Friday, 3 December 2010

Decorative Lacquerware: The Art of Jean Dunand


Jean Dunand

"De par le coeur et par les mains."


If one were to consider some of the luminary and influential names of  French Art Deco furniture designers and artisans - Jacques-Émile Rhulman, André Groult, Eugène Printz, Jules and André Leleu, Pierre Chareau and Jean-Michel Frank, for instance - that of Swiss-born master lacquerist Jean Dunand would undoubtedly shimmer among them.

Born in Petit-Lancy, Switzerland, on May 20th, 1877, Jean Dunand trained as a sculptor at the École des Arts Industriels de Genève from 1891-1896. Then in 1897, Dunand was awarded a travel grant to Paris where he continued his studies, including an apprenticeship at the studio of the Burgundian Art Nouveau sculptor, Jean-Auguste Dampt, who introduced him to the notion of design production for interior decoration and furnishing. After a few years with Dampt, Dunand exhibited, for the first time, a bust at the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris. Dunand worked on the winged horses on the Pont Alexandre III while simultaneously exploring the use of metal in the decorative arts. (Sources:, undated;, 2008)

Josephine Baker

At around 1904 or 1905, Dunand partially abandoned sculpture to focus on the craft of metalwork - specifically, dinanderie, a type of late medieval brass, copper and bronze work originating in Dinant, Belgium. It was also in 1904 that the Museé des Arts Décoratifs in Paris purchased an early example of his work, a copper embossed vase. (Having worked several years at the studios of Dampt, Dunand's first vases showed a distinctly Art Nouveau influence, but he quickly progressed to and appropriated the geometric lines of the more modern and streamlined style of the Art Deco movement, then just beginning to make its appearance.) Over the next several years, Dunand continued to exhibit regularly at the Salons de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as well as at the Salon d'Automne - where such recognizable artistic talents as Renoir and Rodin also showed in some of the Salon's early exhibitions - of which he was a member. (Sources:, undated;, 2008)

Vase - ca. 1915
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By 1912 and in a roundabout way, Dunand had become interested in Japanese lacquerware. The Japanese artist Seizo Sugawara - who had immigrated to Paris in 1898 to assist at the Japanese pavilion for the upcoming Exposition Universelle in 1900 - had asked Dunand's advice and assistance in solving a problem he had been having concerning dinanderie; in exchange for which, Sugawara introduced Dunand to the then closely-guarded secrets of traditional Japanese technique of urushi - lacquering. The two men had been introduced by Eileen Gray, the Irish architect and furniture designer who had met Sugawara in 1907 and who had also begun to learn the art of urushi. Dunand was so taken with the artisinal craft of lacquering that he established a workshop specializing in the production of lacquerware, importing a large number of artisans and craftsmen from Indochina, who executed Dunand's conceptions for groupings of furnishings, decorative panels and objects made entirely of lacquer, a laborious and time-consuming process requiring upwards of twenty successively applied layers and procedures to achieve the desired effect.

But Dunand never entirely abandoned metalwork; he continued to produce metal vases, trays and other decorative objects - he even created a Helmet of Honour, offered to Marshal Ferdinand Foch who served as general of the French army during World War I and made Marshal of France in 1918, by the United States government. (For his own participation in the first World War, Dunand was awarded the Legion of Honour medal in 1919.) He deftly combined the artistry of Oriental lacquer work with European decorative designs and sensibilities such as his method of audaciously lacquering metal.  (Sources:, 2010;, undated;, 2008)

Vase in embossed metal with vegetal pattern - 1908

Vase in brown patinated metal with silver spiral patterns

A pair of signed monumental lacquered and gilt metal vases - ca. 1925

A pair of armchairs in lacquered wood, signed - ca. 1925

Sideboard - ca. 1938 (Jean Dunand & Eugene Printz)

Lacquered wood table, signed - ca. 1930-31
(Jean Dunand & Jean Lambert-Rucki)

Copperware vase with lacquer, signed
(Jean Dunand & Jean Lambert-Rucki)

Six-leaf Fish screen - ca. 1927
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At around 1925, Jean Dunand began to experiment with the technique of incorporating minute bits of eggshell shards - both the inner and outer surface of the shell - to great effect into his lacquered designs. He used this technique - uniquely his own - in the manufacture of multi-paneled screens, society portraiture and even on metal objects such as vases using hen, duck or partridge eggs to achieve subdued ivory, brown or pale green colouration. Dunand also collaborated with some of the most notable architects, artisans, craftsmen and (furniture) designers of his time - Jacques-Émile Rhulman, Jules Leleu, Séraphin Soudbinine, Eugene Printz, Jean Lambert-Rucki, Jean Dupas and the couturiers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet - creating pieces of furniture and objects made of assorted materials, such as gold leaf and mother-of-pearl, that transcended an item's functionality, transforming it into an exquisite work of art. (Sources:, undated;, 2008)

Some of the finest examples of Dunand's technical virtuosity in lacquerware were produced for the great French ocean liners - the most luxurious and magnificent floating palaces ever to grace the oceans - Ile de France (1927), L'Atlantique (1931), and the legendary Normandie (1935), where he created great panels such as The Chariot of Aurora. The Normandie's gold-lacquered, Egyptian-style panels in the smoking room and Grand Salon titled 'Jeux et les Joies de l'Humanité' (see panels below), for example, were fabricated using gesso, clay and plaster and Dunand coated both sides of the panels with the same number of lacquer coats - a Sugarawa formula - so as to subvert the wood's tendency to warp. (Sources:, 2010;, undated;, 2010; Maxtone-Graham, 2007)

Les Sports - from the 'Jeux et les Joies de l'Humanité' theme
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Les Vendanges - Normandie, 1935

La Chasse - Normandie, 1935
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During his own lifetime, the artistic integrity of Jean Dunand's work was recognized, appreciated, exhibited and acquired by museums and collectors alike. Having spent most of his adult life in France, Dunand became a French citizen in 1922; he died on June 7th, 1942. (Sources:, 2010;, 2008) 

Cabinets - 1921
(Jean Dunand & Jules Leleu)

Pianissimo screen: lacquer, gold, eggshell & mother-of-pearl  - 1925-26
(Jean Dunand & Séraphin Soudbinine)

Fortissimo screen: lacquer, eggshell, gold & mother-of-pearl - 1925-26
(Jean Dunand & Séraphin Soudbinine)
The images above are courtesy of:


Danseuse et Musicienne - 1924
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Lacquered pewter ware vase - ca. 1929
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Lacquered screen - ca. 1925
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Six-leaf lacquered screen, Les Cagnas - ca. 1921

Lacquered metal vase - ca. 1925
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The Annunciation wall panel - ca. 1933

High table - ca. 1925
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Lacquer & eggshell portrait of Madame Agnés, signed

Bleu Agnés desk (designed for Madame Agnés) and armchair in midnight-blue lacquer - 1926
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Sideboard - ca. 1930
(Jean Dunand, Eugene Printz & Jean Lambert-Rucki)
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Lacquered vanity table - 1930
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Twelve-panel screen
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Detail of the lacquered twelve-panel screen above
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Eggshell & lacquer vase - ca. 1930

Lacquered & eggshell metal vase - ca. 1924
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Lacquer & eggshell bowl - 1920
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Silver cigarette case, signed

Panel detail

Monkeys lacquered screen - ca. 1926
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Detail of a lacquered panel - Three Panthers

Fantastic Animals Screen - ca. 1926
(Jean Dunand & Jean Lambert-Rucki)

Clair de Lune lacquered five-panel screen - ca. 1928

Lacquered neck rings in geometric motifs - ca. 1927

Grape Harvesting, detail - after the Normandie panel

The Nightingale - inside board of Two Tales by Oscar Wilde, ca. 1926

Group of vases - ca. 1925-27
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Vase with a rearing cobra - ca. 1920
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Chariot of Aurora panel from the Grand Salon of the Normandie - ca. 1935
(Jean Dunand & Jean Dupas)

Suggested reading:

The Spirit and Splendour of Art Deco (1971), by Alain Lesieutre: Paddington Press

Jean Dunand: His Life and Works (1991), by Félix Marcilhac: Thames & Hudson

Essential Art Deco (2002), by Iain Zaczek: Paragon Publishing

Designing Liners: A History of Interior Design Afloat (2006), by Anne Welleans: Taylor & Francis

Normandie: France's Legendary Art Deco Ocean Liner (2007), by John Maxtone-Graham: W. W. Norton & Company


  1. Great taste!!
    Both Dunand and the Honorable poster of these magnificent art works!!!

  2. I have an original Jean Dunand model of The Grape Harvest from the Normandie - signed by Jean Dunand - given to my Greatgrandmother in 1935 - in very good condition with other paraphenalia - she was a designer for Vogue and traveled aboard the Normandie and befriended Dunand. I am interested in selling the 22x24" gold lacquer model.
    Maggie Alexander

    1. Dear Ms. Alexander:

      How truly fortunate you are to own an original Dunand, from the Normandie (& signed by the artist), no less. I should also compliment your great-grandmother for having the sense (not to mention the eye & taste) to appreciate it ~ and to pass it on to the generations that followed.

      If you are seeking my advice on the best method of selling this panel, my suggestion would be for you to approach a reputable auction house such as (but certainly not limited to) Christie's or Sotheby's. Its provenance would, naturally, need to be verified & authenticated. It being a panel from the famed Normandie, I am quite sure that you will find its appeal will attract diverse sorts of connoisseurs: those who love Dunand & the whole Art Deco period, and those who enjoy nautical history. There is yet a third potential purchaser - those who enjoy social history.

      I ask that you keep me apprised of the outcome; I'd very much be interested to know. Feel free to contact me directly at my email address (provided above).

      Best of luck on your enterprise.

      With warm regards,
      ₵. Ð.