THE GENIUS OF RENE LALIQUE

by Harry McGee

 

The following is the text of an address given to Glasfax in London, Ontario, on Sunday, 11 September, 2011, and the images shown are those of the art glass pieces shown on that day, and the pictures displayed from reference books (identified with credits).

 

            Why am I speaking to you today about Lalique, a French national, when Glasfax is dedicated to studying and collecting early Canadian glass? The answer lies in the following advertisement in THE GLOBE, Toronto, Friday, June 19, 1925:

 

 “LALIQUE GLASS Superb Collection of New Designs and Colorings - Every Piece Signed by Lalique - Boxes, Bowls, Vases, Trays [pictured] It reaches the gift shop just in time for the last half of the June weddings - a delayed shipment of the peerless Lalique - the glass that is lovely as opals in color and catches the grace of birds and fish and leaves in its pattern. Bowls, vases, trays in wide variety at $4.00 to $200.00. See the display of Lalique in the Arcade. - Fourth Floor, Yonge St.              THE T. EATON COLIMITED.”   (Credit Reference 1, page 48)

 

Now as you know, Eaton’s was a leading Canadian department store competing with Woodward’s, Hudson’s Bay, Simpson’s, Bowring’s and Dupuis Frères. Its catalogue was ubiquitous throughout Canada. When Eaton’s took a liking to a product line and promoted it vigorously, Canadians bought it. Four dollars in 1925 was roughly equivalent to $60.00 today and $200.00 would fall in the price range of $3000.00 today. Not something you would buy for household use, but right for a wedding gift for a very special relative or friend.

 

Those special relatives that were wed in 1925 left their wedding gifts to their children and today those children are heading for nursing homes and putting the Lalique pieces into estate sales. In this way, Lalique artistry is coming on the market again here in Canada. It is because Lalique has had a distinguished presence in Canada since before the Great Depression, that I venture to speak to Glasfax about it today.

 

My wife picked her first piece of this remarkable glass on our first trip to Paris about 1990. We were checking out the gardens of Les Tuileries in the heart of Paris, near the Louvre, when she spied a fine glass shop on the rue de Rivoli and she was out of the garden and into the shop before I could surmise what was happening. Turned out the shop was rather large. It was a joint retail venture with Baccarat glass on one side and Lalique on the other. Joyce went from one side to the other trying to decide what she would choose - small enough to bring home in luggage and reasonable enough to leave our budget intact. Both sides had wall shelves and tables covered with jaw-dropping objets d’art. She finally picked this piece of Lalique with eight birds peeping out of the walls interrupted by vertical bands of heart-shaped leaves. It is 15 cm high (5 in.) and 11.7 cm diameter at the rim. And it is heavy, which is a characteristic of Lalique pieces. The walls are very thick. It has an applied clear etiquette on the inside of the rim marked LALIQUE subtended with a black band on which is scribed PARIS in reverse print. She never lost interest in that purchase. It became the nucleus around which our other pieces were subsequently collected in Canada.

 

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            Many of you will remember the excellent collection of Lalique glass we visited at the Royal Ontario Museum on June 17th, 2006, and you will appreciate how prized this art form is in Canada. At the time of that visit, Carolyn Hatch, presented a lecture based on her research at the ROM and offered her book Déco Lalique - Creator to Consumer (Reference 1) which was new off the press. I have consulted our autographed copy to prepare this, as well as two other splendid references: The Art of Rene Lalique by Patricia Bayer and Mark Waller (Reference 2) with a foreword by granddaughter Marie-Claude Lalique, edition by Mitchell, Rexdale ON 1989; and Lalique by Jessica Hodge (Reference 3), edition by Parkgate House, London 1999.

 

          The Lalique story started in 1860. That’s over 150 years ago. Think back to what was happening here. Sir John A. had only a gleam of confederation in his eye then. All Canada’s future as a country lay ahead. But France was a long established society having turned itself into a republic following a bloody revolution and then conquering most of Europe courtesy of Napoleon Bonaparte.

 

          In 1860, on April 6, a baby boy was born in Ay about 150 km east of Paris in the historic province of Champagne. His father, a merchant of novelties, and his mother named him René Jules Lalique. He was their only child. His father moved the family to the eastern edge of Paris when he was two, but the boy returned to his mother’s roots for vacations and holidays. Here he became familiar with all the plants and creatures that every country kid encounters, and the images he absorbed would one day find expression in his art with astonishing reality. Snakes, frogs, fish, grasshoppers, dragonflies, owls, eagles, roosters, hounds, foxes, horses, grasses, leaves, trees, flowers, fruit - all these elements of nature entered his memory box. He could summon up a stored image and express it graphically whenever it was needed. At 11, the kid won an award for drawing. His métier was becoming obvious. Then at 16, his dad died, and his childhood was over. He apprenticed to a well-known Parisian goldsmith whose clientele preferred traditional pieces and had no interest in imaginative design. At the same time, young René continued his education by enrolling at the famed École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

 

          France was struggling to recover from wars, internal and external, while England was consolidating its advances from the Industrial Revolution and the reactionary experiments with the Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Blake. The world was changing and René Lalique wanted to be a part of it. So in 1878 he struck out for England. He found a lot of French nationals living in Sydenham, a suburb of London’s south side. There he attended the Collège de Sydenham, probably in a part of the Crystal Palace which Alice Thomson told us last year was moved to Sydenham in 1854. There he spent his time drawing fom nature - a significant period which provided themes for his future work. Two years later when the Collège closed, he returned to Paris. It was 1880 and he was 20.

 

          Home in Paris, he began to study sculpture at the École Bernard Palissy. At the same time he began to design wallpaper and textiles for a relative. You see he was accumulating familiarity with a variety of techniques and media - always in the direction of design. A year later, he decided to become a jewellery designer and as it turned out, this pursuit occupied him for a good twenty years. He did freelance work for several famous houses including Cartier. At the age of 25, he bought a small atelier and soon staffed it with a few workmen. Now he could create the designs he wanted and the real René Lalique emerged. His work was much admired and his reputation and clientele grew rapidly. He seemed to make friends easily and he was an astute businessman. He added two more workshops and occupied a flat on the third floor of the latest, and then married Augustine Ledru, the red-haired daughter of sculptor Auguste Ledru.

 

          René Lalique rode the crest of a new wave called Art Nouveau. In fact, one of his many friends, Siegfried Bing, named his Paris shop La Maison de L’Art Nouveau, and gave the new style its name. Another friend, the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, wore his jewellery and catapulted him to fame. Another friend was Armenian financier Calouste Gulbenkian, an oil czar who bought his most creative works and sealed his fame.

 

          Now listen carefully. Lalique got interested in glass because he wanted to use it in some of his jewellery. By 1893, he began experimenting with glass for perfume vials using the cire-perdue technique. It is assumed he learned this from his father-in-law and brother-in-law who were sculptors in bronze. He formed a partnership with François Coty in which he designed the bottles for the perfumer’s fragrances. He developed a sophisticated and efficient process of machine manufacture. It is difficult to assess whether Coty fragrances became famous because of Lalique’s bottles or Lalique glass became famous because of Coty’s perfumes. In any event, at the end of century, Lalique was recognized as without peer in his industry and his name was synonymous with Art Nouveau. He ran his atelier with a firm hand and oversaw every piece bearing his name. He had reached the top at the fin-de-siecle. And he was only 40!

 

          The new century opened with the Exposition Universelle Internationale in Paris. Lalique exhibited pieces representing all his expertise and they were universally admired. He now had international praise and a wealth of commissions. He had to expand to keep up to the demand. He opened his first retail shop in 1905 next door to Coty. Because glass was demanding most of his time now, he rented his first glassworks in a factory near Fontainebleu. The output was so great he was able to purchase the factory within a year. But the Great War of 1914 – 18 shut it down. However it reopened in 1919. With international trade booming, he was compelled to open yet another factory in Alsace and market aggressively in Britain and North and South America as well as continental Europe. Mass production allowed him to reduce prices which redoubled sales. Yet every piece was designed by the master in his Paris studio.

 

          In the 1920s, Lalique expanded his glass landscape to include every conceivable product from exquisite bottles to vases, clock cases, lamps, chandeliers, plates, sculptures, even automobile mascots. This enormous variety of artistic product was waiting to be exhibited when the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne was opened in Paris. This exposition gave its name to the style Art Déco which it heralded. Careful how you pronounce that word. There is an accent.

 

          René Jules Lalique was 70 in 1930. He became arthritic which slowed him down considerably. His output was less exciting and innovative, but he remained very much in charge. His reputation was stratospheric as shown by a retrospective exhibition of his glasswork in 1933 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. This was a very rare honour for a living artist to receive. American architects commissioned him to give flair to their most prestigious buildings. In 1935, the luxury liner Normandie was launched with its tableware, lighting fixtures and glass panels signed by Lalique. His renown was at its peak. (And I didn’t know it - I was only eight.)

 

          Over the next ten years he declined slowly. He put his son, Marc, in charge of more and more. He died in May 1945, age 85, and was buried in the well known Père Lachaisse cemetery. Marc Lalique succeeded his father, not only as designer but as manager of the business. He changed the material to full lead crystal. Some of his pieces bear his own distinctive stamp.

 

In 1956, Marc’s daughter Marie-Claude joined the firm at age 21 and took over when her dad died in 1977. For 17 years she ran the firm. She introduced more luxury items like jewellery and perfume. She designed her own pieces and signed her work MC Lalique. She had a little 1971 Karman convertible which she used to travel between Paris and the factory in Alsace. She died on April 14, 2003 at her home in Fort Myers, Florida, aged 67. Her husband Jean Dedouvre eventually decided to part with the little Karman, but the business still operates today.

 

          René Lalique’s legacy was principally glass - and it is a rich one. I suggest you scan these books today to see for yourself what an amazing variety of designs he created. This vase, called Moissac, was found here in London and it is shown twice in the Bayer/Waller book, (Reference 2) pages 39 and 136. It was made about 1925 and is press-moulded. Others were produced that were tinted or opalescent but ours is clear. A crystalline quality was achieved by using potash glass body with a lead oxide content of around 12 per cent, half the lead content required for glass to be called crystal under French law. Called demi-cristal, it was suitable for both mould-blowing and press-moulding. Although perhaps not as sparkling as crystal, it was highly ductile, easily removed from the mould, took definition better and was less expensive.

 

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            I do not want to dwell on manufacture, but rather linger over the inspired designs the man produced - each one stunning in concept and execution. As with this Moissac, he could take something as prosaic as a leaf and transform it into an abstract pattern that is beyond imagination. And this creative explosion happened day after day in his studio. This is when you dust off the word ‘genius’ and pin it on him.

 

René Lalique’s principal themes were birds and leaves and the nude female form. The birds usually took the form of plump little creatures - poking out of somewhere - as with the piece Joyce bought in France. But here is another. And here is another. This one with doves is actually a concealed vase with a removable frog at the back.

 

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Floral designs proliferate in his artistic output. They are not matter-of-fact leaves as in our country’s Maple Leaf design, or trees as in the Canadian or Westward Ho designs. They are generally abstractions, although one may be able to identify them as a fern frond or an acacia pattern or a thistle or a dandelion. Flowers and fruit are just about as common.

 

He must have found that the nude female form sold well because he used it a lot. They were often presented in diaphanous trappings. He rarely went near the nude male form. But when he did it was something never done before. Here is a photo of a clock case. The surround presents nude figures that are female and male, and they appear to be floating around the clock.

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Photo credit Reference 2, p.117

 

 They obviously represent night and day since one is dark and the other light. They are the opposite of Rubenesque. They are light, lithe, and somewhat under-endowed, so that there is no suggestion of the erotic. The mane of hair on the female however is a beautiful exaggeration. I challenge any of you to strike the poses shown, although Lalique makes them look effortless. Floating and effortless. Here in this one work is a creation that has no precedent in all of art history, or for that matter, no imitation since. It is original and magnetic. And it declares the master’s genius.

 

I could go on for the rest of the afternoon with similar proofs, but I think one will do. Check out the books’ many plates to see the varieties of colours and tints he used. Notice the powerful energy in the snakes he moulded. And in all his creaturely designs.

 

                                                               

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A painting of René Lalique in his mature years

Photo credit Reference 2, page 6

 

This quiet unassuming man was an inferno of creativity. He was not only an artist of extraordinary talent, but an uncommonly astute businessman. It is pretty unusual to find both in one person. Look for his work as it re-enters the market and treat yourself to the art glass that Canadians enjoyed in the 1920s.