Originally published in Modernism Magazine Summer 2000 Volume 3, Number 2
Splendor in the Glass
Discovering Le Verre Français
Thomas C. Karman
My first encounter with Le Verre Francais occurred sixteen years ago, when my wife and I entered a Washington, D.C. antique shop and my eyes were immediately drawn to a vase with a graceful shape and intriguing pattern. Although I had never heard of Le Verre Francais, I was hooked. Even in those days, the vase was no bargain, but we bought it. It then took years to find relevant literature and to learn that we had bought a piece with the ‘poppies’ design.
This story could still happen today. Until just recently, most of the glass-conscious public, dealers and collectors alike, were unsure about the origin of glass signed variously as Le Verre Francais, Charder, or by a minuscule multi-colored glass rod. Misinformation abounds: Books refer to a glassmaker named Charder; one dealer told me that Ovington produced this glass; some collectors think the signature merely signifies that the glass came from France. While it is by now generally known that this cameo glass was produced by the Schneider glassworks at Epinay-sur-Seine, France, from ca. 1918–1933, some confusion persists to this day.
Le Verre Francais (LVF) art glass has been mentioned in books and articles as part of the Schneider coverage, but only in passing, until in 1995 Gerard Bertrand did us all a favor by publishing the first book, Schneider Maitre Verrier, exclusively dedicated to LVF. It is a beautiful volume, all in color, which has done much to raise the LVF knowledge level and to document many, though not all, LVF designs. But because the book is completely in French, the information is out of the reach of all but the most determined devotees. Later editions now carry a little insert with an English translation of the text, but even that fact is known to very few.
LVF cameo glass was a separate line of art glass designed by Charles Schneider. Production duration parallels that of the glass signed Schneider, i.e.1918 –1933, and both lines had a common beginning where crossovers occurred. There are early cameo pieces signed Schneider and conversely, some cased glass bears the candy cane signature. But starting in about 1919 some far-reaching business decisions were apparently made, because from then on the two lines were kept strictly apart, to the point of even having separate sales locations in Paris.
Several different signatures were used for LVF glass. Early marks consist of a small tri-color glass rod, a patriotic touch representing the red-white-blue French flag, which was fused into the foot or bottom of the piece. Rather than straight, it can also appear as a tight curl. This signature is commonly referred to as a ‘candy cane’. The next signature was Le Verre Francais, engraved on the foot or near the bottom of the piece. Especially during times of changeover, pieces can have both of these signatures.
Another signature was Charder, a contraction of Charles Schneider, most often executed in cameo on a prominent part of the piece. Later works, particularly unicolor ones, can have that signature engraved. Usually, the Charder signature was used in conjunction with the engraved Le Verre Francais, but some pieces are signed legitimately only in cameo with the Charder signature. In addition, many pieces are acid-stamped FRANCE on the bottom, sometimes in combination with Ovington. Ovington was a decorative arts specialty store in New York that sold LVF glass in the USA, and their catalogs from those years carry advertisements offering LVF.
There is a mystery surrounding the Charder signature. Why was it used, and why mostly in conjunction with the already explanatory Le Verre Francais signature? One theory is that it may have been a special Schneider symbol requested by important clients, like Ovington, for their large volume purchases. It is a reasonable assumption, but I tend to disagree with that conclusion. The additional Charder signature was given only to certain designs and every piece in that series seems to have it. I cannot believe that out of all available designs, a volume customer would request and buy only those designs marked Charder.
It cannot have been a matter of quality, because equally impressive designs do not carry the Charder mark. It did not signify a certain time period, since both early and late designs carry it. Perhaps it was simply a mark of distinction conferred by Charles Schneider himself, whereby each year some of his favorite designs received his personal imprint. The answer remains part of the dim past, and I would not read too much into either the presence or absence of the Charder signature on any given piece.
Schneider insisted on signatures for all his works. It should be noted that the LVF signatures were either engraved, executed in cameo, or fused into the surface. Therefore these signatures cannot possibly wear off, like some early enameled Schneider signatures. The message here is that all LVF glass should have a signature, and to beware of so-called Le Verre Francais works which are unsigned. Of course, there is always an exception, and it is true that there can be legitimate LVF pieces without a signature. The reasons are unclear, but could be attributed to oversight, possibly to unauthorized removal from the premises, or perhaps to an obliterated ‘candy cane’ during the finishing of the pontil mark.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then LVF is being paid a high compliment. It has now joined the ranks of Tiffany and Galle in being a target for reproduction. Thus, even "signed" pieces need to be authenticated. However, this is no threat for a knowledgeable buyer. Two things to look for are color and the sharpness of the cameo. The colors on the original LVF are much more subtle, something that can be learned by studying the original glass. The reproduction cameo is also easy to identify. Since the modern cameo is created through sandblasting, the edges are much sharper than on the original cameo, which was created with an acid bath. Where actual LVF designs are imitated, their clumsy execution should be the tip-off. Likewise, beware of pieces that are not cameo glass, yet carry a painted signature Le Verre Francais. Unless you are thoroughly familiar with the look and feel of LVF, it would be wise to consult an experienced collector or a reputable dealer who can vouch for the LVF authenticity.
LVF art glass is hand-blown and then decorated through acid-etched rather than hand-carved cameo. Helmut Ricke, in his scholarly volume Schneider France - Glas des Art Deco, describes the LVF manufacturing process: "A mottled layer of colored powder was put upon a colorless base, covered by a relatively thick-walled clear layer in between, and finally topped by a solid layer of usually two colors. One color had its greatest density at the bottom of the vessel, the other at the top. Both hues merged midway in the piece. The ultimate appearance was defined by the subsequent etching process. Through stencils the intended design was covered with protective lacquer and the remaining color layer was removed by lowering the piece into an acid bath. Generally a second etching process was used to outline details on the design itself."
The pieces produced in this manner are uniform only in their initial method of decoration. They were individually blown, sometimes further etched by hand for added embellishment. Because different craftsmen created each piece, there are color nuances even within the same décor series, and thus all are originals. Their range of designs and combination of colors is truly breathtaking, especially when viewed in a large grouping. There is an unmistakable, exciting energy in these works while they sit resplendently as a visual reminder of days gone by. We, who appreciate art deco glass, must be caretakers of these icons of yesteryear, preserving this distinctive art deco legacy.
Unquestionably LVF was decorated through a commercial manufacturing process, and some purists turn up their noses at this ‘factory’ as opposed to ‘studio’ glass. Yet it proved to be very popular when it was created, and is being rediscovered in our time as exemplifying the 1920s, with collectors drawn to the eye-catching colors and attractive designs. The demand for this dramatic glass has been rising because people respond to its art deco flamboyance. The earliest pieces are now 80 years old and their electrifying impact continues to be as compelling today as it was then. Thus, part of the LVF appeal is its timelessness, linking our era to the 1920s by introducing some art deco extravagance into our modern lifestyle where it appears not at all out of place.
Even though LVF is fairly uniform in its method of decoration and varies only in its presentation of designs, it does have certain distinguishing characteristics. During the first seven years the designs are dominated by subject matter from plant and animal life, to be followed by stylized abstract, sometimes geometric, designs. The décor is usually repeated three times around the piece. Works from the early years also show traditional tiles, either at the bottom or top. Most pieces have a padded foot in the color of the work, but some have an applied amethyst foot similar to the Schneider line. Applied handles are mostly amethyst colored, but can be orange or even cobalt blue. Of special note are some ewer handles that are applied to snake across the body either to the right or left.
Charles Schneider developed the LVF line in a marketing move to reach a broader public taste with an aesthetically pleasing product. His grandson, Jean-Charles Schneider, states in Bertrand’s book that Charles Schneider was the first to use modern marketing techniques for decorative arts. Charles Schneider developed all the designs for both lines of glass, but for LVF he gave the craftsmen freedom to select color, shape and size. That explains why some designs are available in different colors, with many pieces exhibiting variable hues. For the most part they did an excellent job of adapting the design to a given shape and size. As a matter of personal preference, I still think that some patterns, like the fishes, swans, or scarabs, do not lend themselves well to monumental sizes. Others, in particular the various tree designs, are quite impressive as large pieces.
LVF glass achieves its impact through a combination of design, shape and color. The relatively short time of production (1918-1933) permits a fascinating view of the transition from art nouveau to art deco. During the early years, lifelike designs of animals –swans, cats-, and plants –holly, bell flowers-, were executed in somber hues, so that just by noting the color, one can roughly date a piece. As time went on, the designs became more stylized in the art deco manner, and the colors brightened. Toward the end of the 15-year span, the production came full circle to a common finish with the Schneider line: In the early 1930s, both concluded their production with unicolor pieces, where only shape and cold decoration, like etching, determined the work’s character.
Until the economic downturn in the world deprived the Schneider firm of viable markets, LVF glass was an unqualified success by any measure, exporting in large quantities to both North and South America, as well as selling to the European public. The work came in all sizes, from miniatures of 3" or less, to monumental sizes of 36" and more. Among the more exciting pieces are the lighting fixtures: Whether table lamps or night lights, chandeliers or plafonds, a LVF design lit up can be a spectacular sight and can dominate a room.
Thus far, not much LVF glass is shown in museums. By contrast, several museums have large collections of Schneider glass. But there are magnificent private LVF collections around the world, in Europe as well as in the USA. For many years, LVF glass was dismissed as being less artistic than the Schneider line because it was decorated via a manufacturing process (acid etching). Such a snub of LVF is an odd distinction to make while Lalique glass, for instance, is universally acclaimed. After all, as beautiful as Lalique glass can be, only the design was the artistic achievement and the vessel itself was blown into a mould, thereby ensuring total uniformity. Actually, LVF should neither be compared to the Schneider line nor be held to the same standards. It is different glass and should be judged on its own merits. A director of a large museum confided to me that as far as real labor goes, many LVF pieces actually required more effort than some works in the Schneider line.
Personally, I collect both types of Schneider glass, for different reasons. The Schneider line is to be admired for its elegant, imaginative designs and elaborate execution. The numerous varied effects are well thought out and can be appreciated on an intellectual as well as an emotional level. But LVF glass is equally important as a record of the 1920s glass scene. It is serious glass with great physical appeal, relying in a gutsy, in-your-face way only on its colorful presence to create a lasting impression. There is no mystery, no special effects; what you see is what you get: Colorful pieces of hand-blown glass from the art deco era, with striking designs that are amazingly compatible with our modern life style. Like the Schneider line, LVF art glass was also ahead of its time and now represents a memorable slice of the period the French fondly call ‘Les annees folles’, our ‘Roaring Twenties’.
Enthusiastic public acceptance seems to endorse the desirability of LVF and to reinforce the view that this glass deserves our attention. Some have called LVF the quintessential art deco glass. In his Schneider book, Helmut Ricke commented on LVF in 1981: "Without a doubt, it (LVF) also represents a significant contribution to art deco glass art." As the glass was studied over the years, other experts came to the same conclusion, and regardless of perceptions in certain circles, LVF now occupies its deserved place in glass history. Responsive admirers attest to that fact every day by voting with their credit cards.
Price tags are reflecting the new attention focused on LVF. As with any glass, prices will vary depending on the size, condition, and rarity of the item. Certain patterns are more scarce than others and will command higher prices. Among the patterns not easily found are most of the animal decors, which includes the cats, fishes, swans, lizards/dragonflies. The scarabs, an early pattern, can be found more readily, and so can the geese and bird designs. Other desirable animal patterns include the butterflies and the snails.
The plant, flower and fruit patterns comprise a large segment of LVF work. Most of the tree patterns are scarce and highly sought after. Very rare is the cypress tree pattern, as far as we know the only landscape pattern in LVF (meaning that the décor is not repeated, but continues naturally around the available contours). The mushrooms are not easily found. The roses, fuchsias, orchids, and bell flower patterns are not too common, neither are the figs and several designs of vines with berries. There are many stylized flower patterns, but it is virtually impossible to mention them all, because they are too numerous and also difficult to describe, since many of the décor titles are unknown. Outstanding among the pure art deco designs are the flags décor and the basket weave pattern.
No one knows why some designs are hard to find. Is it because pieces are so attractive that they remain in collections and never reach the market? Or did the public of that time not respond favorably to the design and thereby curtailing production? One can only guess. LVF, very poular when it was first created in the 1920s, is timeless, attracting today’s collectors with eye-catching colors and designs. As collectors begin to understand the processes and distinctions between Schneider’s glass lines, appreciation of LVF is bound to grow. The earliest pieces of LVF are now over eighty years old, and their impact is as electrifying and compelling today as it was then.
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Ricke, Helmut. Schneider France -Glas des Art Deco Hannover, 1981 (German)
Bertrand, Gerard. Schneider Maitre Verrier Editions Faton, Dijon, 1995 (French)
Copyright © 2000 by Thomas Karman All rights reserved.