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Verre Églomisé ... A Pre-Roman Artistic Technique Still Practiced Today

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

Let’s get the hard part out of the way. Verre Églomisé is pronounced “ver A-glowm-ee-zay” with a slight pause after the “ver” and an emphasis on the long A. Now that you can pronounce it, you might find it fun to say until you can’t get it out of your head. The term refers to an artistic technique that dates before the rise of the Roman Empire. It enjoyed popularity during the Byzantine Era and throughout the Middle Ages, especially in cathedrals and other sacred settings. It then spread to Venice where it heavily influenced the Italian Renaissance.

In the 18th century, this technique was coined “Verre Églomisé” when French decorator and art dealer, Jean-Baptiste Glomy revived the practice. Abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee also produced works in this manner. It eventually fell out of favor during the inter-war years, 1914-1945, but is again appreciated by specialty artists and their followers today.

So, what is Verre Églomisé? “Verre” being the French word for glass, combined with Glomy’s name, will make this term more meaningful. Basically, it’s reverse painting on glass. That is, one paints, applies metal leaf, and then burnishes the back side of a piece of glass. It’s then viewed from the front. The painting on the back can be a realistic or an abstract image, a decorative flourish, or a random application of color.

This is not as simple as it reads. Reverse painting is similar to driving a stick shift with your left hand. It’s awkward as the artist is painting in reverse order. That is, highlights and smaller images in the forefront are painted first rather than last. Large background images are painted last instead of first.

Once the paint has dried, gold, silver or another metal leaf is gently applied to the surface using a gelatin adhesive, also known as “size”. It’s made by melting vegetable-based gelatin capsules into hot water. Its wateriness helps the delicate leaf float into position. Both the application of the size and the leaf must be done slowly and with extreme care. Some people may call this application “gilding” but this would not be officially correct unless the leaf was gold.

When the size and the leaf have dried, the fun begins. The artist uses raw cotton to rub, or “burnish”, the surface until it’s smooth and reflective. Lastly, paint is applied on top of this burnished surface to protect it from tarnish and scratches. This is called “backing up” and the color most often used is black.

Examples of highly complex Verre Églomisé can be seen at this year’s San Francisco Decorator Showcase during the month of May. It is being held in a house called “Le Petit Trianon” and, from the name alone, sounds like the perfect setting. Églomisé artist, Victoria Weiss, will be displaying her sconces and triptychs along the walls that lead to the ballroom (yes, ballroom). She is also collaborating with San Anselmo ceramicist, Dan Bletterman. Together, they will be showing his hand-thrown pieces that have been embellished with Victoria’s gilding.

I first met Victoria in 1994 when she was applying her talents to my clients’ homes. At the time, she specialized in painted faux effects, murals, Venetian plaster, and furniture gilding. Her subtle and tasteful hand always left spaces more beautiful, interesting and dimensional.

During the past few years, Victoria has become intrigued with Verre Églomisé. The pieces she will be displaying at the Showcase have an enchanting and almost-mystical quality. Her process includes a few more steps to what I’ve previously described. Victoria first designs and draws the shape of a sconce (for example) on glass and then engages artisan glass-cutter, Eric Hansen, to cut the shape by hand. He does this and also adds beveled cuts where appropriate. The bevels, in turn, create additional layers and facets of reflection.

Once the glass has been prepared, Victoria applies the leaf and then burnishes it until it is smooth and reflective. She also burnishes until just the right amount of leaf has been removed to create an interesting, organic pattern. As she describes, “I then hand paint on top of the burnished leaf. Sometimes I will then add another layer of leaf on top of the painted design and burnish again. I may even follow that layer with more hand painting.” Victoria describes the unique glow and effect these dimensions create, “All of these layers reveal themselves in unexpected ways when lit from the front. They pop out. It’s kind of magical.”

To make her Verre Églomisé even more stunning and unique, Victoria sometimes adds crystal beads. She calls these bejeweled pieces “her ladies”.

One must see Verre Églomisé in person to truly appreciate its ever-changing effects. It seems fitting that such a challenging and complicated technique warrants its challenging and complicated name.

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