The Galle Chandelier

Take a close look at one of the most popular objects in the Getty’s decorative arts collection and watch it come to life.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Resembling a hot-air balloon, this chandelier is a work of novelty: it includes a glass bowl intended to hold water and small goldfish. At almost four feet high, it was made in the early 1800s by Gérard Jean Galle (1788–1846), a French bronze caster and gilder. Here, he adapted motifs from ancient art to a new form, creating an intriguing object that was thoroughly modern for its time.

The graceful, symmetrical design of the chandelier suggests the harmony of ancient Greek and Roman art. Each element radiates from the central globe and includes classical motifs such as griffins, eagles, and palmettes.

The upper candleholders are in the form of griffins, mythical beasts that are part eagle and part lion. Since antiquity, they have been associated with guarding treasure and precious possessions.

The lower candleholders are decorated with palmettes, a motif resembling flattened leaves.

Rooster heads are symbols for France and the sun.

Eagles and lion heads are ancient decorative elements that refer to the king of the birds and the king of the beasts.

Representing the heavens, the blue globe is covered with gilt stars and encircled by a gilt-bronze band that includes small decorative elements.

Chandelier by Gérard Jean GalleThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These are the twelve symbols of the zodiac that refer to constellations in the sky.

Aries, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Taurus, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Gemini, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Each is a pictorial depiction of its Latin name: Aries for ram, Taurus for bull, Gemini for twins, and so on.

Cancer, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Leo, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Virgo, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Libra, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scorpio, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Sagittarius, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Capricorn, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Aquarius, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Pisces, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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All these ancient motifs are incorporated into a modern piece that resembles a hot-air balloon, a technological wonder in the early 1800s. Think of the blue globe as the balloon and the glass bowl below as the basket for passengers. By merging the old and the new together in this way, Galle created a unique design that reflects the fashionable taste of his time.

When Galle exhibited a chandelier of this form in 1819, he described it as a lustre à poisson (fish chandelier) and noted how the fish swimming in the bowl would amuse the viewer. This idea reflected a contemporary design theory suggesting that objects should be not only functional, but also gratifying to the eye and the imagination.

The chandelier holds 18 candles whose flames would illuminate a room after dark.

At the time, the most prestigious type of candles were made of beeswax that had been carefully filtered and bleached in sunlight to obtain a pure white color. These were expensive, so it is not surprising that elaborate lighting fixtures were made of shiny materials such as gilt-bronze and glass drops to enhance the sparkle of candlelight.

Given the expense of candles and the fact that goldfish would not survive for long periods in the bowl (they would need to be transferred to and from a more hospitable environment such as a tank or pond), this chandelier was not meant for everyday use. It would only be fully lit and occupied with fish on special occasions, such as a formal reception or dinner party, providing a novel showpiece for guests.

Chandelier by Gérard Jean GalleThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The chandelier would truly come to life when the candles were lit and fish were added to the bowl. Imagine how warm and lively candlelight would reflect off the gilt-bronze, the faceted glass drops, the water, and the moving fish to animate this remarkable object.

Bringing the Galle Chandelier to Life, Gérard Jean Galle, about 1818-1819, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The Galle chandelier is a work of wonder. It conveys a celebratory sense of creation and aspiration through a form and decoration that reference light, flight, and nature. The unique harmonious design evokes the past and the future while stimulating the imagination of all who see it.

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2019 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition Flight of Fancy: The Galle Chandelier, April 09, 2019–April 19, 2020, at the Getty Center, as well as the accompanying article A "Fish" Chandelier on the Getty Iris.

To cite these texts, please use: "The Galle Chandelier," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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