During the late nineteenth century, a number of forces transformed the European avant-garde design scene. Two in particular played an important role: a reaction against the prevalent taste for academic historicism; and the rediscovery of the arts of Asia, in particular Japan, after trade was reestablished in 1853. Machine-produced pastiches of historical styles were increasingly shunned in favor of new designs that derived forms and decorative motifs from nature. Designers also began to reject superfluous surface ornament, often applied simply for the novelty of its effect, and focused instead on the total integration of form and decoration, recalling Asian prototypes. By 1900, a new stylistic vocabulary—with distinct regional characteristics—had been firmly established. Whether realistic or abstract, exuberant or restrained, curvilinear or geometric, there is a consistency in the purposeful rejection of outmoded tastes and exploration of new design influences.
Art Nouveau flourished in France and Belgium around 1900. Organic forms inspired by nature, frequently accentuated with asymmetrical curves or elaborate flourishes, characterize its decorative vocabulary. Though purportedly antihistoricist, its elegant forms can often evoke the Rococo style of mid-eighteenth-century France; alternately, the arts of Japan also played an important role in defining the aesthetic. While originally considered a rarified taste, a growing popular demand for Art Nouveau designs led to poor-quality mass production, hastening the demise of this original style in the early years of the twentieth century.
The term Art Nouveau derives from the name of a shop in Paris that opened in 1895, Siegfried Bing’s L’Art Nouveau (“The New Art”). Bing sold exceptional works by many of the best-known European and Japanese designers working in this mode, including the designer Georges de Feure, who was hired as the head of its design department in 1900. (A rival to L’Art Nouveau was Julius Meier-Graefe’s La Maison Moderne, which was directed by the designer Maurice Dufrène.)
A solid (if somewhat late) example of the Art Nouveau style, the Wisteria dining room (66.244.1–.25) comes from a house in Paris at 10 bis Avenue Élysée-Reclus (at the foot of the Eiffel Tower) designed by the architect Lucien Hesse and built for Auguste Rateau (1863–1930), an engineer who manufactured turbo and internal combustion engines and was a member of the Académie des Sciences as well as an art connoisseur with a particular interest in the Art Nouveau movement. The room and all its contents were conceived as a unified whole and were created in 1910–14 under the artistic supervision of Rateau’s friend Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865–1953), who was also responsible for a number of other rooms in the apartment including two salons, a library, and a study (appropriately decorated with a frieze of stylized turbines and engine parts). In 1950, the apartment was rented on an eighteen-year lease to Monsieur René de Montaigu, with the stipulation that he purchase the by-then-out-of-fashion Art Nouveau woodwork and furnishings at the time of the lease signing. The dining room remained intact in Paris until 1966, when it was purchased—in its entirety—by the Metropolitan Museum from Monsieur de Montaigu; elements from other rooms of the apartment were later sold at public auction in Paris.
Despite early work as a lithographer, between 1887 and 1895 Lévy-Dhurmer served as artistic director at the ceramics factory of the well-known Clément Massier in Golfe-Juan (a town on the Mediterranean coast of France), where he became known for his experimentations with metallic luster glazes based on Middle Eastern and Hispano-Moresque pottery. Around 1895, he turned his hand to painting instead, establishing his professional reputation in an 1896 exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris; he later became a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Around 1910, he began to explore the related process of interior decorating, leading to this commission.
Like many of his contemporaries (such as Josef Hoffmann in Austria, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, Frank Lloyd Wright in America, Victor Horta in Belgium, and Hector Guimard in France), Lévy-Dhurmer worked as an ensemblier, conceiving interiors as “total works of art” by designing not only the architectural setting but also everything—down to the door handles and drawer pulls—that went into them so that no single element would offend the eye because it was inconsistent with the whole. One major difference, however, was Lévy-Dhurmer’s approach as an artist rather than an architect.
The wisteria motif, selected by Madame Rateau, may represent “welcome,” a theme appropriate for a dining room. Lévy-Dhurmer incorporated the motif throughout the room: the canvases (66.244.3; 66.244.4; 66.244.5; 66.244.6), painted in the pointillist style, depict herons and peacocks standing in wisteria-laden landscapes; the book-matched walnut-veneered wall panels are inlaid with purplish amaranth wood representing clusters of wisteria blossoms; further clusters of blossoms and leaves are carved on the furniture and stamped on the leather upholstery. It even appears in such details as the door handles, drawer pulls, and the gilded details of the firescreen. The standing lamps evoke the twisting trunks of wisteria vines. Lévy-Dhurmer took care to treat the flowering vine motif in a manner true to nature: climbing vines and leaves appear in the lower portions of the room, while carved clusters of blossoms hang from the crown molding as though from a garden trellis; further blossoms appear to have fallen to the floor, scattered across the carpet.
Because the Wisteria dining room is preserved entirely furnished as it stood when completed, even the rug especially made for it, and because contemporary documentation provides us with the names of the team of craftsmen responsible—even that of the man who upholstered the chairs with embossed leather—this Art Nouveau room is unique in an American museum. A small group of French Art Nouveau objects from the Museum’s modern design collection have been selected to augment the installation of the Wisteria dining room, including a mantel clock by Joseph Garino (owned by Monsieur de Montaigu), works in glass by Émile Gallé and Daum, ceramics by Auguste Delaherche, Ernest Chaplet, and Émile Decoeur, and metalwork by Jean Dunand. Today, the room is viewed through the original window embrasures.