During the last decades of the 19th century, many artists and designers were filled with a passionate urge to revolutionise the tired historicism associated with traditional architecture and design. The Art Nouveau style emerged in several countries under different names and with distinctive, yet broadly similar, traits.
The change in 'taste' was interpreted in various countries in a variety of ways: an inclusion of natural forms (including flowers, leaves, animals and insects), an emphasis on the fluidity of line, geometric shapes or asymmetrical compositions, and the integration of structure and decoration. Although Brussels, Paris and Munich were its epicentres, Art Nouveau can be seen as a thoroughly 'international' movement.
Considered the first new decorative style of the modern age, Art Nouveau was an exotic and decadently modern departure from the French historical tradition. The popularity of the term 'Art Nouveau' was said to stem from the Parisian gallery of influential art dealer Siegfried Samuel Bing, called the 'Maison de L'Art Nouveau'. Other contemporary terms for the style in France were Style Jules Verne, Le Style Métro, Art belle époque, and Art fin de siècle, and even Le Style moderne or Le Style nouille (Noodle style).
In 19th century Paris, vibrant convention-defying posters, such as those designed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, captured the public imagination. However it was the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle that brought the sweeping and innovative style of Art Nouveau to the world at large. From the elegant glassware of Emile Gallé to the graceful forms of cabinet-maker Louis Majorelle, the Paris exposition (and its later offshoots in Glasgow and Turin) displayed the whiplash curves and organic motifs that became forever entwined with the rise of Art Nouveau, stimulating the New Art craze both in France and beyond.
In the 1880s the term 'Art Nouveau' was used in the Belgian journal L'Art Moderne to describe the work of 'Les Vingt' – a group of 20 painters and sculptors who sought reform through art. Les Vingt advocated for the dissolution of the boundary separating the fine arts of painting and sculpture with the so-called lesser decorative arts.
Two Belgian architect-designers who successfully unified the fine and applied arts were Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde. Horta's masterpieces, such as the Hôtel Tassel and Hôtel Eetvelde, are total works of art. From the buildings' iron banisters to the stained glass canopies to the door handles – everything resonates with organic decoration.
Van de Velde had, arguably, an even greater influence. He wrote articles about the new style in Belgian, German and French periodicals, and was artistically trained in both Flemish and French vernacular styles. Van de Velde idolised British designer William Morris and the theories of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Early in his career he moved to Berlin to join the Deutscher Werkbund, an association of craftsmen that promoted German design. Similar to Horta's approach, in Van de Velde's designs, everything from the framework of a building to the furniture and textiles was a plausible target for ornament. Even the silverware adopted these designs, as can be seen in the sweeping, inventive lines of the cutlery made for the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1902.
Van de Velde also created publicity and packaging for the German food manufacturer Tropon, moving from realism to more abstract forms, with an emphasis on pattern. One of his early posters – an advertisement for egg whites – illustrates the graceful yet structural elements of Art Nouveau. His design evokes the shapes and colours of the egg, as well as the trademark of the manufacturer, three sparrows. The advert was issued by the German art magazine Pan in 1898. Even with its sweeping curves and exaggerated, undulating lines, the poster is adapted for the German taste, which was a more geometric, symmetrical version of Art Nouveau.
Germany and Austria-Hungary
In Germany, Art Nouveau was known as Jugendstil, (Youth Style), popularised by the magazine Die Jugend, founded in Munich in 1896. One of the founders of the German movement, architect and designer August Endell, claimed that designers of his generation stood "at the inception of an entirely new art – the art of using forms that, although they signify nothing, represent nothing and recall nothing, can move the human soul... profoundly and irresistibly". As the co-founder of the literary magazine Pan, the illustrations by him and others, such as Joseph Sattler, exemplify the two-dimensional and graphical qualities that came to represent Jugendstil.
In Austria, Art Nouveau was first popularised by artists of the Vienna Secession movement, and was known as Sezessionstil. The Secessionists, avant-garde artists who rejected the conservative and traditional academic art establishment, included artist Gustav Klimt, architect Josef Maria Olbrich, and the founders of the Vienna Workshops, Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann.
The Secessionist style was extremely influential and can be seen in the architecture, furniture, posters, household goods and fabrics of the time. Rudolf Jettmar's 1903 poster for a Secessionist exhibition shows Olbrich's Vienna Secession building standing defiant and proud as the classical arts are driven off. Other highlights in our collections – Moser's bookplate and Hoffmann's silver fruit basket and adjustable armchair – also illustrate the unique combination of geometrical precision (influenced by the Scottish school and Charles Rennie Mackintosh) and curvaceous, expressive lines of Austrian Art Nouveau.
In Britain, Art Nouveau's flame burned bright for a few brief years at the start of the 20th century. The style was largely indebted to two inspirational and avant-garde predecessors: the Arts and Crafts Movement and Aestheticism.
At the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement lay a concern for the role of the craftsman as well as nostalgia for rural life and local traditions – concepts that appear throughout the literature, music and art of the period. Inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, it advocated a revival of traditional handicrafts, a return to a simpler way of life and an improvement in the design of ordinary domestic objects.
Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh melded the typical characteristics of Arts and Crafts design (including: emphasising the natural qualities of materials, applying organic flora and fauna patterns, stripping superfluous decoration, and using traditional building and manufacturing techniques) with the creative freedom of Art Nouveau. His instantly recognisable approach made him a British icon. Many of his designs, often executed or inspired by his wife and fellow artist and designer – Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, such as the lampshade panel and fireplace for homes and businesses in Glasgow – show a clear affinity for the natural world. Mackintosh's dominant contribution to Art Nouveau, however, was to apply an orderliness to the aesthetic based on severe but eccentric geometry.
As the craft guilds sprouted up across Britain, led by luminaries such as the Mackintoshes and A. H. Mackmurdo, a second forerunner to Art Nouveau – Aestheticism – was gaining momentum. The philosophy of 'art for art's sake' emphasised the importance of art above everything else and the pleasure to be found in beautiful things. Aesthetic design, with its outlandish motifs – decadent peacock feathers, bold sunflowers, Classical Greek cameos and japonisme (the study of Japanese art) – reached its zenith in the works of J. M. Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Movement's leading personality, the poet and writer Oscar Wilde. After Wilde's imprisonment for homosexuality in 1895, the Aesthetic Movement lost its popularity, but not without influencing practitioners of Art Nouveau such as Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Victor Horta.
By the turn of the century, the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain was on the wane, and the Aesthetic Movement had all but died out. But the attitude that handcrafted rather than mass-produced art should play a part in interior design remained, as did the influential naturalistic patterns passed on by William Morris and his followers.
In Spain, Art Joven was part of the Modernista movement, whose foremost proponent was the architect Antoni Gaudí. In Italy it was Arte Nuova, Stile Floreale or Stile Liberty, named after the famous London store Liberty & Co. In America the movement was called the Tiffany style due to its connection with the Art Nouveau glassmaker and jeweller, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Other champions of the movement included Czech lithographer and designer Alphonse Mucha, Danish ceramics and silver designer Thorvald Bindesbøll and Leon Bakst, the Russian theatre designer for the Ballets Russes. But as the shadow of the First World War loomed over Europe, the popularity of Art Nouveau began to shrink. In its place, the stark undertone of Modernism began to stir.