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's early work resembled Deck's but he gradually achieved artistic independence and personal fame. Working in stoneware, he used a hydrofluoric acid bath to cut away the glaze's outer layer revealing the velvety matte surface beneath. As tastes changed, he briefly abandoned applied decorations in favor of organic forms.
At a time when French potters seemed to concentrate on either form or decoration, Edmond Lachenal was a master of both. He responded quickly to changes in fashion but at the same time continued to produce older favorites. As a result his range of techniques and ornamentation was vast and fortunately, his remarkable abilities were noticed by his contemporaries.
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 goes on to say, "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."
Edmond Lachenal's genius may seem all the more surprising to us in light of his humble beginnings, although humble beginnings were overcome by a significant number of French late 19th century artists. Lachenal was born in Paris in 1855 of 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 to ceramics 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 that was available to him at Deck's studio, both from the professional potters and from the visiting artists. 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, a significant promotion 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 the head of a family and an independent ceramist. Perhaps even prior to 1880, while in his mid-twenties, he married. His wife and he produced two sons before her early death in 1887. But in 1881 they lived and he worked at 121 rue Blomet, in the Vaugirard section, close to Deck's factory, the Haviland workshop for artistic wares, and the workshop of Georges Pull (1810-1889) and his son Jules-Louis, leading exponents of the Palissy revival. In that same year of 1881, Ernest Chaplet (1835-1909) became the artistic director of the Haviland workshop. One can only wonder if Lachenal knew Chaplet and other Haviland artists such as Édouard Dammouse (1850-1903), and what possible interchange there might have been. Was Lachenal inspired, for example, by Haviland's use of high-fired stoneware (grès)—the ceramic body that Lachenal himself would adopt?
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 triumphs. His link to Bernhardt is significant; the two were good friends. He portrayed her several times, executed a dinner service for her, and cast some of her own sculpture in stoneware. Moreover, not having relinquished his theatrical aspirations, he acted alongside her.
By 1882 Lachenal moved outside the wall encircling Paris and settled in the adjoining town of Malakoff, where he opened a studio at 23 rue Augustin-Dumont. Within a year or so, he had moved again this time to Châtillon-sous-Bagneux, a small community bordering Malakoff but still further out from the French capital. Some ceramics from the Châtillon-sous-Bagneux workshop show the continuity of ideas within Lachenal's oeuvre. A faience plaque with nesting birds painted in 1887 closely resembles the one he painted almost a decade earlier in 1878 while still with Deck. The existence of multiple versions of the same composition tells us that although all his wares were hand-painted, repetition was necessary to render his business profitable.
A frequent exhibitor, Lachenal was often awarded medals and other distinctions. In 1884 he, Clément Massier, Georges Pull, and several others were given silver medals for their faience at the exhibition of the Union centrale des arts décoratifs. Gallé won the gold medal. Lachenal's glazes were praised; his good taste and the harmony of his display were commended. The following year he received a silver medal at the World's Fair held in Antwerp. Lachenal participated in the 1887 exhibition of the Union centrale des arts décoratifs, where he was granted two bronze medals—one for design and one for execution. His entries were still described as being painted in the manner of Deck.
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. Although described as being painted in the manner of Deck, it is freer and more naturalistic in orientation; also its shape is allied with the type of cylindrical forms used at the Haviland workshop. 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 both genres side-by-side. Soon he introduced a new range of mat glazes that became the hallmark of his mature style. Described as "émail mat velouté" (mat velvet opaque glaze), these colorful, soft-textured effects gained him a truly international reputation. A handsome vase with decoration of bamboo branches was one of the first models to utilize the effects of this new, velvety surface. Examples were already in production by 1893 and the one acquired from the 1894 Salon by the Musée des arts décoratifs shows how artfully Lachenal exploited the new technique. Whereas the branches and leaves are left glossy, the background is a mat surface whose softness is emphasized by the light blue color. That it was purchased by the museum testifies to the immediate acclaim given these new surface effects.
Mat glazes, like the emphasis on stoneware, were becoming a distinguishing characteristic of French artistic ceramics. But Lachenal's work stood apart because of his use of bright polychrome effects–greens, violet, rose, and yellow. Also, whereas the mat glazes of the other French ceramists were obtained by carefully calculated combinations of minerals and were achieved in the firing, Lachenal's were achieved by using a bath of hydrofluoric acid to cut away the glaze's glossy outer layer.
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 determine the base. Critics praised the happy union of these naturalistic forms as "robustly graceful." The mat glazes, they felt, were complementary.
While botanically based, the overall concept of such organic vases also resembles Japanese carved stone and horn vessels. This dual allegiance is not accidental. Quite the contrary, it epitomizes a major turn of French design during the late 1880s and 1890s in which leading French designers proposed to forge a new style based on nature, but which was still enriched by their earlier debt to Japanese art. Lachenal's development was responsive to shifts in French design as a whole. He was truly a man of his time, and his artistic evolution reflects these external impulses.
Other developments, although equally attuned to the times, are less expected. For example, in 1895 Lachenal presented ceramics with metallic lusters that he had executed at the Keller et Guerin factory in Lunéville. Lachenal explained such byways as occurring when ill fortune dogged his work; lacking fuel and money, he would take a train to Lunéville and work there. Occasionally he also experimented with porcelain bodies with flambé glazes. Even more curious, perhaps, is that he exhibited all of these works together: his faience in the style of Deck, his latest mat email velouté vases, even those with iridescent glazes. More than one critic reprimanded the diversity of styles and the inharmonious ensemble that resulted. One reviewer objected that Lachenal always had two disparate parts to such displays—one of artistic stoneware with flambé glazes and the other of shiny roosters and ducks, a farmyard of strongly colored faience. His willingness to maintain old designs in production and, at the same time, explore new ideas seems to have been a typical Lachenal strategy—a means, perhaps, of remaining commercially viable.
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. Indeed, this practice was already a major aspect of Émile Müller's firm, Tuileries d'Ivry. For Müller, it had been a natural move since the company already produced architectural faience in high relief. Then the idea was taken over by artisanal potteries such as that of Alexandre Bigot. The collaboration between sculptor and art potter had a special currency; the concept of a fusion of all the arts, both high and low, was frequently discussed. Because ceramic sculpture was moderate in cost, it proved an ideal solution for creating and selling work in multiples.
Lachenal began to cast sculptors' works by 1894, after he had introduced stoneware and mat 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.
Certainly the 1890s was a very productive and fruitful time for Lachenal, and he showed his work frequently. He exhibited annually, generally in late November or December, at the Galerie Georges Petit, one of the major Parisian venues for modern decorative arts. One of these exhibitions was the subject of The Studio article quoted at the beginning of this essay. Lachenal exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in the very first year it provided an official section for the decorative arts, and he continued to do so annually through 1905. He was a frequent participant at the exhibitions staged by the Union centrale des arts décoratifs, and in 1897 he began exhibiting annually at the Société des artistes français. His major triumph, though, was his stand at the World's Fair in 1900, for which he was awarded a gold medal. Alexander Sandier, the artistic director of the Sèvres Manufactory, praised Lachenal's forms and glazes. There could be no greater reward for an independent ceramist, a ceramist whose career now spanned more than a quarter of a century.
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. There the curvilinear lines were generally couched in terms of branches and lizard tails, although occasionally the handles and even overall decoration evidenced more emphatic rhythms. Vases that he exhibited in 1901, some with metallic additions, show the full realization of these impulses. Movement-filled ribs encircle and rise up from the surfaces of the vases, creating rhythmic structures. Over the next few years, reaching a climax about 1904, Lachenal's exploration of this dynamic mode intensified. Cascades of rich flambé glazes added to the sense of movement. Occasionally, painted linear designs augmented the ribbed framework, and worked in harmony or in counterpoint to it. 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."
Asymmetric and generally abstract, without reference to flowers or animals, the decoration of the vases of this period is quite daring and without parallel among the French studio ceramists. Potters such as Adrien Dalpayrat occasionally added rhythmic lines to the surface of their otherwise staid forms but, in general, French ceramists did not attempt the Art Nouveau extreme achieved by Lachenal. The exuberance of his designs recalls the early architecture and furniture of Hector Guimard, as well as some spectacular vessels he designed for the Sèvres Manufactory. The comparison is not inappropriate since Lachenal actually executed one of Guimard's models for vases. Yet Lachenal's forms and rhythms are more eccentric and flamboyant than even Guimard's. They remain closer to the sort of popular understanding of Art Nouveau then practiced in Paris.
Lachenal's dramatic shift of style seems not to have been noticed or commented upon. For example, the designer Maurice Verneuil, describing Lachenal's ceramics on display at the 1903 Salon of the Société nationale des Beaux-Arts, wrote: "Lachenal devotes himself to experiments of form and materials, barely departing from what we already know of him."
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.