Art Nouveau was an innovative international style of modern art that became fashionable from about 1890 to the First World War. Arising as a reaction to 19th-century designs dominated by historicism in general and neoclassicism in particular, it promulgated the idea of art and design as part of everyday life. Henceforth artists should not overlook any everyday object, no matter how functional it might be. This aesthetic was considered to be quite revolutionary and new, hence its name – New Art – or Art Nouveau. Hence also the fact that it was applied to a host of different forms including architecture, fine art, applied art, and decorative art. Rooted partly in the Industrial Revolution, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, but also influenced by Japonism (especially Ukiyo-e prints by artists like Hokusai and his younger contemporary Hiroshige) and Celtic designs, Art Nouveau was given a major boost by the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. After this, it spread across Europe and as far as the United States and Australia, under local names like Jugendstil (Germany), Stile Liberty (Italy), Sezessionstil(Austria) and Tiffany style (America). A highly decorative idiom, Art Nouveau typically employed intricate curvilinear patterns of sinuous asymetrical lines, often based on plant-forms (sometimes derived from La Tene forms of Celtic art). Floral and other plant-inspired motifs are popular Art Nouveau designs, as are female silhouettes and forms. Employing a variety of materials, the style was used in architecture, interior design, glassware, jewellery, poster art and illustration, as well as painting and sculpture. The movement was replaced in the 1920s by Art Deco.
Art Nouveau is usually deemed a matter of ‘style’ rather than a philosophy: but, in fact, distinctive ideas and not only fanciful desires prompted its appearance. Common to all the most consistently Art Nouveau creators was a determination to push beyond the bounds of historicism – that exaggerated concern with the notions of the past which characterises the greater part of 19th-century design: they sought, in a fresh analysis of function and a close study of natural forms, a new aesthetic. It is true that the outer reaches of Art Nouveau are full of mindless pattern-making but there was, at and around the centre, a marvellous sequence of works in which the decorative and the functional fuse to novel and compelling effect. Art Nouveau means much more than a single look or mood: we are reminded of tall grasses in light wind, or swirling lines of stormy water, or intricate vegetation – all stemming from organic nature: an interest in which should be understood as proceeding from a sense of life’s order lost or perverted amidst urban industrial stress.
There is no single definition or meaning of Art Nouveau. But the following are distinguishing factors. (1) Art Nouveau philosophy was in favour of applying artistic designs to everyday objects, in order to make beautiful things available to everyone. No object was too utilitarian to be “beautified”. (2) Art Nouveau saw no separation in principle between fine art (painting and sculpture) and applied or decorative arts (ceramics, furniture, and other practical objects). (3) In content, the style was a reaction to a world of art which was dominated by the precise geometry of Neoclassical forms. It sought a new graphic design language, as far away as possible from the historical and classical models employed by the arts academies. (4) Art Nouveau remains something of an umbrella term which embraces a variety of stylistic interpretations: some artists used new low-cost materials and mass production methods while others used more expensive materials and valued high craftsmanship.
Types of Designs
In line with with the Art Nouveau philosophy that art should become part of everyday life, it employed flat, decorative patterns that could be used in all art forms. Typical decorative elements include leaf and tendril motifs, intertwined organic forms, mostly curvaceous in shape, although right-angled designs were also prevalent in Scotland and in Austria. Art made in this style typically depicted lavish birds, flowers, insects and other zoomorphs, as well as the hair and curvaceous bodies of beautiful women. For Art Nouveau architectural designs, see the exaggerated bulbous forms of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), and the stylistic Parisian Metro entrances of Hector Guimard (1867-1942).
History of Art Nouveau
The term “Art Nouveau” stemmed from the name of the Parisian art gallery, called “La Maison de l’Art Nouveau”, owned by the avant-garde art-collector Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), which showcased works created in the Art Nouveau style. The gallery’s reputation and fame was considerably boosted by its installations of modern furniture, tapestries and objets d’art at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, after which the gallery’s name became almost synonymous with the style.
At the same time, in Belgium the style was promoted by Les Vingt and La Libre Esthetique, while in Germany the style was popularized and promoted by a magazine called Jugend: Münchner illustrierte Wochenschrift für Kunst und Leben (Youth: the illustrated weekly magazine of art and lifestyle of Munich), which is why German Art Nouveau – along with that of the Netherlands, the Baltic and the Nordic countries – has since been known as “Jugendstil” (youth-style). In Austria, Art Nouveau was first popularized by artists of the Vienna Secession movement, leading to the adoption of the name “Sezessionstil”. In fact, the Vienna Secessionists, like Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), influenced art and architecture throughout Austria-Hungary. In Germany, after the Munich Secession (1892) and the Berlin Secession (1898), many of its leading practitioners came together again in 1907 as members of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation).
Other temporary names were used which reflected the novelty of the style, or its ribbon-like curvilinear designs. For example, in France it was also known as “le style moderne” or “le style nouille” (noodle style); in Spain, “arte joven” (young art); in Italy “arte nuova” and in the Netherlands “Nieuwe kunst” (both, new art). The style was also named after certain of its exponents or promoters. For instance, Hector Guimard’s Parisian Metro entrances led to the temporary name “Style Metro”; in America the movement was called the “Tiffany style” due to its connection with the Art Nouveau glassmaker and jeweller Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Evolution of Art Nouveau
The origins of Art Nouveau are unclear, although most art historians agree that its roots lay in the English Arts and Crafts Movement, championed by the medievalist William Morris, as well as the flat-perspective and strong colours of Japanese woodcuts. This idiom was reinforced by the wave of Japonism that swept through Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, and by the decorative painting styles of Synthetism (Gauguin) and Cloisonnism (Bernard, Anquetin) developed at the Pont-Aven School in Brittany. For more details, please see: Post Impressionist Painting (1880-95).
As a movement, Art Nouveau shared certain features with Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Symbolists, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, although each differed in various ways. For example, unlike Symbolist painting, Art Nouveau has a distinctive visual look; and, in contrast to the artisan-oriented Arts & Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau artists readily employed new materials, and did not turn their backs on mass-produced or machined surfaces.
Connections were also forged between practitioners of Jugendstil and Celtic-style artists, notably in the area of abstract patternwork. Christopher Dresser’s Unity in Variety (1859) – a treatise on botany for artists, was also influential. But it is Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942) who is often identified as the first designer in whom historical precedents were sufficiently subdued for the new mode to show clearly. Indeed, the earliest example of Art Nouveau was the variety of rhythmic floral patterns used by Mackmurdo in his book-cover for Sir Christopher Wren’s City Churches (1883). His buildings, furniture, graphics and textiles derive definitely, though not exclusively, from the natural world, convey a strong sense of their materials, and are structurally elemental. Mackmurdo accepted a good deal of Ruskin’s involvement with the social and economic conditions of art and turned eventually to the composition of political tracts. Whatever its exact origins, Art Nouveau benefited enormously from the exposure it received at international exhibitions such as the Paris Exposition Universelle (1900) and the Turin Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna (1902), as well as individual outlets such as London’s Liberty & Co and Siegfried Bing’s “Maison de l’Art Nouveau”.
The style has been said to end in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), a key figure in the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915). Painter, architect and designer, he was initially attracted by the creative freedom of Art Nouveau and its encouragement of the fanciful, but he used a cooler treatment. The essentials of his passage may be traced in one place, the Glasgow School of Art. A system of repeated curving forms in the main building (1897-9) gave way to regimented verticals and horizontals in the library (1907-9): the new order fell to a new orderliness. From then on, the need and the wish for economy of means, a desire to exploit easy mechanical replication, became dominant. Both architecture and the applied arts contrived an ethic and an aesthetic based on meaner notions of utility.
Art Nouveau designs were most common in glassware, jewellery, and other decorative objects like ceramics. But the style was also applied to textiles, household silver, domestic utensils, cigarette cases, furniture and lighting, as well as drawing, poster art, painting and book illustration. Theatrical design of sets and costumes was another area in which the new style flourished. The best examples are the designs created by Leon Bakst (1866-1924) and Alexander Benois (1870-1960) for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Art Nouveau also had a strong application in the field of architecture and interior design. In this area it exemplified a more humanistic and less functionalist approach to the urban environment. Hyperbolas and parabolas in windows, arches, and doors were typical as were plant-derived forms for moldings. Art Nouveau interior designers updated some of the more abstract elements of Rococo style, such as flame and shell textures, and also employed highly stylized organic forms, expanding the ‘natural’ repertoire to include seaweed, grasses, and insects. Art Nouveau architectural designs made broad use of exposed iron and large, irregular pieces of glass.
Art Nouveau Decorative Glass and Jewellery
In both these areas, Art Nouveau found tremendous expression, as exemplified in works by Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow and Emile Galle and the Daum brothers in Nancy, France. Jewellery of the Art Nouveau period saw new levels of virtuosity in enameling as well as the introduction of new materials such as moulded glass, horn, and ivory. The growth of interest in Japanese art (a fashion known as Japonisme), along with increased respect for Japanese metalworking skills, also stimulated new themes and approaches to ornamentation. As a result, jewellers stopped seeing themselves as mere craftsmen whose task was to provide settings for precious stones like diamonds, and began seeing themselves as artist-designers. A new type of Art Nouveau jewellery emerged that depended less on its gemstone content and more on its designwork. The jewellers of Paris and Brussels were at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement and it was in these cities that it achieved the greatest success. In America, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-92) was an adventurous creator of luxury objects, mainly in glass, often utilising the shot-silk glow of metallic iridescence, and inspired by flower and feather. Tiffany’s firm was enormously successful and his goods were much imitated.
Art Nouveau Architecture
Art Nouveau architecture was one of the great ubiquitous cultural impulses, appearing virtually throughout Europe and Scandinavia, and in America too.
A very vigorous strain developed in Belgium, where Henri van de Velde (1863-1937) pared away the conventions of art and architecture in favour of a rather rigid floral style (his house at Uccle, 1895), while Victor Horta (1861-1947) seems to have passed the rule-book through a maze of botanical fact (the Hotel Tassel, 1892-3, and the Maison du Peuple, 1896-9 in Brussels). Horta was widely admired for his readiness to reconsider basic design problems and for the fluency of his adaptations of organic principle. For the Tassel house he opened up the centre into a sort of conservatory space in which the exposed cast iron supports are themselves stylised plants. And the Maison du Peuple he constructed around a sinuous iron frame, every decorative element of which arose from the containment of stresses. It was said that ‘he follows the secret law obeyed by vegetation, which grows in immutable and ever harmonious forms, but he compels himself never to draw a motif, nor to describe a solitary curve which could be seen as a pastiche of natural form’.
In France, Art Nouveau-style nineteenth century architecture had the State’s seal of approval when Guimard’s designs for the Paris Metro stations were accepted, and above the subways (1898-1900) sprouted elaborate arrangements of iron and glass resembling large bean shoots and seed-pods. Hector Guimard (1867-1942) had liked Horta’s work in Brussels and hoped to extend its radical disruption of expected architectural behaviour. But the most spectacular results of the decision to rethink design from the ground up, so to speak, are to be found in Spain. Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) conceived for Barcelona a series of architectural extravaganzas, apparently pervaded by thoughts of nature in its less attractive manifestations – the rabbit warren or termite hill, reptilean anatomy, weeds on the rampage. The Palacio Guell (1885-9) has already the ebb and flow, the rhythmic asymmetry of his mature efforts, but is relatively urbane. The Casa Mila (1905-07) is a riotous assembly of pitted stone and twisting iron, with a ground plan which altogether ignores the right-angle. And the Church of the Sagrada Familia (1884, uncompleted) bemuses the visitor, with its four towers like monster decaying cucumbers: it resembles, on the whole, a vegetable garden in the grip of some ferocious virus and mutating freely. Meanwhile, in America, the giant office blocks of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) – the Wainwright Building, St Louis (1890), the Guaranty Building, Buffalo (1894), the Carson, Pirie & Scott Store, Chicago (1899-1904) – reveal in their facades, their honeycomb insides and the strips and panels which divide the cells a riot of plant-like ornament.
Art Nouveau architectural designs were widespread throughout many parts of central and eastern Europe, including Latvia (Riga), the Czech Republic (Prague), Poland (Krakow), Slovenia (Ljubljana), as well as Italy. Leading Art Nouveau architects and designers included the Hungarian architect Odon Lechner (1845–1914), the French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942), the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), the Belgian architect Victor Horta (1861-1947), and the Viennese designers Otto Wagner (1841-1918) and Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), to name but a few. Further afield, examples of Art Nouveau-style buildings can be seen in South America (Uraguay’s Montevideo) and Australia.
Famous Art Nouveau Artists
The two greatest graphic artists of the Art Nouveau movement were the French lithographer Jules Cheret (1836-1932) whose invention of “3-stone chromolithography” made Art Nouveau poster art feasible, and the Czech lithographer and designer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) whose celebrated posters epitomized the Art Nouveau idiom. Emile Galle of France and Louis Comfort Tiffany of the United States were famous for their colourful Art Nouveau glassware, as were the English artists Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane for their wonderful Art Nouveau drawings. Other famous artists involved in the “new art” included: the French jewellery designer Rene Lalique, the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, the Polish theatrical designer and stained glass artist Stanislaw Wyspianski, and the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), leader of the Glasgow School.
Legacy & Influence of Art Nouveau
While Art Nouveau promoted a more widespread adoption of “beautiful” design, it did not diminish the value of the machine or mass-production (as the Arts and Crafts Movement did), but instead took advantage of many technological innovations from the late 19th century. Even so, by World War I, it too succumbed to the more streamlined design processes that were beginning to become available.
Possibly its greatest influence was on (1) 20th-century advocates of integrated design, such as the German Bauhaus design school and the Dutch design movement De Stijl; and (2) Graphic art such as illustration and poster-design.
Nowadays, Art Nouveau is viewed as an important bridge between Neoclassicism and modernism, and a number of its monuments are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, notably the historic centre of Riga, Latvia with over 750 buildings in the Art Nouveau style.