Discovering Art Nouveau in Nancy, France – by Keith Garrison

We visited Nancy back in early October. A colleague here in the lab nicely offered to drive us there for the day over one weekend. We took a scenic route over the Vosges mountains.

It was interesting to see two transitions as we drove. First, we reached an altitude in the mountains when grapes are no longer grown. It is hard to describe, until you see it, just how much land is devoted to vineyards here in the Alsace. It is an interesting that they disappear so suddenly when you reach a certain point in the mountains. Second, we entered the Lorraine region as we climbed over the mountains and headed down the opposite side. The architecture changes significantly. Alsace is known for its half-timbered houses. The Lorraine has a more ornate style. To me at the time, it looked more Swiss. Having now visited Basel (in Switzerland), I realize that the style is distinct to the Lorraine.

Our tour of Nancy focused on Art Nouveau, because I really love that style. Part of the reason I kept postponing this post was because I saw it as an opportunity to read more about Art Nouveau and learn more about it as an artistic movement. Art Nouveau arose in different forms throughout Europe. In German, it was referred to as Jugendstil. Major centers for the movement included Paris, Prague, Vienna, and Nancy. The movement arose in the early 20th century as a response to the overly mechanized production of many items of daily life. I think the founders of the movement wanted to encourage artisanal production and ensure that artistic beauty was retained, even in everyday objects. I have a difficult time understanding the exact relationship between Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movements in the U.K. and the U.S. Both movements were founded on similar principles. Arts and Crafts seems more strongly geometric in many of its designs, whereas Art Nouveau seems more fluid and influenced by natural forms. However, I think many of the Celtic influences in Arts and Crafts blur the dividing line with Art Nouveau. Also, if you look at some of the Arts and Crafts architecture in the U.S., like the First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley, you see some very strong connections with Art Nouveau. However, the architect Bernard Maybeck was educated in France, possibly explaining some of the connections in form and style.

I first learned about the École de Nancy in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. They have a great collection of works from this school of Art Nouveau. If you are looking for a place away from the Impressionist-viewing crowds, I strongly suggest going to see the Art Nouveau collection in the Orsay. If I can, I will post about it separately. In fairness to the Musée d’Orsay, it handles crowds really well, and I never felt like the crowds diminished my enjoyment of any of the art in the museum.

In Nancy, the Museum of the École de Nancy has been constructed in the former home of M. et Mme. Corbin. The home has been exquisitely restored and makes an excellent museum from the same period and in the same style as the works displayed within. One of the great strengths of this museum is that it includes entire rooms of furniture that were designed together. I think the presence of these complete sets of works really enhances their enjoyment.

I thought I would start with one of my favorite parts of the museum, the Masson dining room designed by Eugene Vallin. It was designed for the dining room of Charles Masson’s apartment in Nancy. Masson actually moved the entire dining room to his apartment in Paris during the WWI. It was not clear to me from the signage in the museum, though, whether it was installed there or just held in storage until it was installed in the house where the museum currently resides.

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Masson Dining Room, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy

This beautiful bed was designed by Émile Gallé and is called Aube et Crépuscule (Dawn and Dusk). Gallé is best known for his glass work, but I think this is an amazing piece of furniture. He combined regular inlaid wood with inlays of other materials like mother of pearl and glass. Apparently, he designed this near the end of his life.

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Aube et Crépuscule, Emile Gallé

Louis Majorelle designed many of the furniture pieces in the museum, and he is one of the names I now associate with Art Nouveau design. Again, he used wood inlay and metal ornamentation on this piece. True to the natural themes in Art Nouveau, he used aquatic designs and the piece is part of a salon called Les Algues (the Algae or Seaweed).

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Les Algues, Louis Majorelle

Glasswork by Gallé is fairly well known, so I will not include pictures here. The museum has a fairly sizeable collection, although I think there is a dedicated Gallé museum in the Alsace region.

Needless to say, the museum is a must-see in Nancy if you like Art Nouveau. The Villa Majorelle is also owned by the museum, but it is a significant distance away. It is worth arranging a guided tour in advance with the museum, because the villa is not otherwise open to the public. We were just lucky in that they allowed us a brief tour of the grounds because we happened to be there at the tail end of someone else’s prearranged guided tour of the villa.

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Villa Majorelle

There are entire Art Nouveau themed walks that you can take through Nancy. There are a significant number of buildings in the Art Nouveau style throughout the city. It really helped us to have a car, although I think you could also manage to see all of them if you make good use of the buses and do not mind walking a bit.

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Art Nouveau in Nancy

A fitting end to your Art Nouveau tour of the city is a visit to Brasserie Exclesior-Flo. Their Art Nouveau décor is amazing! I really liked the window glass with the pine needle and ginko leaf designs on the borders.

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Brasserie Exclesior-Flo

Of course, Art Nouveau is not the only reason to visit Nancy. The Place Stanislaus is magnificent. The cuisine of the Lorraine is very different from that of the Alsace region. The drive from Colmar was about 2 hours each way, so it was a significant “road trip”. Well worth the time, though.

Sources for this post include the signage in the museum and the excellent museum catalog Le Musée de l’École de Nancy oeuvres choisies.

by Keith Garrison.

To learn more about Keith’s time in France, please check out his blog: https://dulaboauvignoble.wordpress.com/

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