Where should my pencil begin to trace the historical connections that led to French Art Nouveau jewelry? The Sixteenth Century, perhaps?
At that time, Popes countered the Protestant Reformation by sending Jesuit missionaries to far-off lands. The missions converted non-European peoples, so Catholic monarchs could then step in, colonize new territory, and bolster the political and military power of the Roman Catholic Church.
In Japan, this task fell to the Portuguese after a tempest blew three sailors to Tanegashima, a small island off the coast of Kyūshū in 1542. Portuguese Jesuits, and Spanish Franciscan and Dominican missionaries followed in earnest around 1549. All of them brought Christianity and firearms.
Land-owning Samurai families in the Muromachi period (1337 – 1573) tolerated Christianity because they wanted the gunpowder needed to fight military battles in their own civil wars. In 1600, there were 300,000 Catholics in Buddhist Japan.
Then a Spanish captain of a shipwrecked vessel, the San Felipe, tried to recover his stolen cargo. In a letter, dated 1597, he confirmed that the Church used Christian conversions as a trick of deceit to conquer kingdoms. That is why the missionaries were there.
In 1603, the Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in the Edo Era. The second son, Ieyasu, ordered all Christian missionaries expelled in 1614. He also commissioned an artificial island to be built in the bay of Nagasaki in 1634 called Dejima. Only ships from the Dutch East India Co. were allowed to trade there for the next 220 years because the Dutch promised not to preach.
A hair comb was made by a Japanese seaman, as he watched a Dutch trading ship arrive at Dejima, c. 1800. Glass was popular with sailors because grime could be wiped off. Glass also preserved the pigments against salt air, which would ruin other materials. The comb resides in the Kobe City Museum.
On March 31, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry finally convinced the Meiji Emperor to override the Edo embargo and open up trade routes to Europe. A Dutch comb portrays the same kind of trading ship in the 1850s that the Japanese seaman carved 50 years earlier.
So it was that Japanese art reached France.
In Paris, Impressionist painters were breaking away from the Historicism and stifling jury competitions of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Van Gogh first saw Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. He and other French painters were so deeply influenced by Japanese art, the cultural fusion was given the name Japonisme.
Van Gogh’s 1887 portrait of Père Tanguy shows him against a backdrop of Japanese themes including geishas in full Edo costume and jewelry.
Jewelers were also getting tired of elegant garland-style pieces championed by Cartier. Lalique, Fouquet, and their colleagues wanted to draw asymmetrical, sinewy lines that expressed the beauty of the natural world.
In 1895, Siegfried Bing opened his pioneering gallery, Le Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Louis Comfort Tiffany made the stained glass windows. Lalique and Gaillard sold their work there.
Combining Symbolist philosophy with Japanese influence, French artists produced works that expressed transformation, metamorphosis, mysticism, and ethereal otherworldliness. Lines were elongated. Forms were exaggerated. Their work captured the world stage and established them as major artists at the Exposition Universelle of 1900.
Here are some of the masterpieces.
In Rene Lalique’s “Metamorphosis,” leaves transform into a woman, with a border of pearls and lapis lazuli attached by gold prongs. It was featured at the Lalique Museum in Hakone, Japan. His “Lovers’ Kiss” comb is also ivory and resides at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Both combs combine sculpture and engineering.
“Two Swallows with a Stalk of Oats” is perhaps Lalique’s most famous comb. The birds’ wings are elongated to fulfill the engineering requirements of a hairpin. You may compare this to a Meiji kanzashi tortoiseshell ornament of two plover birds, also stunning, but carved with exact proportions.
Japanese art also inspired jewelers to tackle new subjects such as insects. Dragonflies captured artists’ imaginations because light shone through their delicate wings. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s gold and enamel comb portrays dragonflies feeding on dandelions, c. 1904. It resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Artists also started using different materials such as horn instead of tortoiseshell. In this daring proposal, Lalique drew two Japanese rhinoceros beetles fighting each other. Pearls had to dangle at the end, of course. Perhaps the silver on the beetles’ feet would serve to engineer the chain links. It is fun to think of how elegant French women would have worn this, when they were used to garland-style diamond opera combs.
Snakes represented eternal life and sexuality. The Lalique nine-serpent pectoral at the Gulbenkian Museum set the standard everyone had to live up to. Snakes’ mouths were usually open, menacing an attack, or were filed with pearls, aquamarines, and other jewels.
The most popular enameling technique was plique-a-jour. It was like a miniature version of stained glass, where the enamel was put in cells with no backing so the light could shine through. Louis Aucoc added rose-cut diamonds to the veins and edges of his hair pin, c. 1900.
Then there was the celebration of flowers. Lalique loved poppies so much he portrayed them alive and dead.
The Dying Poppy brooch, exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, 1900, is also known for its use of gold juxtaposed with enamel.
Paul Gabriel Liénard made his ‘Forget-me-not’ tiara out of horn. It portrays a branch from which flowers and leaves grow above and below. The Victoria and Albert Museum displayed it in their Pearl exhibit, which ended 19, January, 2014.
But you can’t talk about Art Nouveau jewelry without mentioning orchids, their eroticism, and how meticulously they were made.
Belgian jeweler Phillipe Wolfers made his orchid brooch from gold, enamel, diamonds, and rubies, (c. 1905 – 1907). The Victoria and Albert Museum has it.
Charles Desrosiers designed this paphiopedilum lawrenceanum orchid brooch for Georges Fouquet. Fouquet exhibited it at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1898. It is made of gold, pearls, mother of pearl, and plique-a-jour enamel. On the bottom, is a very large baroque pearl. The Fouquet brooch is part of the Anderson Collection at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.
Lalique did not set his orchids with jewels, but rather carved them from horn, ivory, and glass. Then he highlighted them with diamond stems, plique-a-jour enamel, gold, and perhaps one jewel in the middle. His orchids were intimate. Three examples are detailed below
Lady-slipper orchid made from glass, horn, gold, and enamel, with one trapezium-shaped diamond in the center, c. 1902, also at the Sainsbury Centre.
DIADEMA “ORQUÍDEAS” at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, c. 1903 – 1904. This diadem consists of two orchids: one of horn, and the other of ivory with a teardrop citrine in the center.
The third example of an orchid comb resides at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The flower is carved from a single piece of ivory. It sits on three leaves of plique-a-jour enamel, which start out peach but end in olive green. The stems start with a small piece of grey enamel and are finished with diamonds. Lalique hinged his orchid to a three-pronged horn comb. c. 1903 – 1904.
Art Nouveau started because a trade embargo ended. It ended shortly before WWI began. Twenty years is not a long time for a fusion of cultures and philosophy to produce immortal beauty, but they did. When visionaries see a new world, bring society with them, and their work stands the test of time, it is a triumph of humanity – one orchid, carved from one piece of ivory, against the world.
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