Orpheus vase

Émile Gallé (1846-1904)
Meisenthal and Nancy, 1888-1889
Mold-blown, hot-worked, wheel-engraved and gilded glass
Inscriptions on the upper band: Quis et me inquit, miseram, et te perdidit, Orpheu? Quis tantus furor? En interum crudelia retro Fata vocant, conditque natantia lumina Somnus.Virg.; to the left of Eurydice: Ne retournez plus/en arrière/Ce serait me perdre deux fois/ Et pour toujours… AL (intertwined and crowned); under the foot: Vitrarius faciebat Emile Gallé/Lotharing. Nanceiis/E[‡]/G/1888-1889/Effigies inv. Amicus V. Prouvé/Nancy/egregius pictor
H. 26; D. opening 17 cm
Bequest of Léon Cléry, 1905
Inv. 11975
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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This vase, a jewel among the many glassware pieces designed by Émile Gallé for the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, is traditionally known as the Orpheus vase; it was also named Deux Fois Perdue (Twice Lost) when the artist presented it again in a retrospective section at the Fair of 1900. Predating Gallé’s naturalist designs, the vase may still seem “classical” in subject, form and technique, but closer study reveals the artistic richness and originality of the French designer, then aged forty-three. As the Latin inscription reminds us, the mythological subject was inspired by Virgil’s Georgics: through the power of his art, the poet Orpheus is granted the right to bring his wife Eurydice back from the world of the dead; however, he disobeys the order of Pluto and Proserpine – not to look back at her before reaching the world of the living – so the lovers are separated for a second, and final, time. Gallé’s design is a brilliant evocation of the lovers’ dramamtic separation; his friend the painter Victor Prouvé, who succeeded him at the head of the École de Nancy, assisted him with the drawing of the figures. But Gallé associated the grief of another, contemporary separation with this scholarly and poetic subject – the French Republic’s loss of Alsace and part of Lorraine, which Gallé and many other patriots hoped would not be permanent. The vase’s simple, regular mold-blown shape is that of a funeral urn, but the connection between the body of the vase and the foot is an extraordinary, dynamic twist of glass, formed when the material was still malleable; suggesting the turbulent rivers of hell, it heralds the glass sculptures that were heat-formed in Gallé’s workshops. As on traditional pieces, the positioning of the figures indicates the front of the vase, but the dynamic swirl of the material, composition and inscriptions invites an all-round view. In terms of technique, the vase is both multi-referenced and entirely original. Wheel-engraved, two-layer glass vases, usually with white cameo figures on a blue ground (like the British Museum’s Portland Vase) were among the antique masterpieces that had been rediscovered since the eighteenth century, but Gallé experimented with a completely different glass preparation here, which suggested the colors of gemstone antiques or the creative use of minerals that occurs in Chinese glassware. The dynamics created by coloring hot glass resonates with the freedom of the wheel-engraved design, heralding the new role of the engraver, whom Gallé required to play a creative rather than a subordinate role. In the case of this vase it seems particularly legitimate to compare Gallé’s artistic role to that of a musician and composer, conducting a symphony of his own creation.

J.-L. O. Françoise-Thérèse Charpentier and Philippe Thiébaut, Gallé, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1985
L’école de Nancy 1889-1909, exhibition catalogue, Nancy, Poirel galleries, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1999

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