Art Nouveau ruled Western art and design from the 1880s until the First World War and combined interior décor, architecture, and painting into a triumphant, decadent, and truly sublime reflection of an age that would soon be swept away by catastrophe. The era known variously as the ‘beautiful time’ or the ‘great binge’ was an era of industrial ambition, big designs, and growth. For the first time public life was expressed through advertising, color, and commodities that the new rich could get their hands on, and Art Nouveau was what made it all happen.
The bright, cartoonish, expressive, and sensual world of Art Nouveau began, strangely enough, with one of the first international US military interventions. After years of relenting the Japanese Shogun was forced to sign a trade treaty with the United States after the gunboats of Commodore Perry sailed ominously into Tokyo Bay in 1853. After years of voluntary isolation from the global order of trade and diplomacy, Japan had been forcibly opened for business. From this point on, Western art would undergo dramatic changes caused by the unusual objects, paintings, and popular art that suddenly flooded in from Japan.
This revolution in the visual arts was known as Japonism, and countless unknown collectors of beautiful things drove it on. Initially, the woodcut prints known as ukiyo-e, which were regarded as commercial, popular imagery, were used as packing paper for more expensive items. A number of artists began to notice these in the 1870s, including one of the founders of Impressionism, Edgar Degas, and started to amass their own collection of this posh wrapping paper. In 1874 the first independent Impressionism was held in Paris. The sweeping, luminous areas of color completed by a flattened sense of perspective would not have existed without a certain particularly beautiful packing paper.
The first green shoots of the Art Nouveau movement in the decorative arts can be found in the establishment of Morris & Co in England in 1875. The artist William Morris, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite group, and with a taste for all things medieval, set in motion a process that would become known as the Arts and Crafts movement, the first grassroots design style in the history of art. Like the Post-Modernists a century later, the Arts and Crafts movement promoted “art for art’s sake” and the rediscovery of traditional handicrafts with a DIY aesthetic.
Morris & Co. believed in what was known as ‘design reform’ which protested against the industrial, mass produced goods and the disappearance of traditional English design styles. In their reaction to modernity and rejection of technology, they looked back to the medieval age for their inspiration. Slowly, Morris would become one of the most prominent and progressive socialists of the Victorian age, believing that only a content, well-treated worker could make an object that was truly beautiful. For him, only a fair and just society could produce objects of artistic value. Producing everything from furniture to vases, the Arts and Crafts movement brought decoration and design to the forefront of progressive artistic thought.
The first time the term ‘Art Nouveau’ entered into the cultural vocabulary was to describe the work of a group of Belgian Post-Impressionists known as Les Vingt, or ‘the twenty’. In the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, Les Vingt, founded by Octave Maus and led by the painter Fernand Khnopff, were made up of designers as well as painters. In 1884 the popular Belgian periodical, L'Art Moderne, described the group as ‘art nouveau’; a new art of reform, unity and experimentation. Like the Romanticists, Les Vingt were inspired by the architecture of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who argued for a ‘total work of art’ that would fuse painting, sculpture, and design.
Another landmark moment in the pre-history of Art Nouveau was the construction and inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in Power. Started in 1887, the tower was completed in 1889 ready for the Paris Exposition Universelle. Gustave Eiffel’s masterwork was an awe-inspiring triumph of modern ironwork, construction, and a symbol of modernity. It was tallest building in the world for over forty years and, although largely despised by Parisians, came to encapsulate a new, ambitious spirit and desire to make large-scale, expensive works of public art.
In the United States during the 1880s a powerful figure was emerging and taking the art of interior design to new heights. Louis Comfort Tiffany had begun his career as a painter and created some very accomplished Orientalist works. But in the late 1870s he turned his hand to stained glass and interior decoration. By the mid-1880s he had been commissioned to design the new White House and had founded his own glassware studio, Tiffany Studios. His work was characterized by the kind of bombastic, ornamental style that would make Art Nouveau so recognizable.
Tiffany’s fame and immense presence in American cultural life lasted for the entire Art Nouveau era, and segued effortlessly into the subtle glamour of Art Deco. Tiffany cornered almost every possible medium and added his distinct imprint onto ornaments and objects as varied as pottery, lighting, and jewelry. Arguably, Tiffany achieved what so many of the European Romanticists had argued for: a total work of art that would incorporate the wild beauty of the natural world. Like Art Nouveau, the swirling, floral lines, and billowing flowers of Tiffany’s designs would be the epitome of glamour for decades to come.
The beginning of Art Nouveau is usually dated to 1893, the publication of illustrations by the English artist Aubrey Beardsley in the first installment of a new journal called The Studio. Beardsley’s utterly unique and personal style was beginning to tickle the interest of shrewd book publishers, and he had been asked to decorate a new edition of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur with over 300 different designs. He had also become close friends with the English poet and society figure Oscar Wilde, whose infamous drama Salome was set to be released in French. Beardsley’s work in The Studio was greatly admired by Wilde and he was asked to illustrate Salome. These prestigious commissions and the variety of work demanded meant that Beardsley’s stunning black-and-white images provoked an instant appreciation.
Even before Beardsley came to prominence a vivid form of traditional, popular illustration was emerging as a precursor to Art Nouveau. The work of Walter Crane shows the esteem held by publishers for finely wrought designs in their books. Beginning with the Pre-Raphaelites, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who often included their illustrations in editions from contemporary English poets, book illustration was seen as a way of reconnecting with the medieval art of illuminated holy books and histories.
La Belle Époque; ‘the beautiful era’ between 1870s and the outbreak of World War I was one long binge. Not only was art appearing in every corner of public life; in train stations, cafes, on posters, and in shops, but narcotics today classified as highly addictive drugs were available over the counter of any neighborhood pharmacist. It was a strange and beautiful time to be alive, and the spirit of La Belle Époque was captured at its height by two figures, Siegfried Bing and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Bing was an inspired art collector and dealer. He was obsessed by Japanoism and Japanese art and opened his own shop in Paris to sell his best discoveries to a wealthy clientele. His shop, which opened in 1893, was called Maison de l’Art Nouveau and turned the emerging style into a household name.
If Bing was the salesman of the ‘beautiful era’ Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose works decorated the inside of the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, was the painter of the ‘great binge’. His Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, a poster advertising a performance by a famous cabaret dancer, is the most iconic work of early Art Nouveau. Toulouse-Lautrec documented with a perceptive and affectionate eye the bohemian underworld of alcoholics, dancers, and prostitutes that congregated in Paris’ Montmartre distinct every night. His popularity as a poster artist, producing works that were seen all over Paris and not just in elite galleries, helped turn Art Nouveau into a publicly recognizable movement.
Art Nouveau architecture, probably the most memorable incarnation of the style, began with the work of a Belgian architect, Victor Horta. His first major commission was to design the home of Emile Tassel. Horta incorporated all of his new ideas in this stunningly ambitious creation, introducing the signature ‘whiplash’ curves, amorphous ironwork, and ornate, surprising features. In Paris an architect working in the popular medieval style had begun designing the Castel Béranger. Happening to visit Brussels, the architect, Hector Guimard visited Horta’s new creation. He scrapped all his plans and turned the Castel Béranger an imitation of the Tassel house.
If a work of such innovative design could so quickly change the mind of a leading architect, it was certain that Art Nouveau was bound to catch on. Combined with the progressive values of the Arts and Crafts movement, artists, designers, and architects began to look to the new movement as the embodiment of a decades-long desire for a ‘total work of art’ that would mix media and forms. This new unity of the fine and decorative arts was achieved in the most innocuous of places. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s design for the Buchanan Street tearooms is an example of how quickly Art Nouveau became visible in all manner of public places.
From the moment the name Art Nouveau was coined, music had played a key role in its development. The early exhibitions of Les Vingt featured a mix of multimedia, multidisciplinary performances, from poetry to music. Concerts held at Les Vingt exhibitions included early performances by Claude Debussy, whose 1894 composition L'après-midi d'une faune is a masterpiece of aural design that perfectly complements the elegant ‘whiplash’ curves of the Art Nouveau style.
Debussy vigorously rejected connections made between his work and Impressionism, but seemed to only hold a prejudice against painting. The ‘total work of art’ of Art Nouveau must have pleased his tastes as he incorporated musical versions of the ‘Arabesque’ designs that inspired and drove the illustrations, architectural designs, and ornaments of a new generation of applied artists. Another musician who shared his early career with that of Art Nouveau was Erik Satie, whose sublime Gymnopédies are as enveloped in mystical charm as any of Horta’s blueprints.
Although Art Nouveau did not have the same staying power, it shared its birth and development with another awe-inspiring and profoundly modern innovation: cinema. In 1895 the Lumière brothers had screened the first moving picture film and although the medium would not develop into a respected art form for another three decades, it still shared many qualities with Art Nouveau. Both were products of the unstoppable engine of industrialization, one a reaction to it and the other a direct consequence.
From the Arts and Crafts movement onwards, artists had resisted the coming of the machine age in favor of handicrafts and traditional forms. Cinema, as spectacular and dynamic as any Art Nouveau design was the child of industrialization; a machine able to capture a fleeting moment and not just preserve it but replay it for a fixed duration. But both cinema and Art Nouveau hinged on exploiting a public fascination with movement, modernity, and progress. They shared prominence at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, but few would accurately predict which of the two would have the longer lifespan
Both the retail tastes and finely-curated selections of Siegfried Bing’s L'Art Nouveau and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s sumptuous décor had one shared foundation: a love of the styles, shapes, and mysterious forms of the natural world. For a generation of designers this interest in the patterns and natural designs of organic beings came first from the Romanticist commitment to a ‘return to nature’ and secondly from the life studies, botanical explorations, and vivid illustrations found in the books of biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel.
The success of Haeckel's Artforms of nature had been preceded by other natural studies such as those by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the Gothic Revival architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London, and The Grammar of Ornament by Romanticist theorist Owen Jones. Alongside the more prominent and influential work of John Ruskin, the Art Nouveau generation had been raised on the belief that by discovering and reproducing perfect organic, flowing life, art could reflect the freedom and the rhythms of nature.
While Toulouse-Lautrec’s popular public poster art helped launch Art Nouveau in the eyes of the Parisian pedestrian, in the sphere of fine art the connection between the new ornamental design movement and painting is a bit more complex. Certainly, the Post-Impressionist paintings of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin would have made a great impression on Toulouse-Lautrec, and would have helped combine the flattered perspective and curving lines of Japonism with a more intense, psychological address to the viewer.
Post-Impressionism was accompanied by the Symbolist style, which was manifested in a spin-off group called Les Nabis, a group of young artists who thought of themselves as spiritual prophets. Les Nabis were firm believers in an art form that would blur the lines between painting, ornamentation, and décor. This expressiveness and stylistic confidence led to the creation of sleek, elegant, and expressive forms that were drawn in the minimal, economic manner of Japanese woodblock printing.
By the time Art Nouveau was firmly wedged in the mindset of everyday Europeans, one group of artists came along and turned the flowing lines and ‘whiplash’ curves into an art of impossible decadence. The Vienna Secessionists were a group of Austrian artists who joined forces in 1897 in the aim of organizing exhibitions and inviting foreign artists to exhibit in Vienna. Their efforts to overturn the dull and staid state of Austrian art turned the capital into the spiritual home of elegant living, café-culture, and Art Nouveau greatness. Their most famous member and first president was the painter Gustav Klimt, whose early works regularly appeared in the group’s journal, ‘Ver Sacrum’.
Just a year after their founding, the Vienna Secessionists decided to design their very own headquarters, and set the architect Josef Olbrich to work on creating it. The 1898 Secession Building is the first manifesto in the form of a building, and was intended to proclaim to the world the aspirations and intentions of the Secession movement. Klimt even decorated the building with one of his most remarkable early works, his Beethoven Frieze. Architecture had always been an integral part of the Art Nouveau, but a new band of designers; Olbrich, Josef Hoffman and Otto Wagner, were taking ornamental elegance to new heights. In some parts of Europe, the style became known as ‘eel style’ in light of its similarity to the slippery tendons of an eel.
The first exhibition of the Vienna Secessionists took place in March 1898, featuring works of homegrown talent as well as the designs of international artists the group admired. The Vienna Secessionists were so intricate in their attention to detail that their exhibitions are even remembered for the innovative design and method of exhibiting that, in its minimal approach, has influenced the way art is presented to this day. The group came to dominate the final years of the nineteenth century and helped to launch many careers. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s appearance at the eighth Secession exhibition was a particular triumph.
Having been commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna, Gustav Klimt premiered his designs at the Vienna Secession exhibitions. His choices of designs were dedications to the art and craft of education itself. Titled Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, Klimt was clearly shocked by the mass condemnation and scandal caused by his works. Deemed pornographic, Klimt’s works would never decorate the University and never again did Klimt agree to accept a public commission. Ever the bearers of bad taste, the Nazi SS destroyed the paintings in 1945.
Art Nouveau had always had its roots in book illustration and design, from the Pre-Raphaelite engraved illustrations of poetry to Aubrey Beardsley’s remarkable and unique J'ai baisé ta bouche lokanaan for the French version of Oscar Wilde's play Salomé. It had also found its impulse and passion for images of the natural world from biological studies printed between the middle and the end of the nineteenth century. Architectural treatise and studies of medieval Gothic architecture also provided a template for the style that would later directly connect architecture and illustration. Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo’s design for the book Wren's City Churches was one early highlight. From Aestheticism to Symbolism, Art Nouveau had always been an art of the word as much as an art of the interior.
One regional manifestation of Art Nouveau foregrounded literature rather than merely book design, and expressed the paradoxes of modernity and industrialization. Spanish Modernisme took an innovative approach to narrative and storytelling and shared many common traits with the Decadent movement. The movement centered around a bar shown as Els Quatre Gats, run by Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu, and grew up in the shadow of architect Antoni Gaudí’s distinctive Sagrada Família church, for which building commenced in 1882 and remains incomplete to this day. The ambitious spirit of Art Nouveau lives on.
La belle époque, the great binge; it really was an era of eras. As the century drew to a close and the twentieth century crept forward, the era became known as the ‘Fin de Siècle’, the ‘end of the century’, a term that organized many cultural impulses from Symbolism to Art Nouveau into one category. In a similar way that people became hysteric over the millennium bug at the turn of the twenty-first century, those living in the late 1890s felt their era was drawing to a close, and that what was to come could only be the product of decadence, degeneration, and disaster. They would be proved right, the beauty and the anxiety would not last too long.
The sense of anxiety and pessimism, and the belief that an industrial civilization built on progress, growth, and ornamentation would lead to decadence and decay, was best summed up in the Decadent and Aestheticism movement in literature. Irish writer Oscar Wilde expressed this ideology of pessimism in elegant and eloquent form.
Despite its trademark ‘whiplash’ curves and elongated forms, Art Nouveau could rarely be seen as a coherent whole. Its time came at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair that included a pavilion dedicated to Siegfried Bing, a pavilion dedicated to the famous danced Loïe Fuller whose Dance of the Veils was well known, and the debut of Hector Guimard's iconic Paris Metro station entrances. So recognizable were these that the movement even became known as Le Style Métro in Paris for a short time. At the Paris fair in 1900 the fin de siècle came to a head. It was the height of la belle époque, and was the highpoint of the Art Nouveau era.
Various buildings erected specially for the event were the most ambitious projects of the Art Nouveau era. The Porte Monumentale entrance, designed by René Binet, boasted countless electronic light bulbs that dazzled and captivated the attention of visitors and made a blinding dance of light and color. The 1900 fair heralded the achievements of France and ensured that the Parisian reputation for fine craftsmanship, elegance, and awe-inspiring glamour lasted well into the twentieth century.
But Art Nouveau’s most memorable period came some years after the Paris fair of 1900. Gustav Klimt, having refused to take any more public commissions after the Vienna University scandal, had been busy fulfilling countless prestigious private commissions to paint the portraits of Vienna’s jet-set elite. This period was known as his ‘Golden Phase’, when he used gold leaf in his paint to emphasize the sense of grandeur, and to imitate the religious paintings of ancient Byzantium. He had begun using gold leaf in his 1898 Pallas Athene and his 1901 Judith I, but it is his 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and his iconic work The Kiss finished a year later, that would be recognized as the highpoint of the ornamental, luxurious Art Nouveau style.
Such was Klimt’s prestige and position that he was granted a solo exhibition at the 1910 Venice Biennale, a festival then as now the most important date in the cultural calendar. He showed his Judith II and presented the exhibition in the minimal style that had been created by the Vienna Secession Exhibitions to heighten the effects of the paintings shown.
Art Nouveau flowered once again before World War I in the works of Alphonse Mucha, who made the Czech capital of Prague briefly the new capital of the Art Nouveau style. Yet unlike French architectural habits, the Czech school tended to focus on the facades of buildings, rather than their actual design. Despite this surface focus, examples of Art Nouveau can be found all across the stunning Gothic city, blending, contrasting, and juxtaposing with the burnt-stone medievalism of the capital.
Today, Prague is closely connected to the works of Mucha. The artist first rose to prominence during the 1900 Paris fair, having designed much of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion and given his expertise to the creation of the Austrian Pavilion. Despite being the most fashionable and imitated of the late Art Nouveau artists, Mucha repeatedly tried to shed the label, saying instead that his work was part of a wider Czech National Revival steeped in older traditions.
Modernism, the movement that would transform the twentieth century by embracing the changing world and privileging function over form, crushed Art Nouveau. Modernism had many early forebears but its first proper appearance is often said to be the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps, The Rite of Spring. In the audience were the musicians associated with Art Nouveau, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and the future stars of the Modernist scene Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. The performance had barely started when a riot broke out, with the audience split down the middle in their appreciation for the work.
Ballet had already started to bridge Art Nouveau with an emerging change in the performing arts. Leon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes had fused Baroque splendor with the ornamentation of Art Nouveau. Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring was remembered vividly by all the early modernists in attendance, and the emerging ballet scene directly inspired the creation of some of the most trailblazing and formative paintings of Modernism, such as Henri Matisse’ 1909 The Dance.
In 1914 the Archduke of Austro-Hungary Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, putting in motion a chain of events that would signal the outbreak of World War I. At the geographical heart of this new conflict, workshops and studios in Vienna stopped producing their wares and the luxurious ornamentation associated with the Art Nouveau would no longer be permitted at a time of war rationing and armament production. A student of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, personified this wartime change, when the wavy, elongated forms became associated not with luxury and freedom but with fear and psychological expression.
After the ravages of World War I Art Nouveau was swept away. In its place came a rigid, refined, and austere style known as Art Deco, expressed in painting by Tamara de Lempicka and advocated as a new lifestyle choice in magazines from Paris to New York. Art Nouveau had laid the groundwork for a total work of art that encompassed décor, fine art, and architecture. It had been a response to the rise of modernity and despite its short lifespan, burned brightly in the history of design, art, and cultural ambition. It was dysfunctional, sensuous, ornate, over-the-top, and elitist. But never since has there been a decorative form that so naturally hints at fine craftsmanship, imagination, and luxury.