J.P. sends me a fabulous Art Nouveau style figural lamp for the table, a nude woman supported by a peacock. The outstretched arm of the woman holds the light fixture; a globe shape, encrusted with jewel like crystals, glows when lit. J.P. is wondering if this is “something.”
In the history of lighting design, well, YES, it IS something. Because in the first quarter of the 20th century, the era of Art Nouveau in Europe, for some reason, early lamp makers focused on the idea that seminude nubile young females should be both the subject and the “holders of the light” for the newfangled thing called a “lamp.”
Because the Art Nouveau period was a high point for naturalistic, organic (think NON geometrical) lines, and since the period loved the exoticism of the female nude, AND the association with the nude to nature, oftentimes lamp makers included a bronze of the nude with a certain type of shade. For example, a Nautilus shell, or a bronze shade, encased with pinpoints of jewels, such as in J.P.’s lamp. The reasons for this were many: it was a way to celebrate the beauty of the nude in a tasteful, novel way (electric lights were NEW), and it was a way to celebrate that electricity was “illuminating” the ability to showcase the nubile female.
Here is a great example. Sold from the bar of the Adams Mark Hotel, a seminude bronze figure into which the electricity was channeled; she (a bronze elegantly draped figure) held TWO lanterns in miniature, which were lighted by bulbs. This served a few purposes: the bar, which was limited to males, could admire her form, and the bar, which was dark, needed to have light.
In the Art Nouveau period, the collision between the modern world of technology and the old world of beautiful sculpture resulted in beautiful, excessive elements of design, and MONEY. Only the very wealthy could afford a lamp, and indeed only the wealthy could afford electricity in their homes or businesses. I find it amusing that the people who COULD have such lighting preferred to use the semi naked female form as the “lamp base!”
J.P. asks if her lamp is original to the period, and I do not think it is “period” (1900-1925) Art Nouveau, but a later copy from the 1980s when for some reason we had a resurgence of Art Nouveau in the U.S. Her lamp is “after” the design by Maurice Wolfer (Belgian 1886-1976); and when we say “after,” we mean that someone got ahold of the mold or a lamp from 1910 by Wolfer, and made a plaster cast, then had it cast in bronze to sell on 1980s market … and yes, because there was so few copyright issues from that period, it was DONE.
Some of the most notable lamps of the period were modeled on the great beauties of the age, 1900-1925, such as the actress Loie Fuller (1901) inspired by the lamp maker and sculpture Larch. Fuller is recreating a famous stage roll, of course seminude, and holding a globe which is lighted in this small table lamp, and such a thing can sell for $4,000.
Another highly valued lamp is a famous beauty of the age holding aloft a nautilus shell, and that shell is the shade, and this will sell for $4,000.
One of the most interesting techniques of the era was to make the light bulb itself part of the erotica. So, in some cases, the seminude is holding a light bulb encased in a shell or encased in a globe in her hand, but perhaps the most inventive of all the techniques was to have the light “glow up” inside her skirts (I mean, not HER skirts, but the bronze of the nude’s skirts) showing both her form, her legs, et al, and allowing the peep show to also be an actual LAMP. Such a one is a lamp done in 1910 by the lamp maker and sculptor Laport-Blairsy, where a wonderfully semi clothed actress, who is playing a classical role (draped in Grecian flowing robes) is caught in the act of spinning on the stage, the Grecian robes swirl outward. Thus, this outward arch of her robes is the PERFECT shade for the 1910 light bulb! And thus, it WAS. A lamp like this will also sell for $4,000-5,000.
J.P.’s lamp, because it is a 1980’s recast, is STILL valuable, but at $500, a far cry from the original in 1910 at $4,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.