As a flameworking demonstrator at The Corning Museum of Glass, I am often asked how far back into history the process goes. Our guests see us working with a futuristic-looking over-sized blowtorch, and they cannot help but assume the process is a recent development. This could not be much further from the truth, however, as some of the oldest objects in our collections possess details that suggest a small, focused flame must have been used. There are a few periods throughout flameworking history that greatly highlight the potential of using a focused flame, but one, in particular, grabs my attention the most.
From the middle of the 1500s through the end of the 1700s, there was a movement of sculptural flameworking throughout the Loire Valley of Central France. It centered around the little town of Nevers, so many historians refer to the work produced there as Nevers figurines or Verres de Nevers.
Interestingly though, many of the objects that get lumped into this category may not have been made in Nevers, but they were made in other parts of France and are similar enough to fit the genre.
While there are some records of lampworking in this area in the mid-15th century, Nevers became a major center for glassmaking after Henrietta of Cleves, Duchess of Nevers, married Italian nobleman, Louis Di Gonzaga Di Mantua, Duke of Nevers in 1565. He took a special interest in the arts, particularly glassmaking. He founded a glasshouse and brought Italian glass workers to Nevers, including lampworkers. From the last quarter of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century, Nevers was the main French center of production for Façon de Venise or Venetian replica wares. They also manufactured enamels, or colored glasses lampworkers needed to produce their wares.
The objects from this movement vary widely in their quality and content. Figurines from this genre may be single figures or complicated multimedia dioramas, crèche scenes, and table decorations. The quality of the pieces varies from simple folk characters to religious and royal figures, as well as very fine figures in elaborate scenes in diorama-style boxes that could be even larger than the mechanical glass theater below..
This beautiful composition by lampworker, Pierre Haly, entitled “Marie Antoinette Sacrifices the Heart of the Nobility on the Altar of the French Republic” may be the finest example of early lampworking in the collections of The Corning Museum of Glass. It is well-documented that Haly was a member of a famous dynasty of lampworkers from Nevers. He may have made this piece in response to the gathering at the Champs de Mars and before King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their son failed in their attempt to escape to Austria in 1791. The royal family would be executed shortly thereafter. A close look at the quality of details in the Marie Antoinette and cherub figures as compared to the details on many other figures from the same time period reveals the level of Haly’s mastery. The accuracy of the facial details and hands as well as the subtlety of their gestures is fabulous!
One aspect of these figures that particularly intrigues historians and craftspeople alike is the fact that the glass was built around a skeleton of iron wire, and much of the glass mass is filled with very thin copper wires. There are a couple of theories on why the wires were used. Some historians believe the metal wires were used to help keep the glass held together when it inevitably cracked. If the glass were to crack due to chemical compatibility issues (which was a problem at the time) or thermal shock, it would still stick to the metal wires and be held in place. The other theory is that the wires helped to conduct heat throughout the object while it was being crafted. If parts of the sculpture got too cold during fabrication, they might begin to crack and fall apart. The wires could have helped to keep the objects warm enough to survive through the lengthy sculpting processes that would have been necessary to create some of the more elaborate figures.
While there are several fine objects of this genre of glass work to be seen at The Corning Museum of Glass, several other museums around the world possess great examples of these intriguing sculptures as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to see collections at The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, France, and Musée de la Faïence in Nevers, France. There was something particularly special about seeing these figurines in the very town they were made, and the museum in Nevers had the most extensive collection I’ve seen. Many other museums around the world have examples in their collections too. Perhaps the most impressive collection of these works I have seen thus far is in Musée les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, France. Among many fine works of Verre de Nevers in their collections is perhaps the single greatest work of this style. Follow this link to see a depiction of King Henry IV by the Parisian artist Charles François Hazard (1758-1812) from 1789. While I had seen black and white images of the sculpture in a few books and online, this piece literally took my breath away when I got to see it in person in 2018.
Hopefully, this blog post helps to expand the understanding that flameworking has been practiced at a very high level for a much longer time than many might realize. I hope this short exploration into such a unique aspect of this process inspires you to search out these amazing works both here in Corning and at the many museums in which they have been collected around the world.