Nancy: What's Old Is Nouveau Again

My knowledge of Art Nouveau has, until recently, been limited to Tiffany lamps, grandma’s chotchkes, and the illustration on Job rolling papers (oh, like you never noticed). But since visiting the Musee de l’Ecole de Nancy, that’s changed considerably.

Majorelle lamp, photo by Pascal Droic

Located in Nancy, a small city in northeastern France which quickly became the center of the burgeoning decorative arts movement in the late 19th-century, the Museum displays the furniture and objets of Louis Majorelle, Eugene Vallin, Jacques Gruber and, most famously, Emile Galle.

It was Galle — with his cry of “Art in everything, art for everyone” — who got the movement off to a start in 1901 when a group of avant garde artists gathered in Nancy to form Alliance Provinciale des Industries d’Art, also known as The School of Nancy. Their idea was to use the sensual motifs and shapes found in nature to create everyday objects. The result was an explosion of architecture, furniture, glassware, ceramics and jewelry, all of it inspired by, say, the curve of a swan’s neck or the swooping bloom of a lily.

Wandering from room to room, I swooned over the warm, golden wood of Galle’s Dawn & Twilight Bed, the carved glass and patinated bronze of Majorelle’s lamps, and the stained glass artistry of Gruber. In the garden, I walked around and around a peculiar circular stone structure trying to figure out its original function. It was the private aquarium of the great Art Nouveau collector, Jean-Baptiste Eugene Corbin, who once lived in the mansion that houses the museum. Talk about status symbols.

I was surprised to learn that the museum did not open until 1964 — perhaps when Art Nouveau was rediscovered thanks to the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius and those Job rolling papers? Until then, Corbin’s house and his magnificent art collection were thought to be quel horreur by the French. Now they take pride in calling Nancy the Birthplace of Art Nouveau. Plus ca change . . .  . Information: