The best of Art Nouveau

A beautiful Art Nouveau box.

Thank goodness for art collectors like Jean-Baptiste Eugene Corbin, who take seriously the stewardship of objects they’re fortuitous enough to afford and forward-thinking enough to preserve.

Corbin lived in Nancy, France, east of Paris, during the time a number of artists were coming together and rethinking how art was produced and for whom. Their movement became Art Nouveau and Corbin became a patron, eventually amassing hundreds and hundreds of seminal pieces, 750 of which he donated to Nancy in 1935. Some years later, his mansion was acquired by the city and became home to a collection of glass, furniture, metalwork and other pieces that is truly astounding.

You can’t go more than a few feet in any direction inside the Musee de l’Ecole de Nancy without seeing a piece by one or another of the founders of this new movement that took its inspiration from nature, while forming an alliance with industry to produce a new style of decoration.

Intricate nature-inspired decoration.
Nature-inspired decoration.

Emile Galle led the way, first in cabinetmaking, then in glass, for which he is better known. His incredible creations line case after case and adorn tables and other furniture by such colleagues as Louis Majorelle, Victor Prouve and Jacques Gruber. The exquisitely carved beds, chests, desks and other pieces are displayed as they might have been in Corbin’s home, so devoted was he to the Art Nouveau concept of the democratization of art.

The museum is one of the best in a country full of wonderful displays of fine and decorative art. And it’s only one example in Nancy, where buildings ranging from banks to restaurants to pharmacies carry remnants of Art Nouveau ironwork, woodwork, stained glass and other ornamentation. Tourist authorities in Nancy are capitalizing on interest in this fanciful work and have produced an extensive listing of sites where Art Nouveau can be seen — sometimes from the inside and sometimes only from outside.

Not to be missed is Villa Majorelle, designed by Paris architect Henri Sauvage for Louis Majorelle. It rises majestically on a purely residential street, not far from where Corbin lived. It features stained glass by Jacques Gruber, wrought iron by Majorelle and glazed stoneware by Alexandre Bigot. Now under restoration and not open for tours, it’s remarkable even from the sidewalk.

Warm wood dining room.
Warm wood dining room.