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Henry van de Velde (1863-1957), creator of this grand silver centerpiece, occupies a unique position in the story of Art Nouveau and the emergence of the Modern Movement. He came to prominence as a gifted and vociferous exponent of the Art Nouveau style in Belgium in the last years of the 19th century. His approach involved the abstraction of plant forms into linear and sculpted patterns and motifs, with an emphasis on a dynamic line, taut and with a whiplash energy, and always characterized by a considerable graphic sophistication. Van de Velde also subscribed to the prevalent Art Nouveau principle of wholeness, of the architect-designer as creator of a complete environment. In van de Velde's case, this even embraced the creation of clothes in a high Art Nouveau style. Invited to design for the Paris retail outlet La Maison Moderne, van de Velde established a link between the avant-garde design scene in Brussels and that in the French capital. He further made his mark with projects in Berlin.
In time, the public reacted against the excesses of Art Nouveau. Van de Velde had devised a style that could be somewhat overwhelming, the decorative aspects perhaps tending to overshadow the underlying purity of construction and of line. Eventually his style became more restrained and he tempered this tendency to elaboration. He would in due course become a significant voice in the emergence in Germany of a new functionalist approach in which leading designers allied themselves to democratic industrial production. His role in establishing the Kunstgewerbeschule in Weimar in 1907 was later acknowledged by Gropius as a model for the foundation of the Bauhaus in 1919.
Around 1902, now settled in Germany, van de Velde received a commission to create a suite of silver for his patron, the Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, on the occasion of his marriage. The drawings made by van de Velde in the autumn of 1902 were executed by the silversmith Theodor Muller, and to his order by the Bremen silver manufactory of Koch & Bergfeld. The silver is now mostly lost, but is recorded in certain contemporary documents including a photograph of a display in Krefeld in 1904 in which one can recognize a centerpiece of near identical form to the present piece. It is most likely that this work dates from precisely this period and could well be a part of the ducal commission
The centerpiece perfectly demonstrates van de Velde's plastic skills. The piece is conceived as a complete synthesis of form and decoration, restrained yet sumptuous and illustrating the individuality of van de Velde at a key moment in his career as he distilled the Art Nouveau idea to its elegant essentials.
Silver, silver-plated liner stamped with designer's monogram maker's marks
5 1/8 x 17 1/4 x 10 1/8 in.
(15 x 44 x 25.5 cm)
Galerie Wolfgang Ketterer, Munich, November 15, 1980, lot 942 Private collection, Munich
MODERNE FORMGEBUNG 1900-1914, Deutsches Museum fur Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, 1997
MODERNE FORMGEBUNG 1900-1914, exh. cat., Deutsches Museum fur Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, 1997, p. 143, cat. no. ME 85
Reinhard W. Sanger, DAS DEUTSCHE SILBER-BESTECK, BIEDDERMEIER-HISTORISMUS- JUNGENSTIL (1805-1918), Firmen, Techniken, Designer und Dekore, Stuttgard, 1991, p. 215, pl. 91 (for comparison)