From the 1880s until the First World War, western Europe and the United States witnessed the development of Art Nouveau (“New Art”). Taking inspiration from the unruly aspects of the natural world, Art Nouveau influenced art and architecture especially in the applied arts, graphic work, and illustration. Sinuous lines and “whiplash” curves were derived, in part, from botanical studies and illustrations of deep-sea organisms such as those by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834–1919) in Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1899). Other publications, including Floriated Ornament (1849) by Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and The Grammar of Ornament (1856) by British architect and theorist Owen Jones (1809–1874), advocated nature as the primary source of inspiration for a generation of artists seeking to break away from past styles. The unfolding of Art Nouveau’s flowing line may be understood as a metaphor for the freedom and release sought by its practitioners and admirers from the weight of artistic tradition and critical expectations.
Additionally, the new style was an outgrowth of two nineteenth-century English developments for which design reform (a reaction to prevailing art education, industrialized mass production, and the debasement of historic styles) was a leitmotif—the Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic movement. The former emphasized a return to handcraftsmanship and traditional techniques. The latter promoted a similar credo of “art for art’s sake” that provided the foundation for non-narrative paintings, for instance, Whistler‘s Nocturnes. It further drew upon elements of Japanese art (“japonisme“), which flooded Western markets, mainly in the form of prints, after trading rights were established with Japan in the 1860s. Indeed, the gamut of late nineteenth-century artistic trends prior to World War I, including those in painting and the early designs of the Wiener Werkstätte, may be defined loosely under the rubric of Art Nouveau.
The term art nouveau first appeared in the 1880s in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne to describe the work of Les Vingt, twenty painters and sculptors seeking reform through art. Les Vingt, like much of the artistic community throughout Europe and America, responded to leading nineteenth-century theoreticians such as French Gothic Revival architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) and British art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advocated the unity of all the arts, arguing against segregation between the fine arts of painting and sculpture and the so-called lesser decorative arts. Deeply influenced by the socially aware teachings of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau designers endeavored to achieve the synthesis of art and craft, and further, the creation of the spiritually uplifting Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) encompassing a variety of media. The successful unification of the fine and applied arts was achieved in many such complete designed environments as Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde’s Hôtel Tassel and Hôtel Van Eetvelde (Brussels, 1893–95), Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald’s design of the Hill House (Helensburgh, near Glasgow, 1902–4), and Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Klimt’s Palais Stoclet dining room (Brussels, 1905–11) (2000.350; 1994.120; 2000.278.1–.9).
Painting styles such as Post-Impressionism and Symbolism (the “Nabis”) shared close ties with Art Nouveau, and each was practiced by designers who adapted them for the applied arts, architecture, interior designs, furnishings, and patterns. They contributed to an overall expressiveness and the formation of a cohesive style (64.148).
In December 1895, German-born Paris art dealer Siegfried Bing opened a gallery called L’Art Nouveau for the contemporary décor he exhibited and sold there (1999.398.3). Though Bing’s gallery is credited with the popularization of the movement and its name, Art Nouveau style reached an international audience through the vibrant graphic arts printed in such periodicals as The Savoy, La Plume, Die Jugend, Dekorative Kunst, The Yellow Book, and The Studio. The Studio featured the bold, Symbolist-inspired linear drawings of Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898). Beardsley’s flamboyant black and white block print J’ai baisé ta bouche lokanaan for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé (1894), with its brilliant incorporation of Japanese two-dimensional composition, may be regarded as a highlight of the Aesthetic movement and an early manifestation of Art Nouveau taste in England. Other influential graphic artists included Alphonse Mucha, Jules Chéret, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose vibrant poster art often expressed the variety of roles of women in Belle Époque society—from femme nouvelle (a “new woman” who rejected the conventional ideals of femininity, domesticity, and subservience) to demimonde (20.33; 32.88.12). Female figures were often incorporated as fairies or sirens in the jewelry of René Lalique, Georges Fouquet, and Philippe Wolfers (1991.164; 2003.560; 2003.236).
Art Nouveau style was particularly associated with France, where it was called variously Style Jules Verne, Le Style Métro (after Hector Guimard’s iron and glass subway entrances), Art belle époque, and Art fin de siècle (49.85.11). In Paris, it captured the imagination of the public at large at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the last and grandest of a series of fairs organized every eleven years from 1798. Various structures showcased the innovative style, including the Porte Monumentale entrance, an elaborate polychromatic dome with electronic lights designed by René Binet (1866–1911); the Pavillon Bleu, a restaurant alongside the Pont d’Iena at the foot of the Eiffel Tower featuring the work of Gustave Serrurier-Bovy (1858–1910) (1981.512.4); Art Nouveau Bing, a series of six domestic interiors that included Symbolist art (26.228.5); and the pavilion of the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, an organization dedicated to the revival and modernization of the decorative arts as an economic stimulus and expression of national identity that offered an important display of decorative objects (1991.182.2; 26.228.7; 1988.287.1a,b). Sharing elements of the French Rococo (and its nineteenth-century revivals), including stylized motifs derived from nature, fantasy, and Japanese art, the furnishings exhibited were produced in the new taste and yet perpetuated an acclaimed tradition of French craftsmanship. The use of luxury veneers and finely cast gilt mounts in the furniture of leading cabinetmakers Georges de Feure (1868–1943), Louis Majorelle (1859–1926), Edward Colonna (1862–1948), and Eugène Gaillard (1862–1933) indicated the Neo-Rococo influence of François Linke (1855–1946) (26.228.5).
The Exposition Universelle was followed by two shows at which many luminaries of European Art Nouveau exhibited. They included the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901 that featured the fantastical Russian pavilions of Fyodor Shekhtel’ (1859–1926) and the Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna at Turin in 1902 that showcased the work of furniture designer Carlo Bugatti of Milan (69.69).
As in France, the “new art” was called by different names in the various style centers where it developed throughout Europe. In Belgium, it was called Style nouille or Style coup de fouet. In Germany, it was Jugendstil or “young style,” after the popular journal Die Jugend (1991.182.2). Part of the broader Modernista movement in Barcelona, its chief exponent was the architect and redesigner of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) cathedral (Barcelona, begun 1882), Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). In Italy, it was named Arte nuova, Stile floreale, or Lo stile Liberty after the London firm of Liberty & Co., which supplied Oriental ceramics and textiles to aesthetically aware Londoners in the 1870s and produced English Art Nouveau objects such as the Celtic Revival “Cymric” and “Tudric” ranges of silver by Archibald Knox (1864–1933). Other style centers included Austria and Hungary, where Art Nouveau was called the Sezessionstil. In Russia, Saint Petersburg and Moscow were the two centers of production for Stil’ modern. “Tiffany Style” in the United States was named for the legendary Favrile glass designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Although international in scope, Art Nouveau was a short-lived movement whose brief incandescence was a precursor of modernism, which emphasized function over form and the elimination of superfluous ornament. Although a reaction to historic revivalism, it brought Victorian excesses to a dramatic fin-de-siècle crescendo. Its influence has been far reaching and is evident in Art Deco furniture designs, whose sleek surfaces are enriched by exotic wood veneers and ornamental inlays. Dramatic Art Nouveau—inspired graphics became popular in the turbulent social and political milieu of the 1960s, among a new generation challenging conventional taste and ideas.