Art Nouveau is a style of art, encompassing both fine and applied art. Flourished internationally since the 1890s until just before World War I, it was an opposition against eclecticism, historicism and academic art that dominated the 19th-century decoration and architecture scenes. A style intended to create a Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art”, Art Nouveau is recognized by its characteristic floral ornaments, flowing lines, use of symbolic figures and geometric forms. But how was it formed, and what influenced it? What are the key elements of Art Nouveau? What was it look like across the globe? We’re here to explain all that for you.
The Rise and Fall of Art Nouveau
The outset of Art Nouveau is linked with the Arts and Crafts movement that began in Britain between the 1880s and 1920s. Arts and Crafts was a reaction against the growing industrialization across Europe at the expense of traditional craftmanship. English designer, architect, writer, and socialist William Morris was its leading figure. Morris refused the blatant production values and dehumanizing side of Victorian capitalism, looking to the communal values of the era instead. His vision of artisanal craftmanship resonated with many then Art Nouveau artists, as well as his use of stylized floral and organic shapes.
The name Art Nouveau itself was first introduced back in 1884 in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne, referring to a faction comprising 20 reform-minded sculptors and painters called Les Vingt. Shortly after, the enthusiasm for the new movement flourished across Europe. Starting from this point, Art Nouveau artists advocated the unity of all arts and fought against discrimination between fine art and the then-disregarded decorative arts. They sought to mix art with everyday objects to liven up people’s lives.
The very first Art Nouveau houses and interior design were designed by Paul Hankar, Henry can de Velde, notably Victor Horta, who later designed what was considered the first true Art Nouveau building Hôtel Tassel. It then moved immediately to Paris, where Hector Guimard applied the style for the ingress of the brand new Hôtel Tassel-inspired Paris Métro. Not long after, it saw its peak at L’Exposition de Paris 1900 where Art Nouveau works by various artists were markedly introduced. From there, it dispersed over the rest of Europe, adopting different names and features in each country.
Prompted by World War I in 1914, Art Nouveau movement began to fade away. As of the 1920s, it was replaced by Art Deco and then Modernism as the prominent architectural and decorative art style. Later, critics began to pay homage to the style in the late 1960s, and in 1970, New York Museum of Modern Art conducted a big exhibition of Guimard’s works.
Main Attributes of Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau is recognized notably by its distinct asymmetrical line, inspired by flower stalks and buds, insect wings, vine tendrils, and many exquisite and sinuous natural objects. The lines oftentimes are graceful, or in other cases, ingrained with a powerful whip-like force. In graphic arts, Art Nouveau line is regarded beyond other pictorial elements—form, space, colour, and texture—to its own effect. In architecture, 3D shape becomes immersed in the linear rhythm, creating a medley between structure and ornament.
Art Nouveau architecture employs a liberal combination of materials—glass, brickwork, ironwork, and ceramic—to create organic and forms. This way, unified interiors are formed in which beams and columns transformed as thick vines with extending tendrils while windows became openings for air and light and also membranous outgrowths concurrently. Even for colour aspect, Art Nouveau sticks to the organic linear contours, so its colour palette would be made up of muted hues such as carnation pink, periwinkle blue, olive green, Tuscan red, and warn brown.
Art Nouveau Across the Globe
In English, Art Nouveau is also known as Modern Style (not related to Modernism and Modern architecture). The young prodigy Aubrey Vincent Bradley was probably the most famous and controversial Art Nouveau artist. His India ink illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome was deemed one of the most contentious of the movement. In the poster, the character Salome can be seen holding the St. John the Baptist’s head on the table. This peculiar black ink drawings featuring shadowy imagery, stark contrast, controlled but swooping lines and flat decorative pattern has solidified his reputation in Art Nouveau.
Paris had two of the most renowned Art Nouveau artists: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Czech-born Alphonse Mucha, whose la femme nouvelle style was a major influence of the movement. Mucha’s lithograph for Victorien Sardou’s eponymous Renaissance play, Gismonda, had a significant impact on Art Nouveau.
Vienna-based artist Gustav Klimt was also considered the leading figures of Art Nouveau in Austria-Hungary. His dramatic life involving scandals lead him to co-founded the Vienna Secession, a group of radical Art Nouveau artists, architects and designers. With him as the first president, they collaborated in the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk. The dining room in Josef Hoffman-designed Brussels’ Palais Stoclet that included Klimt’s arboreal murals represented this goal.
In Barcelona, Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet’s work helped defined Art Nouveau variant in Spain, dubbed the Modernismo (Modernisme in Catalan). Deeply inspired by nature as well as the Catholic faith, his works involved vibrant surfaces and curved lines that were quite distinctive compared to common architectural styles. This inspiration of his was what truly made him stand out among the members of Art Nouveau.
Aveiro (Portugal) version of Art Nouveau was called Arte Nova. Ostentation was the characteristic feature: it was mostly adopted by the bourgeoisie to assert their fortune on the façade while keeping the interiors conservative. Francisco Augusto da Silva Rocha was the most influential Arte Nova artist. Although never actually trained as an architect, he designed multiple buildings in Portugal, one of them being the Major Pessoa residence, which incorporates Art Nouveau for both the façade and interior, and now became the Museum of Arte Nova.
German’s Art Nouveau, commonly known as Jugendstil or “Youth Style”, was popular around the same time as it appeared in Austria. In 1892, Georg Hirth, the editor of art magazine Die Jugend from which the name was taken, proposed the name Munich Secession for the Association of Visual Artists of Munich, which later inspired the naming of the 1897-established Vienna Secession. One of the most prominent Jugendstil artists was Otto Eckmann. His influence was so significant that his favourite animal, the swan, became the symbol of the movement.
In Italy, Art Nouveau was widely known primarily as stile Liberty—derived from Arthur Lasenby Liberty, whose colourful textiles from his Liberty Department Store was mainstream in Italy. Stile Liberty architecture often followed past styles, notably the Baroque. Colourful frescoes in ceramics, sculpture for both interior and exterior, and decorated facades were some of the key features of stile Liberty. Giuseppe Sommaruga’s Palazzo Castiglioni in Milan is one of the examples of the style.
Art Nouveau was also quite popular in the USA, where it was known as the Tiffany Style. It took its name from American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany’s firm that played a huge role in American Art Nouveau, mostly for its decorative glass artworks. The firm designed and made magnificent windows, vases, and some other glass art, which had immense success at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Tiffany lamp in particular became an icon of Tiffany Style.