When Théodore Deck hired 15-year-old Edmond Lachenal as his studio assistant, he could hardly have predicted that the boy would become an internationally respected master, always willing to try something new.
Lachenal was born in Paris in 1855 to poor parents. His father died when he was still young. At age 12 and by his own choice, his mother apprenticed him to a local potter. He was torn between an interest in ceramics and the theater, but once apprenticed he committed himself so completely and successfully that only three years later he was hired by the prestigious French ceramist Théodore Deck (1823-1891). Lachenal profited from the artistic and professional expertise around him. At the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna, Lachenal's work as a decorator for Deck was publicly acknowledged, affirming both his talent and his growing stature within the studio. He was awarded an Honorable Mention and was appointed director of Deck's decoration atelier— significant for one so young.
Lachenal's early documented work showed direct influence from Japanese prints, albiet somewhat tempered by the Western preference for symmetry. His work over the next decade hovered between the poles of Eastern and Western art. The 1880s witnessed Lachenal's emergence as an independent ceramist. While intent on establishing his own position in the field, Lachenal continued to work in the style of Deck, only gradually forging an independent style. He began exhibiting at various annual salons in the French capital. For the 1881 Salon of the Société des artistes français, the traditional venue for painters and sculptors, he submitted a plaque with the portrait of the famed tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) in the role of Hernani, one of her recent theatric triumphs.
A frequent exhibitor, Lachenal was often awarded medals and other distinctions and at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, Lachenal was at last awarded a gold medal. Among the items in his stand that attracted attention was a large faience vase vividly painted with poppy plants against a dark blue ground. It was purchased by the Musée des arts décoratifs for its permanent collection, thus adding another feather to Lachenal's cap.
The 1890s saw Lachenal emerge more fully from Deck's shadow. He began to work with grès, the fine-bodied, high-fired stoneware clay that was becoming the standard medium for French artistic ceramics. From 1891 forward, Lachenal worked freely in both faience and stoneware, and often made it a point to exhibit them side-by-side. Soon he introduced a new range of matte glazes that became the hallmark of his mature style. Described as "émail mat velouté" (matte velvet opaque glaze), these colorful, soft-textured effects gained him a truly international reputation.
Another development in Lachenal's work was the transition to more sculptural and organic forms. Plants were no longer ornaments painted on the neutral surface of a baluster-shaped vase, they formed the shape of the vessel itself. The Bamboo vase anticipated this tendency since the branches and leaves are in relief, but there remained a disjuncture between ornament and vessel. Here, however, the sword-shaped leaves form the upper part of the vase and, even more striking, the plant's gnarled rhizomes shape the base. Critics praised the happy union of these naturalistic forms as "robustly graceful." The mat glazes, they felt, were complementary.
One of the interesting byways in Lachenal's career was the role he accepted in the 1890s as an editor of sculptural works by others, that is, casting and glazing the work of independent sculptors. In one sense this specialty was a natural extension of his career, since he was already casting his own models. At the same time, the concept of casting sculpture in ceramic rather than the more expensive medium of bronze was very much in the air. Lachenal began to cast sculptors' works by 1894, after he had introduced stoneware and matte glazes. One of his most fruitful collaborations was with Agnès de Frumerie (1869-1937). This Swedish-born artist applied her talent as a figurative sculptor to the making of vases and other supposedly utilitarian objects. Symbolist in mood, her designs of maidens among oversize flowers, dejected Eves, and dancing nymphs were well-received. Lachenal and Frumerie continued to collaborate over the years, until at least 1907.
Lachenal's work after 1900 shifted into a high Art Nouveau style. There were intimations of this trend in the late 1890s—especially in the rippling ornament decorating some of the vessels he exhibited in 1899. In January 1904, the ceramics critic for The Studio commented about Lachenal's work shown a month or two earlier at Georges Petit's: "The work shown there confirmed us in our favorable opinion of his talents." Certainly Lachenal was busy during the first years of the new century. A major exhibition of 300 of his ceramics was held at the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna in 1901 and another in Munich in 1903. In the latter part of 1904, Lachenal had an exhibition in Louis Majorelle's new Paris showrooms at 22 rue de Chauchat (occupied previously by Bing's Maison de l'Art Nouveau). He exhibited in both Lyon and St. Louis in 1904 and, as before, at the annual Salons in Paris.
Suddenly, though, his career reversed directions. Whereas he had submitted regularly to the Salons of the Société nationale des Beaux-Arts for over a decade, he abruptly stopped after the 1905 Salon and appeared there only once more, in 1908. On the other hand, despite frequent assertions that Lachenal's career as a ceramist came to an end about then, the evidence indicates otherwise. After all, he was only 50 in 1905 and, as photographs attest, he was still robust and vigorous. In fact he was actively engaged with his pottery for almost another decade.
Edmond Lachenal lived until 1948. One wonders if he recognized that, although each generation of ceramists had tried to break free from the past, they were all linked by their common love of clay and glaze, and that as much as they tried to be independent and innovative, they were bound by their common admiration of Oriental traditions.
According to an art critic writing in The Studio magazine in 1899 (vol. 15, no. 70, p. 283), Edmond Lachenal was "a decorator possessed of infinite verve and fancy; rightly or wrongly, he holds that pure pottery, that is to say the art of adorning a vase with lovely enamels [glazes], is not enough nowadays; that a well-decorated vase is superior to the unadorned vase, no matter how fine the latter may be." In an exhibition held in 1898, Lachenal had exhibited striking examples of his two manners. The Studio writer quipps, "on large objects he models ornaments in relief, admirable adapted to the style and form of each particular work; or again he will simply apply the flat enamels [matte glazes], which, I believe, he was the first to utilize."