Earlier this year, Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s curator of modern glass, asked me to research 16 glass panels affixed to light boxes in the Museum’s permanent collection. The panels, made in the 1950s and 1960s, came to the museum in 1993, and are called gemmaux. I had no idea what gemmaux were when I began my research, but I was excited for the challenge. I began my search by looking through the curatorial files on the objects in our collection. I also was able to find information online through the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution and through the Rakow Research Library here at the Museum.
Gemmail (plural gemmaux) is a French word that is literally translated as “enamel gem.” The term was coined by French painter Jean Crotti to describe a technique he developed for layering and adhering pieces of colored glass onto a panel in order to create compositions that are meant to be viewed in front of a light box or illuminated from behind. Gemmaux were very popular in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were made by technicians called gemmistes at a Paris studio called Les Gemmaux de France.
Gemmistes used existing artwork by well-known artists, like Pablo Picasso and George Braque, to create re-interpretations of their work using the gemmail technique. Sometimes these artists even came to the studio to sign the gemmaux when they were finished. Young French painters also experimented with the technique.
Fifteen of the 16 gemmaux panels in the Museum’s collection were given by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company as a gift in 1993. These 15 panels were part of a 1962 traveling exhibition called Masterpieces in Glass organized by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company to promote their fiberglass curtains. The Rakow Research Library has two full-color 1961 advertisements for the Masterpieces in Glass exhibition that showcase the gemmaux alongside fiberglass curtains. Each panel depicted is now in the Museum’s permanent collection.
Since I began my research, there has been a surge of public interest in this unusual mid-20th-century technique and the information I was able to uncover on the history of gemmaux has grown larger than a blog post can contain. So I wrote an article called A Brief History of Gemmaux. It is a fascinating history! You can also view all of the Museum’s gemmaux panels by using the online collections browser.