to say the last glass creation of the artist.

Anonyme-Emile Gallé écrivant à sa table de travail dans son bureau, 27 avenue de la Garenne
Anonyme
Emile Gallé écrivant à sa table de travail dans son bureau, 27 avenue de la Garenne, vers 1898
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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Born in 1846 in Lorraine, Gallé only discovered the sea and the seaside in 1870, when he served as a young volunteer in Toulon. He was fascinated by the submarine world and very quickly drew his inspiration from it. Up to the end of the 1880s he decorated first his ceramics, then his glass works with aquatic models, thus pursuing the earthenware tradition of the 18th century, as illustrated by this Model for an earthenware writing case with a decor of aquatic fauna and flora (though vegetal and animal motifs are more prominent). He transcribed these with a profound concern for exactitude, a lesson he retained from the craze for Japanese art in 19th-century France. During the 1890s, Gallé's art switched from the "decorative" to the "symbolic". Subject and matter intermingled, became indistinguishable to form an indissociable whole. More than ceramics or cabinetwork, glass, with its malleability, the play on light and shadows and the refined effects it allows then prevailed as the medium most capable of conveying the artist's sentiments. Meanwhile, the rhythm of creations with the theme of submarine flora and fauna intensified, under the double influence of poetry and science.

Emile Gallé-Page manuscrite autographe avec six croquis de vases : Hippocampes
Emile Gallé
Page manuscrite autographe avec six croquis de vases : Hippocampes, vers 1899
Nancy, musée de l'Ecole de Nancy
© Musée de l'école de Nancy

His readings, both literary and scientific, oriented Gallé's contemplation and meditation on nature. This was particularly so for the theme of the sea: as the artist had but few occasions to approach the vast maritime world, his knowledge of it was essentially derived from books.

In one of his manifestos, his nomination speech to the Académie de Stanislas in Nancy, delivered on May 17, 1900 and entitled Symbolic Decor, Gallé insisted on the new possibilities offered by oceanography, a science that was fast developing, to the "modern" decorator: "These secrets of the Ocean are elucidated for us by these brave sounders. They bring in marine harvests that make of laboratories decorative arts workshops, museums of models. They draw, they publish unsuspected materials for the artist, the enamel work and cameos of the sea. Soon the crystalline jellyfish will instil unedited nuances and curves into glass chalices."

Emile Gallé-La main aux algues et aux coquillages (détail)
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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Gallé knew of Darwin's work as early as 1877 and he owned a copy of Nature's Artistic Forms by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), the great German follower of Darwin and pioneer in the study of submarine life.

In the Hand With Seaweed and Shells, the accuracy of the formal rendering of the shells is characteristic of Gallé's "naturalistic" approach. It is surprising and contributes to the disconcerting nature of the piece, for whereas their forms and colourings are assuredly most decorative and contribute to the beauty of the whole, their naturalism is in complete opposition with the impression of unreality given by the hand, the gelatinous texture of which evokes the body of a jellyfish rather than human skin.

Emile Gallé-Vase Les fonds de la mer
Emile Gallé
Vase Les fonds de la mer, 1903
Nancy, musée de l'école de Nancy, collection Jean-Baptiste E. Corbin, don de Jacqueline Corbin, fille du précédent, 1963
© Musée de la ville de Nancy

Gallé's interest in the submarine world was not merely scientific: indeed it seems dominated more by a poetic approach. In the same Symbolic Decor, the submarine world is placed under the auspices of Baudelaire, the poet Gallé most admired and from which he quoted these lines from The Man and the Sea:
"Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
[...]
In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm's hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat."

The theme of the sea is therefore essential in Emile Gallé's work, a fact highlighted through the exhibition as it presents, together with the two known copies of the Hand With Seaweed and Shells, many vases, bowls, dishes, etc. inspired by the aquatic element, as well as documents – sketches, letters, etc. – which are enlightening as to the artist's work and feelings.

Emile Gallé-Vase à décor d'hippocampe et d'algues
Emile Gallé
Vase à décor d'hippocampe et d'algues, vers 1900-1904
Collection de Sa Majesté Margrethe II, reine de Danemark
© Det Kongelige Sølvkammer/ Christiansborg Slot, København, Hofmarskallatet,

Marine motifs provided Gallé with opportunities to renew his repertoire on the occasion of the creation of each new model.
The sea then gave birth to an unlimited range of colours. The sparkling of the waves, the glistening of the mother of pearl or the purple hue of a water full of coral as in the vase The Depths of the Sea are to be found in the objects shaped by Gallé.
Sometimes the composition features unreal colours, like this yellow sea horse in a forest of blue wrack.

During his 1904 exhibition in Nancy the Hand With Seaweed and Shells was displayed in a showcase entitled The Bottoms of the Sea. It was discreetly placed in the middle of other creations designed after marine depths, including a Stemmed bowl with seaweed and shell decor.

Emile Gallé-Coupe sur pied à décor d'algues et de coquillages
Emile Gallé
Coupe sur pied à décor d'algues et de coquillages, 1904
Collection de Sa Majesté Margrethe II, reine de Danemark
© Det Kongelige Sølvkammer/ Christiansborg Slot, København, Hofmarskallatet,

For lack of contemporary documents or testimonies, no definitive interpretation of the work may be offered. Nevertheless the suppositions one may be justified to formulate are enlightening and reveal the complexity of the object and of Gallé's personality.

The formal source of the Hand With Seaweed and Shells must certainly be sought in the field of both Asian and Western religions. The theme of the hand is frequent in the East, in particular in the cult of Buddha. Gallé was at the time in relation with Jean Lahor (a.k.a. Cazalis), a writer deeply in love with Hindu civilisation who tried to bring it to the attention of the French public. But one should also mention the tradition of mediaeval hand-reliquaries and above all the bronze thanksgiving plates common among boatmen of the Greco-Roman world.

Emile Gallé-La main aux algues et aux coquillages (détail)
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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Another possible religious reference is the image of God's hand creating, protecting or punishing. It is also possible to see in this hand a reference to the monarchic arm of the law. For while exalting the beauties of nature, Gallé ceaselessly voiced his indignation. On a glass stove presented at the 1900 World Fair, he inscribed a quote of Hesiod denouncing "Vicious men, (...) forgers and prevaricators", expressing his desire for justice at the highest peak of the Dreyfus affair.

If the Hand With Seaweed and Shells is not completely devoid of references to the accomplishment of justice, information collected from Gallé's daughters may be considered plausible. It would have been an expression of protest against a particularly disloyal episode of the war between Russia and Japan (1904-1905): the attack led on February 8, 1904 by the Japanese admiral Togo Heihachiro against the Russian boats anchored in Port-Arthur.

Emile Gallé-La main aux algues et aux coquillages
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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The elegance of these long fingers' gesture inevitably evokes a female hand. Fleshy at the base, then slenderer and slenderer, they are reminiscent of those of the female models in paintings by Ingres. The immediate analogy which is established between shells and rings is here to reinforce the impression of seeing a female hand.
If it symbolises life, it could be Aphrodite's being born out of the foam; if on the contrary it symbolises death, it could be that of Ophelia as she is drowning.
This incertitude introduces the fundamental life-death ambiguity this piece seems to emanate.

Emile Gallé-La main aux algues et aux coquillages
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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In 1904, Gallé knew he was dying, as testified by a series of projects for his tomb as well as several letters, including a particularly touching one he wrote his friend Jules Henrivaux, director of Saint-Gobain: "...Personally I feel detached from all the miseries that so painfully afflicted me as the organiser of and participant in exhibitions, as industrialist, etc... (...) I shake both your hands for all my life before this radiant existence in which I have faith beyond sufferings and obstacles..." The genesis of the Hand With Seaweed and Shells should not be considered independently of Gallé's personal situation. It constitutes the farewell piece of the artist aware that the final call is imminent but confident in the "radiant existence" awaiting him. If the interpretation of this ultimate creation proves ambiguous, it is precisely because of the life-death ambivalence it expresses.

Emile Gallé-Gourde à décor d'algues et de coquillages
Emile Gallé
Gourde à décor d'algues et de coquillages, 1900
Copenhague, Kunstindustrimuseet
© Kunstindustrimuseet, København

On a Flask with seaweed and shell decor ated 1900, Gallé engraved the following lines borrowed from the symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach: "To descend to the bottom of one's destiny / To know what happens in this unending sea". The Hand With Seaweed and Shells also testifies to this typically "fin-de-siècle" psychic stance that assimilated diving into the aquatic element to a mystic descent.

Despite the many references, none of which are certain and which are in large part dissimulated behind the decorative screen of the glassmaker's language, the Hand With Seaweed and Shells may not be considered a manifesto intended to deliver a message.

Emile Gallé-La main aux algues et aux coquillages (signature)
Emile Gallé
La Main aux algues et aux coquillages, en 1904
Musée d'Orsay
Don des descendants de l'artiste au musée d'Orsay, 1990
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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It remains first and foremost an object that forces admiration, a beautiful object that is also among the most striking and finest testimonies of the quasi-obsessive quest of the great creators of "1900", viz. the expression of the biological life of the material.

If the Hand With Seaweed and Shells remains impregnated with Gallé's concerns and admiration, it was above all intended to seduce and touch the spectator's emotion by the exceptional quality of both work and material and by its unusual beauty.