Collection Selection Boxes – Art Nouveau

Our Collection Selection Boxes are a unique opportunity to handle original prints, drawings and photographs from our collection. These resources contain carefully curated material that introduces a particular period, style, material, or technique, and are available for individual study or group teaching.

Art Nouveau

The early 1890s saw the birth of a new style in European art and design. What we now call Art Nouveau emerged in several countries at once, under different names and in various artistic disciplines. The drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in England, the architecture of Victor Horta and Paul Hankar in Brussels and the poster designs of Alphonse Mucha in Paris, are some of the most familiar examples of the Art Nouveau style. That they all became fully established between 1893 and 1895 shows how suddenly Art Nouveau arose and how rapidly it spread across Europe.

The Paris International Exhibition in 1900 marked the heyday of Art Nouveau. By this time there were few countries in the Western world without some trace of its style. From the USA to Russia, from England to Italy, Art Nouveau had become the first international decorative style of the modern age.

The 'new art' took many forms. It was adopted by, among others, architects, furniture makers, jewellers and graphic artists. The drive to create a new form of art for a new age had never been stronger. The most important outcome of this drive towards the new was the characteristic Art Nouveau form: the 'whiplash' line. This is a decorative line that seems to have a life of its own. It writhes and coils with dynamic force, as if trying to break free of the forces holding it in place. It is everywhere in the early Art Nouveau works. Architectural ironwork, decorative borders, textile patterns and the flowing hair of the poster girls all seethe with an excess of feverish energy. The whiplash form can be seen as a metaphor. It displays in graphic form the radical drive to break away from the constraints of tradition.

Escaping the European tradition turned many artists towards the art of other cultures. Japanese art became particularly influential. With its bare, minimal style of drawing and flattened space, Japanese printmaking is an obvious ancestor of the graphic works of Art Nouveau.

The complex 'arabesque' designs of the Middle East also had considerable influence, as did ancient European forms such as Celtic decoration. Does this wealth of historical influences contradict Art Nouveau's claim to be modern? If it does, it is perhaps only because the age in which it flourished is contradictory in itself. Spanning both the 19th and 20th centuries, Art Nouveau looked to the future and the past in equal measure.

There are two boxes available containing material related to Art Nouveau.

You can also view and download these resources as a PDF:

Box 1

Box 2

Background image: Detail: ‘Frau Nolda’, textile design, Koloman Moser, 1901, Austria. Museum no. E.73-1978. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London