Quick History: Art Nouveau

updated Jul 15, 2020
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Art Nouveau is the name for the artistic movement that started in Europe around 1890 and lasted until around 1910. It took on many different characteristics in different places, and some of the most famous designers from the era have disparate styles, including Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Josef Hoffmann in Vienna and Carlo Bugatti in Italy. What these designers had in common was an interest in finding a new artistic vocabulary that could best express the modern world. Let’s take a look at a few iconic Art Nouveau designs from France and Belgium, where the style was perhaps most cohesive and identifiable.

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There were a few main themes across Art Nouveau to keep in mind. In an era of industrialized production, many designers looked to a local, pre-industrial past for a foundation; in Russia that was folk tales and folk history, and in France it was the 18th-century ‘golden age’ of French design. Working in cities like Paris, Nancy and Brussels, Art Nouveau designers found greatest inspiration in nature — not necessarily nature’s beauty, but instead its vital force, its never-changing life cycle of birth, life, decay and death. Nature sometimes took the role of a creepy other-world, governed by dark uncontrollable forces.

This idea of an uncontrollable world all around us was mirrored in the Art Nouveau interest in psychology, symbolism and the supernatural. Sigmund Freud was writing about the unconscious dream world, and artists were trying to explore that world through art and design. Symbols weren’t fixed — their meaning shifted and was ambiguous.

Also ambiguous was the role of women in Art Nouveau. As always, women were important muses for artists and designers, and at this time there was a lot of interest in famous performers like Sarah Bernhardt, the dancer Loie Fuller, the nightclub performer Jane Avril. But in an era when women were increasingly independent — struggling for suffrage, gaining the right to divorce, more visible in the public sphere than previous generations — the Art Nouveau woman had a menacing twist. She was alluringly sexual, but also scandalous, morally compromised, even mortally threatening.

Here is a brief gallery of iconic Art Nouveau works from France and Belgium, which should help clearly define the style:

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

5 The demi-monde of Parisian nightclubs was an important source and inspiration for Art Nouveau. In this poster, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts two famous performers watching a show at the club Le Divan Japonais. Note the independent woman, the sinuous lines, the hand-drawn font. There is also the suggestion of depth emphasized by lighting, with the orchestra in silhouette, and the blocks of solid color, techniques inspired by Japanese graphic art, which was a major source for Art Nouveau designers. (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Divan Japonais” color lithograph, Paris 1892, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.)

Hopefully this has helped define Art Nouveau style. Next week, we’ll look at Art Deco and then compare the two styles side-by-side.

Folk Art & Russian Art Nouveau
Josef Hoffmann: A Marvel of Modernism
Carlo Bugatti: Furniture as Futuristic Sculpture

Images: as linked above