Expressions of Japonisme
          in Wolfers' Art Nouveau:


a curvilinear parallelism with America

by Martine D’Haeseleer

with Hallmarks!


 Z o o m   i n:

 E u r o p e.....B e l g i u m.....C i t y  o f  G h e n t

The canals’ cold waters reflect beautiful architectural structures that house narrow shops strutting spicy deserts--savory Belgian specialties.
Less touristy than Bruges and closer to the people, Ghent is the town where the famous Charles V, (Holy Roman Emperor), and Victor Horta were born…and so was I!

(Our favorite meal : The ‘Waterzooi’). 

Take a closer look at the Design Museum of Ghent, with its gorgeous 18th century ‘façade’ and the glistening wet grey-blue pavement.

I am wondering, “ It is a few months now that the Curator Mr. Lieven Daenens is not answering my emails just as usual. What has happened?”

For many months, Belgian experts have been working on an important exhibition of the work of Louis, Philippe and Marcel Wolfers (father, son and grandson) titled ‘Masters in Silver.’

From the middle of the 19th century to the mid 20th century, those three Belgian artists formed a family of ingenious artist/craftsmen. 

Belgium is well known for it’s Art Nouveau designs, especially ‘Curvilinear Art Nouveau.’  Architects and designers such as Victor Horta, Henry Van de Velde, Paul Hankar,  Paul Cauchie, Frans Hoosemans, and Gustave Serrurier Bovy expressed their fantasies in every possible way.  William Morris’s influence on Belgian applied arts can also be seen--‘Creation of Beauty in the everyday environment’ was also the Socialist ideal in Belgium.


A Family of Silversmiths:

The Family Wolfers, as designers and silversmiths, has its roots in a dynasty of silversmiths and jewelers of German and Dutch origins. They enjoyed a deserved European reputation and are still internationally praised.

Makers' mark Louis Wolfers- Starting 1869

 Wolfers Frères’ workshop
 Three stars in a triangle and the silver standard 800/1000-- in use during the period 1868 -1942.

Beginning in 1885, they formed a society known as ‘Louis Wolfers Père et Fils’ and  later in 1892 as ‘Wolfers Frères’ (the latter with the workshop’s mark, ‘Three stars in a triangle’-- a Masonic symbol, which was in use until 1942). Philippe was a member of the Masonic Lodge and the meaning of the three stars is ‘Work, Honor and Family.’ 

Bronze Commemoration Medal
Louis Wolfers is seen seated on the right., He is the founder of the House 'Louis
Wolfers'. He planted the tree from which his family continues to reap fruit!
This Medal was created by Marc Wolfers in 1912  for the inauguration of the
house situated at Rue d'Arenberg, 11-13,  in Brussels.  Marc Wolfers was the third
child of Louis  Wolfers and Henriette (They had 10 children).
The Arenberg House's architect was the famous Victor Horta. 
(Picture is courtesy of Bill Kogura)

The inspirations of Symbolism and Japonisme as well as Floral and Vegetal Art Nouveau with its curvilinear and whiplash motives are ingeniously expressed in the work of the Wolfers, ‘Louis Wolfers, Père et fils’ and later ‘Wolfers Frères’( masters of the Art Nouveau Period). They introduced and created objects whose forms became free from the classical repertoire. (Art Nouveau was the open expression of the Cult of Nature.)  

Philippe Wolfers took lectures in drawing and sculpture at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Brussels (1873-1877) where he formed lifelong friendship with other artists, many of them who would become colleagues in later artistic ventures. 

In 1875, the Honors List  of the Academy mentioned Philippe Wolfers, Paul Hankar, Isidore de Rudder, Henry Permeke (father of the famous painter Constant Permeke),  etc.

In 1876, Philippe entered his father’s factory/workshop as an apprentice. Later he designed the new models and acted as the design forman and artistic director. 

Twice a year he traveled through Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany, establishing new clientele and associations and bringing back new sources of influence. The firm and factory Wolfers Frères worked in collaboration and developed associations with other jewelers or retailers, such as ‘Emile Anthony’ in Antwerp, Belgium; ‘Fernand Hardy, Liège, Belgium; A. Bourdon, Gent, Belgium ; ‘Krischer’ in Düsseldorf, Germany; ‘Ferenc Paar,’ Budapest, Hungary; ‘Aublanc,’ and later ‘Jean Desmarès,’ Paris, France; Wolfers Frères in Amsterdam.

 Wolfers’ pieces were also shown in the Netherlands at ‘Bonebakker’ in Amsterdam; and at ‘Begeer’ in Utrecht. In Germany the work was handled in Berlin by ‘Goldsmidt’  Köln and ‘Friedlander’ and in Paris, France, at Cartier.

These business associations with foreign collaborators explain why we are often faced with the Wolfers Frères  workshop’s mark (the three stars in a triangle) punched in combination with the German State hallmarking (half-moon and Imperial crown) or with an Austro-Hungarian importation mark. (These combinations make it confusing for amateur collectors or scholars who lack that knowledge.)

Wolfers Frères’ Workshop combined with the German hallmarks –
 starting in 1888.



We find the introduction and first hints of the ‘Au Maraudeur’ theme in various works of art in the 1880’s and 1890’s when Philippe Wolfers worked in collaboration with the sculptor Isidore de Rudder.

From 1890 to 1892, in addition to his father’s factory, Philippe created his own workshop complete with a modeler, ivory carver, chaser, enameller and diamond-setter. He dedicated his talents to the creation of splendid jewels that combined curved lines of precious metals with carved stones and enamel work. Jewels in the ‘Plique à jour’ technique sculpted in combination with ivory brought ‘Art Nouveau’ expression to its utmost perfection in Belgium. Those works of art wear his personal maker’s signature--the line of the ‘Exemplaires Uniques’ present his special mark.

We can draw a close parallel between his Art Nouveau production and that of René Lalique and Emile Gallé in France. They were all humanists in the sense that they were open minded, free thinking artists that materialized their inspirations through various types of art expression. 


Inspirational Power of the International Exhibitions:
Philippe’s sources of inspiration were probably the major exhibitions that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after the opening of Japan to the outer world.

1866 - Opening of ‘La Maison Japonaise’ - Brussels.

1873 - Vienna World Exhibition.

1889 - The Japanese participation at the International Exhibition of Paris was a brilliant revelation to Western Europe and raised the enthusiasm of Siegfried Bing, the art dealer who founded the Parisian art shop, l’Art Nouveau that gave its name to the European Art Movement.

1894 - Serrurier-Bovy of Liège was selling objects imported from Japan.

Philippe Wolfers, representing the Wolfers’ factory or his personal workshop, participated in World Exhibitions in places such as Antwerp (1894); Brussels (1897) (where his unconventional creativity was a subject of ‘polemics and discussions’); Turin (1902);  Liège (1905); and Brussels (1910).

He did not participate in the Paris exhibition of 1900.

 In 1895, after the World Exhibition in Antwerp, he participated in the Exhibition at the ‘Cercle Artistique’ of Brussels where he presented his ‘Art Nouveau’ creations in Silverware and ivory combinations.  We can probably surmise the interwoven influences of American and European Japonisme.

1876-- The Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia (Christopher Dresser was a famous visitor).

In 1888--(already), silverware crafted by Gorham forshadowed Art Nouveau silver.

1893-- The World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago.

In 1893--During the Chicago Exhibition, the museum of Berlin, Germany, bought a few objects by Gorham as an example of good design.

1896 - Several visits of Charles Robert Ashbee to the United States.

1897 - First American Arts and Crafts Exhibition, Boston.

1889 – A commercial collaboration started between Tiffany and Siegfried Bing in Paris; American Art Nouveau is sold in Paris; French Art Nouveau  is sold in New York.

1900 - The World Exhibition in Paris. Gorham published a catalogue in French through its Parisian representative Spaulding & Co.

 - The decline of the Curvilinear Art Nouveau Style and Japonisme in Belgium started with the building of the Hotel Stocklet in Brussels (1905-1911). It was designed by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann and leads to the introduction of austere linear and geometric forms.



Art Nouveau expressions in Wolfers’creativity:

Introduction of Japanese wave motive:
The neo-Louis XV style was adorned with exuberant Rocaille ornamentation-- crested motives looking like the fringe of falling water, or the crest of sea wave. These crested patterns find their origin in the influence of Japonisme.

 The wave as a pictorial theme and ornamental pattern in Japanese art had a profound impact on European painting, graphic art, and applied arts in the second half of the nineteenth century. The highly stylized wave formula, underwent an intensification of decorative force in Europe, especially in the Art Nouveau movement.
’(The Wave’, as the subject of a painting, is perhaps best known in Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great wave off Kanagawa’, woodcut (1823-32);  Totoya Hokke’s, ‘Mekari Festival', colour woodcut (1830).

Wave Crest Motives’ in a ‘Wolfers Frères’ shell formed dish – Brussels -  circa 1892-1900
 and the detail of a wave ornament. Pictures: Martine D’Haeseleer

Link Between neo Louis XV style and Art Nouveau Period:

Lots of high quality ‘Neo – Rococo’ objects  crafted by ‘Louis Wolfers Père et Fils’ and later ‘Wolfers Frères’  with the putti ornamentation were ordered by foreign collectors who preferred the high standards of the Belgian Workshop to the lower quality of massive production  of silverware in Germany or to the production of industrial French silverplate.

A Very Impressive pair of Centrepieces
 by Wolfers Frères with the particular sculptural ornamentation called ‘Aux Maraudeurs’--
‘Putti playing with snails.’
Created by sculptor Isidore de Rudder -
 Brussels (1892-1900)

Detail of Centerpieces
  (Pictures are Courtesy of the  London Antique Dealer Pash and Sons)

Floral Japonisme:  a ’Cult of Nature’:
Beginning in 1878, Tiffany in New York and Philippe Wolfers in Brussels created forms inspired completely by nature with a treatment of asymmetrical floral or vegetal ornamentation. Silver Objects lost their classical forms and blossomed out in untraditional, vegetal forms.

This ‘Peony’ water pitcher, a good example of Art Nouveau (Japonisme), shows ‘freedom of expression’ with its handle formed by two asymmetrical entwined stalks--its body ornamentation is a pure and perfect execution of ‘repoussé chasing’.


 Peony’ Water Pitcher
Design attributed to  Philippe Wolfers, Silversmith Wolfers Frère, Brussels , circa 1892-1900
( Picture by Martine D’Haeseleer) ®

The Japanese style became more pronounced when Philippe Wolfers began to give priority to the curve and sweeping lines that demonstrate his talents at their full potential.

By the end of 1880, the Japanese style was fully developed.

The form of this vase is a true expression of the Japanese cult for Nature and we can draw a parallel with Tiffany’s gourd formed silver vessels. (cf: Silver Magazine – January/February 2005)


Silver vase “ Cyclamen”
 Design attributed to  Philippe Wolfers, Silversmith
’Wolfers Frères’, Brussels , circa 1892-1900

This vase is now part of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
(Picture is courtesy of the Belgian Antique Dealer – Erik Mullendorff, Brussels)

A Combination of nature inspired form and ‘The Maraudeurs’ theme:
In my opinion, this coffee set shows a ‘full’ integration of Japonisme combined with the inspirations of Philippe Wolfers and Isidore de Rudder. The vegetal form has totally freed itself from academism; it wears the ornamentation inspired from the animal world (snake skin) and the joyful scene with lively putti is due to de Rudder’s creativity and craftsmanship.

Coffee service and tray, ‘Aux Maraudeurs’
 Design attributed to Philippe Wolfers, Silversmiths ‘Wolfers Frères’ , Brussels , Circa 1892-1900-
(Picture is courtesy of The Design Museum Ghent).

Combination of Stylised Floral Japonisme and of ‘Symbolism’.

A set of four enamel vases was realised between the years 1898 – 1899, and they were presented at the Turin Exhibition in 1902.

The names of the four different vases are ’Mimosa’ *, ‘Plumes de Paon’ *, ‘Fantaisie d'orchidée’ and ‘Soleil couchant’. Each one was crafted in two or three examples.


 Enamel vase, Fantaisie d’Orchidée
Designer Philippe Wolfers, Unsigned, Brussels , Circa 1898 -1899 -  * cf : ‘Van Belle Epoque tot Art Nouveau’  Sterckshof studies, pages  193 and 194.
(Regarding the feet, some of them were not created during the period.  Marcel Wolfers redesigned a few feet in the  1930’s’ – Explanation given by Mr.  G. Weynans , Galerie L’Ecuyer , Brussels)  (Picture is courtesy of  the Antique Dealer
 Arthem – Paris).

Link between American and Belgian Japonism?

Three piece moccha set and tray
 Design attributed to Philippe Wolfers, Silversmiths Wolfer Frères , Brussels, Circa 1892-1900 – Private Collection

Above is a tiny mocha or tea set – ‘Egoiste’ -  consisting of three pieces and a tray. In our French vocabulary, this type of set is called “égoiste” because it was meant for the use of one person only. (An ‘Egoiste’ in French language describes a rather ‘selfish person’) 

Three tiny pieces are shaped like purses or pouches made of silver cloth and tied with a rope of silver threads. The silver sheets, thus formed, show the folds created by the squeezing of the rope. The spout of the mocha or teapot cracks out through the cloth of the body, showing the cuts in the cloth, which gives a very special effect. The result is quite unexpected and is proof of Philippe Wolfers’ extraordinary creativity, sense of originality, and humour.

This quite unexpected design - imitation of ‘cloth tied by a rope- leads us to draw design parallels between Philippe Wolfers and American production such as works by Tiffany, Gorham or Whiting in a more ‘trompe l’oeil’ technique  ( Reference to: a coffeepot made by Whiting Mfg. Co., New York, ca 1883 - Dallas Museum of Art. - Book ref : Silver in America, page 169).

I fell in love with the American Art Nouveau and its interpretation of Japonisme and it is a pleasure for me to show the links between Belgian and American Art Nouveau and to be able to share my passion with you.

Information on the Marker's Marks:
Makers’mark Louis Wolfers, beginning 1869

‘Wolfers Frères’ workshop : ‘Three stars in a triangle’ and the silver standard 800/1000 in use during the period 1868 -1942.
Wolfers Frères’ Workshop combined with the German hallmarks, beginning in 1888.

Two examples of marks and signatures of: Louis Wolfers Père et Fils:

One of the Commercial marks for Louis Wolfers Père et Fils

 Signature of Louis Wolfers Père et Fils

Philippe Wolfers’ signature

Philippe Wolfers’ signature for the items ‘Exemplaire Unique’

Hallmarking -- Assay Marks:
From the time of the Art Nouveau movement, the Belgian hallmarking system was used for an extended period of time  (1868-1942), so it is sometimes difficult to date many objects with precision.

The information I use to date the objects refers to the book: ‘Les Wolfers - Orfèvres, Bijoutiers & Joailliers’  by Walter van Dievoet – Ed. STUDIA BRUXELLAE – 2002

I hope that the innovative catalogue of this important exhibition in Ghent is going to answer many more questions.

The important exhibition ‘Louis, Philippe and Marcel Wolfers,  Masters in silver’  is presenting wonderful objects: jewels, silverware and sculptures.  It opened on the 16th of December 2006 and will last until 9 April 2007.  For more information, please browse the museum’s website:

To eager readers: 
If you want to learn more about the assay marks – silver standards at the time of Art Nouveau, I invite you to search for more information on the ‘Magazine’ of my website:   

Martine D’Haeseleer

Belgian expert – appraiser - teacher.
Consultant in antique and modern Belgian and European silverware and Art Lover.
Creator and founder of the ‘Silver Society of Belgium’.
Creator of the website:



A selected Bibliography:

- ‘The Studio’ - London-. 1898 - 1899 - 1900 – 1902.

- ’The Magazine of Art’ - London: 1899-1901.

- ’The Artist‘- London: 1900-1901-1902.

- ’The Craftsman Syracuse’ - New-York: 1904.

- ’Sources of Art Nouveau’. S.T. Madsen - New-York  - 1955: ‘Philippe Wolfers’ ( 8 illustrations)

- ‘Philippe Wolfers – Précurseur de l’Art Nouveau’ by  Marcel Wolfers Ed Meddens S.A. Bruxelles 1965.

- ‘Orfèvrerie au Poinçon de Bruxelles’ Exhibitions Catalogue Societé Générale de Banque 13/09 au 30/11 1979.

- ‘Modern Silver 1880-1940’ - Mrs.Annelies Krekel - Aalberse - Amsterdam - 1989.
- ‘Art Nouveau and Art Deco Silver’ - Annelies Krekel – Aalberse  - Harry N, Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York - 1989

- ‘Silver of a New Era’ - Museum Boymans –Van Beuningen, Rotterdam and Museum Voor Sierkunst  -  Gent - 1992.

- ‘De Marodeur’ Reeks van Philippe Wolfers – article by Jo Vandercappellen – published in ‘Antiek’- Tijdschrift – 1995

- Catalogue of the Exhibition ‘Van Belle Époque tot Art Nouveau’ - Belgian Silver 1868-1914 ‘ - Sterckshof Studies 10  -  Provinciaal Museum Sterckshof - Zilvercentrum.-  1998
 - ‘Les Wolfers - Orfèvres, Bijoutiers & Joailliers’  by Walter van Dievoet – Ed. STUDIA BRUXELLAE – 2002

- ‘Japonisme’ – The Japanese influence on Western art since 1858. Siegfried Wichmann – Thames & Hudson – 1999

- ‘Art Nouveau - 1890 -1914 – Ed. By Paul Greenhalgh – V&A Publications – 2000

- ‘L’Art Nouveau’ Gabriele Fahr/ Becker – Ed. Könemann – Köln

-‘Silver in America’ – 1840-1940 – ‘A century of Splendor’  -Charles L. Venable.  Dallas Museum of Art. – Harry N. Abrams, inc. Publishers – 1994-1995.

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Article by Martine D’Haeseleer
Web design by Marbeth Schon

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