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La Lorraine Artiste: Nature, Industry, and the Nation in the Work of Émile Gallé and the École de Nancy


My dissertation explores the intersection of art and politics in the career of 19th-century French designer Émile Gallé. It is commonly recognized that in fin-de-siècle France, works such as commemorative statues and large-scale history paintings played a central role in the creation of a national mythology. What has been overlooked, however, is the vital role that 19th-century arts reformers attributed to material culture in the process of forming national subjects. By educating the public's taste and promoting Republican values, many believed that the decorative arts could serve as a powerful tool with which to forge the bonds of nationhood. Gallé's works in glass and wood are the product of the artist's lifelong struggle to conceptualize just such a public role for his art. By studying decorative art objects and contemporary art criticism, then, I examine the ways in which Gallé's works actively participated in contemporary efforts to define a unified national identity and a modern artistic style for France.

My study begins with an examination of Gallé's works produced for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, works that focused on forging consensus among members of the French nation through their appeal to patriotic values. I argue that the divisive events of the Dreyfus Affair, however, led Gallé to reevaluate the idea of both artistic and political consent. In response to these challenges, Gallé developed a Symbolist style that privileged subjective sensation as an expression of the artist's political commitment to the rights of the individual. I contend that Gallé's encounter with Japanese art, meanwhile, informed his decision to abandon conventional forms of allegory in favor of defining the national through the natural. My dissertation concludes with a discussion of Gallé's role as the founder of the École de Nancy, a group that brought together artists and industrialists in an attempt to reformulate ideas of artistic community and national identity in the wake of the Affair. In his works, then, I argue that Gallé sought to redefine what it meant to be French and, in the process, transformed the way in which his contemporaries viewed the decorative arts and their cultural significance.

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