Long before Nancy became famous for its spectacular Baroque architecture, it had been the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine for over 500 years. The wealth of historic landmarks in its medieval quarter, the Vieille Ville (Old Town), attest to the Duchy’s early prosperity. Then, by the 16th century, Duke Charles the Great turned the city’s landscape upside down. To accommodate the needs of a growing population, he developed an entire new town, the Ville Neuve, to the south of the medieval town, including a grand Renaissance-style Ducal Palace (now the Musée Lorrain).
Yet it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that the last of his successors, Duke Stanislas Leszczynski, father-in-law of the King of France, commissioned Nancy’s grand Baroque palaces and pavilions, including the City Hall, Opera House and Fine Arts Museum to surround one of the most renowned Baroque squares in Europe: the Place Stanislas. While these remarkable historic landmarks are well worth a visit, it is treasures of a more recent era that brought me here recently: the richest Art Nouveau heritage in France.
The Dazzling Daum Collection
My exploration of Nancy’s artistic treasures predictably begins on the Place Stanislas, at the Musée des Beaux Arts where. on my way to the basement, I browse through the exceptional collection of notable local artists such as Le Lorrain, Emile Friant and Etienne Cournault, and works by such European greats as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Rubens Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. Down there, within a setting of the city’s ancient fortifications, with over 600 pieces on display, more than any other museum in anywhere in the world, the Daum Collection dazzles.
Established in 1878 by Jean Daum (1825-1885), the Daum crystal studio flourished under his sons, August (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1931) to become one of the most prominent Art Nouveau decorative glass manufacturers in France. The Daum brothers soon became a major force in the Art Nouveau movement for their creative use of pâte de verre (glass paste), an ancient Egyptian method of glass casting, often combined with carving, enameling, engraving and acid etching. Several of these processes were often combined in a single piece to produce uniquely creative glass masterpieces. This permanent exhibit mainly showcases a sumptuous collection of pieces from the Art Nouveau period, but it also traces the story of the Daum glassworks from their early days to their clear crystal creations of the 1990’s.
The Ecole de Nancy
Three of the biggest names in French Art Nouveau, Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the Daum brothers and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) had their glassware and furniture manufacturing plants in Nancy. They were part of a dynamic artistic and business culture that had its origins in the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when artists, intellectuals and industrialists fled to Nancy, which had remained in French territory. In 1901, they founded a movement that became known as the Ecole de Nancy and was joined by other artists, notably Jacques Grüber, of stained glass installations fame.
Today their pioneering creations are showcased in the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Opened in 1964 in the former residence of Eugène Corbin, a major patron of the mouvement who donated to the city an exceptional collection of 700 pieces of great diversity. Designed by architect Lucien Weissenburger in a vast landscaped garden with an aquarium pavilion, the villa itself has retained its original Art Nouveau charm. It provides the perfect setting for its collections of outstanding furniture and decorative objects by all the artists of the School.
The Museum of the Ecole de Nancy
A visit to the Nancy School Museum is a journey back to the Belle Époque, where architecture, furniture, lighting and stained glass immerse us into the world of Art Nouveau. Each room – dining room, bedrooms, study, bathroom – is exquisitely furnished with the creations of the architects, craftsmen and decorators who came together as the Nancy School. Bed are adorned with butterflies, lights fixtures open into translucent corollas, mahogany sideboards charm with their slender curves, and brilliant stained glass windows sparkle in a thousand and one shades. Each object is a wonder of refinement that reminds us of the ultimate ambition of these Art Nouveau masters: transforming the living environment down to the smallest detail by drawing inspiration from the splendors of nature. Not to be overlooked in the midsts of these treasures is the magnificent collection of Emile Gallé glass. A trained botanist, Gallé planted a garden under the windows of his glassworks, La Garenne, so that the workers could “check the accuracy of their lines”.
The Villa Majorelle
A short 10-minute walk away, along streets still dotted with Belle Époque buildings, the recently restored Villa Majorelle is regarded as one of the first and finest examples of the Art Nouveau architectural style in France. The flowing forms, decorative motifs and the continuous interplay between the exterior and the interior offer a brilliant example of the artistic unity advocated by a large number of artists of the period. Built around 1902 for the furniture designer and industrialist Louis Majorelle (father of Jacques Majorelle of Marrakech Jardin Majorelle fame), it served as a showcase for his own designs, as well as the work of other noted decorative artists of the day, including ceramist Alexandre Bigot and stained glass artist Jacques Grüber. The facade is composed of distinct blocks of different sizes, their decoration expressing the function of the space within. Especially notable is the western side, crowned by Majorelle’s studio, with soaring windows overlooking what was then the garden and surrounding countryside.
Inside, the meticulous restitution of the original decor and the furnishing of the rooms illustrates the intimate connection between architecture and decorative arts. The fluidity of the forms, the decorations inspired by nature, the play of light in the stained glass windows, every detail contributes to transporting the visitor back in time as the rooms are revealed one by one. From the dining room with its imposing flamed sandstone fireplace to the bedroom, a unique Majorelle creation made of Japanese ash and alder woods encrusted with copper and mother of pearl, the Villa offers a rare opportunity to experience an intimate home setting of the Gilded Age of Art Nouveau.
Good to Know
- Getting There — Nancy is located 350 kilometers (220 miles) east of Paris, and easy 4-hour drive via the A4 highway. However, the most efficient way to travel between the two cities is by rail: an hourly TGV (express train) connect the Gare de l’Est in the center of Paris to the Gare Nancy-Ville in the center of Nancy in a mere 90 minutes throughout the day.There are equally fast and easy highway and train connections from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland.
- Getting Around — The center of Nancy is pedestrian-friendly, mainly flat, with good sidewalks, and most of the historic monuments are located in car-free areas, The city also has a very efficient tramway service running from 4.30am to 1am during the week and 2.30am on weekends.
- Visiting — The Musée des Beaux Arts, 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesday and major national holidays. The Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, 36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, Nancy, and the Villa Majorelle, 1, rue Louis Majorelle, Nancy, are open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. They are closed on Monday, Tuesday and major national holidays.