by Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass
The Museum has recently acquired an extraordinary work: a large vase, titled Les Hommes Noirs (The Dark Men), designed by Emile Gallé (French, 1846‒1904) and his childhood friend, the painter and sculptor Victor Prouvé (French, 1858‒1943).
Emile Gallé was born and raised in the town of Nancy, in eastern France. After apprenticing at the glass and ceramics factory owned by his father, Charles Gallé, the young Gallé eventually took over the business, expanding it into a flourishing art industry by the end of the 19th century.
Les Hommes Noirs was made by Gallé as a call for justice, for civil rights, and for the defense of the unjustly accused. Its subject refers to the intense political, judicial, and social scandal that surrounded a French Jewish military officer named Alfred Dreyfus (1859‒1935). The Dreyfus Affair (1894‒1906) involved a false accusation of treason and a subsequent cover-up that divided French society for over a decade. Gallé, who was deeply disturbed by the case, commissioned Prouvé to design a special vase for Gallé’s display at the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. Gallé intended for the vase to expose all “fanaticism, hatred, lies, prejudice, cowardice, selfishness, and hypocrisy.”
The triple-overlay, acid-etched vase is signed by both artists and dated 1900. It is inscribed “Hommes noirs d’où sortez-vous? Nous sortons de dessous terre.” (Dark men, from where do you come? We come from beneath the earth.) Prouvé’s design shows monstrous creatures rising from the darkness of the depths of the earth or from Hell, noxious dark men who illustrate the evils of anti-Semitism and calumny. One is a crone-faced, bat-winged creature with a tail made of snakes. Another has huge deformed claws for hands. A wavy-haired male figure, representing “Truth,” looks out with a hurt expression.
The play of darkness and light in glass was a frequent metaphor used by Gallé to symbolize the battle between good and evil. The three large lilies, painted with silver stain, represent Dreyfus’s innocence.
Les Hommes Noirs is an extremely rare work in early 20th-century glass, and in decorative arts in general, in that it goes beyond the concept of the vase as a decorative vessel. As is characteristic of Gallé’s greatest works, the glass vase has become a work of art, an object that stimulates thought and discussion, and inspires noble ideas.
The most successful works of art are those that resonate across time and place. Les Hommes Noirs is one of the rare art works in glass to accomplish just that. At over a century old, its theme—protesting false accusation, ethnic profiling, and political cover-ups—is still relevant and powerful.
The vase was unveiled on October 20, during the Annual Seminar on Glass. It will be on display in the Modern Gallery.
Watch the video on Les Hommes Noirs and the Dreyfus Affair:
Purchased in part with funds from the Houghton Endowment Fund, James B. Flaws and Marcia D. Weber, Daniel Greenberg, Susan Steinhauser, and The Greenberg Foundation in honor of Natalie G. and Ben W. Heineman Sr., James R. and Maisie Houghton, Ben W. Heineman Sr. Family, E. Marie McKee and Robert Cole Jr., Elizabeth S. and Carl H. Pforzheimer III, and Wendell P. Weeks and Kim Frock Weeks