Art Nouveau


Art Nouveau (from French for “new art”), movement in Western art and design, which reached its peak during the 1890s. Hallmarks of the art nouveau style are flat, decorative patterns; intertwined organic forms such as stems or flowers; an emphasis on handcrafting as opposed to machine manufacturing; the use of new materials; and the rejection of earlier styles. In general, sinuous, curving lines also characterize art nouveau, although right-angled forms are also typical, especially as the style was practiced in Scotland and in Austria.

Art nouveau embraced all forms of art and design: architecture, furniture, glassware, graphic design, jewelry, painting, pottery, metalwork, and textiles. This was a sharp contrast to the traditional separation of art into the distinct categories of fine art (painting and sculpture) and applied arts (ceramics, furniture, and other practical objects).

The term art nouveau comes from an art gallery in Paris, France, called Maison de l'Art Nouveau (House of New Art), which was run by French dealer Siegfried Bing. In his gallery, Bing displayed not only paintings and sculpture but also ceramics, furniture, metalwork, and Japanese art. Sections of the gallery were devoted to model rooms that artists and architects designed in the art nouveau style.

Art nouveau flourished in a number of European countries, many of which developed their own names for the style. Art nouveau was known in France as style Guimard, after French designer Hector Guimard; in Italy as the stile floreale (floral style) or stile Liberty, after British art nouveau designer Arthur Lasenby Liberty; in Spain as modernisme; in Austria as Sezessionstil (secession style); and in Germany as Jugendstil (youth style). These diverse names reflect the widespread adoption of the movement, which had centers in major cities all over Europe - Paris and Nancy in France; Darmstadt and Munich in Germany; Brussels, Belgium; Glasgow, Scotland; Barcelona, Spain; Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; and Budapest, Hungary.


Art nouveau in Britain evolved out of the already established arts and crafts movement. Founded in 1861 by English designer William Morris, the arts and crafts movement emphasized the importance of handcrafted work. Morris’s devotion to handmade articles was a reaction against shoddy machine-made products that were flooding the English marketplace as the industrial revolution expanded. The arts and crafts movement also promoted a totally designed environment in which everything from wallpaper to silverware is made according to a unified design. British art nouveau designers of the 1890s shared Morris’s dedication to hand-crafted work and integrated designs. To these principles they added new forms and materials, establishing the aesthetic of the art nouveau style.

One of the earliest examples of art nouveau in England is a chair designed in 1882 by British architect Arthur Mackmurdo, which exhibits the curving lines associated with the style. Likewise, the fabric designs of Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who opened a shop called Liberty & Co. in 1875, also illustrate an interest in organic forms and curving, decorative patterns.

In 1888 British designer Charles Ashbee established a workshop and school for artisans in London. Ashbee’s furniture and metalwork designs reflect the more rectilinear (straight-lined or right-angled) version of art nouveau style. In the graphic arts, Aubrey Beardsley drew illustrations for periodicals such as The Yellow Book (1894-1895), and for an edition of the play Salomé (1894) by Irish-born writer Oscar Wilde. Beardsley’s vigorous use of line and distinctive double-curves known as whiplash lines have become equated with British art nouveau in the popular imagination.

In Glasgow, Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh also developed a rectilinear version of art nouveau, which he employed in numerous buildings and their furnishings. In the Glasgow School of Art, completed in two phases (eastern section 1897-1899, western section 1906-1909), he used contemporary materials in an elegant, angular style. The simple shapes of the brick and stone exterior clearly indicate the division of space within the building, while large expanses of glass provide a strong visual connection between the interior spaces and the outside world. Window mullions (dividers between panes of glass), doors, and fences use ironwork in an elegant linear or geometric manner. This seemingly simple design offers a strong contrast to the ornate architecture based on past styles that was typical of the time.


Art nouveau architecture in Brussels flourished in the work of Belgian designers Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde. As did Mackintosh in Glasgow, these Belgian designers sought to create a new style, free from the historical references of prevailing traditions. They utilized standard wrought-iron and cast-iron technology, but employed it to create distinctly new forms. In the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels (1892-1893), Horta not only revealed the structural column that supports the second floor, but transformed its cast-iron form into a plantlike stem that terminates in a burst of intertwined tendrils as it connects with other structural elements.

Similarly, French designer Hector Guimard designed entrances for the Metro stations in Paris (1898-1901) using simple metal and glass forms decorated with curvilinear wrought iron. These are especially memorable examples of art nouveau's delightfully curving naturalistic forms.

An interest in organic forms is also found in the work of French glass designer Émile Gallé. Working from his hometown of Nancy, Gallé produced a variety of glassware decorated with leaves, vines, and flowers. He fused layers of different colored glass and then cut designs into the glass to reveal the color he wanted, a technique that also added greater depth to the design.

Alphonse Mucha made similar contributions to the development of art nouveau poster design. Born in Czechoslovakia, Mucha worked in Paris as a graphic artist and interior designer. His posters epitomize art nouveau graphic design with their elaborately stylized natural forms, fluid curving lines, and rich colors.


Art nouveau took hold in a number of German-speaking cities, the most prominent of which were Munich, Darmstadt, and Weimar in Germany, and Vienna in Austria. Known as Jugendstil (German for “youth style”), art nouveau was promoted in Munich through periodicals such as Die Jugend (The Youth).

At the head of Munich's Jugendstil movement was Hermann Obrist, a Swiss designer who created a sensation with an exhibition of his embroidery in 1896. Not only did this exhibit challenge the separation between fine and applied arts, but it also introduced the Munich public to the lively organic forms of art nouveau. Obrist's designs, although based on natural forms, often evolved into mysterious shapes that suggest a fantasy world.

The work of German architect August Endell shares this visionary quality. Endell sought to create intense, dynamic forms that would evoke a strong response in the viewer. His plaster relief sculpture for the exterior of Munich’s Elvira Photo Studio (1896-1897) does just that. Part dragon, part flying sea creature, part tidal wave, the theatrical relief expands the organic forms of art nouveau into the realm of visionary fantasy.

Stylistic trends in Vienna took a significantly different direction. Led by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, young artists and architects formed a group called the Wiener Sezession, or Vienna Secession, in protest against the entrenched conservatism of the art establishment in Vienna. As did their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, Secession designers rejected historical styles; but in Vienna they expressed this through an increasing simplification of form. Rather than embracing the writhing organic forms of Endell or Obrist in Munich, Viennese artists moved towards the restrained geometric designs exemplified by the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

A case in point is the Palais Stoclet (1905-1911) in Brussels, designed by Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann. This residence summarizes succinctly what had become known in Vienna as Sezessionstil (secession style). Hoffmann utilized traditional building materials - marble, glass, and bronze - but arranged the building around an unconventional, asymmetrical entrance. Outlining the sober marble exterior walls are delicate bronze latticework and edging, which suggest an almost playful quality. There is no historical reference here, only an elegant, simplified form.


The art nouveau movement in Spain is best exemplified in the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, whose designs represent a highly personal response to the art nouveau ideas of his time. Gaudí created one of his most eccentric works in the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family, begun in 1883, construction ongoing) in Barcelona. Dominated by four disproportionately tall spires, the church appears to be a fantastical outgrowth of the earth. Floral designs cover the building façade, and broken tiles glitter on the rippling surface of the towers. In his Casa Milà apartment complex (1905-1907, Barcelona), Gaudí created the illusion of a limestone reef hollowed out by centuries of seawater. Although the entire complex was executed in cut stone, there is not one straight line in the façade.


In the United States, art nouveau evolved naturally from the craft tradition of the early 19th century. American furniture, glass, metalwork, and jewelry had long been adapted from European models. Travel between the United States and Europe fostered a continuous exchange of ideas, and by the 1890s American designers were making significant contributions to art nouveau ceramics, glassware, and architecture. International expositions in the United States not only highlighted American products but also attracted European visitors who were curious about design trends emerging in this new marketplace.

Foremost among American art nouveau innovators were Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Tiffany Studios of New York City. Rookwood was well established by the 1890s, producing a wide range of elegant pottery decorated with softly colored natural forms. The glassware of Louis Comfort Tiffany probably constitutes the best-known American examples of art nouveau design. Using his patented Favrile glass (iridescent glass produced by exposing hot glass to metallic fumes), Tiffany designed stained glass windows, lamps, and a variety of other glass objects. The intense color, fluid organic forms, and innovative techniques incorporated in his designs positioned Tiffany as a leader in international art nouveau design.

American architect Louis Sullivan also played an influential role in the creation of a new design vocabulary. Although Sullivan is most recognized for his development of the skyscraper, he also produced inventive art nouveau motifs for the ornamental detailing on the Wainwright Building (1890-1891, St Louis, Missouri), Guaranty Building (1894-1895, Buffalo, New York), Carson Pirie Scott department store (1899-1904, Chicago, Illinois), and other structures. Whether in wrought iron or terra cotta, Sullivan's ornamentation is based on plantlike forms and patterns of complex, interlocking lines.


Art nouveau represents the beginning of modernism in design (see Modern Architecture). It occurred at a time when mass-produced consumer goods began to fill the marketplace, and designers, architects, and artists began to understand that the handcrafted work of centuries past could be lost. While reclaiming this craft tradition, art nouveau designers simultaneously rejected traditional styles in favor of new, organic forms that emphasized humanity's connection to nature.

As art nouveau designers erased the barrier between fine arts and applied arts, they applied good design to all aspects of living - from architecture to silverware to painting. In this integrated approach art nouveau had its deepest influence. A variety of ensuing movements continued to explore integrated design, including De Stijl, a Dutch design movement in the 1920s, and the German Bauhaus school in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the stylistic elements of art nouveau evolved into the simpler, streamlined forms of modernism, the fundamental art nouveau concept of a thoroughly integrated environment remains an important part of contemporary design.

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