The Background and History of Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau Then and Now: An Overview of the Style and its Influence
Many people have heard of the term Art Nouveau and have at least a general sense of the style--flowing, ornate, organic--but no knowledge of its origins, the movement's most influential artists, or what truly makes a design fall into this genre, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still has a sizable following today, even if its fans don't actually know the name.
Today, you'll still find Art Nouveau pieces, from prints to sculptures to entire buildings, all over the world, in cities, towns, museums and attics alike. Some of these works were created during the height of the Art Nouveau movement and are truly valuable pieces. But you'll also see many newer or brand new Art Nouveau designs in the form of jewelry, furniture, sculptures, paintings, illustrations, and advertisements.
So, keep an eye out the next time you visit a yard sale or flea market. Be sure to check out those antique-looking picture frames, jewelry boxes, and those boxes loaded with Aunt Kay's stuff. You may just find one of the most famous pieces of Art Nouveau yet to be rediscovered.
First, though, read through this page and learn a bit more about what you're looking for and where you can find pieces for your own Art Nouveau collection, new and old.
The Beginning of the Art Nouveau Movement
The Poster That Inspired a New Style
The popularity of Art movements can often be traced back to a single artist and even a single work of art. The Art Nouveau movement received its first wave of popularity when a particular lithographed poster, an advertisement for the 1895 Parisian play Gismonda, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, was published. (The popularity of the play and the lead actress undoubtedly helped.)
The new style of art that was featured in this piece was initially called "Style Mucha" after the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who designed the poster, but it soon became known as Art Nouveau, which is French for "new art," and many other names.
Art Nouveau has Many Names
The term Art Nouveau originated in France but became the preferred term for the new style known as le style moderne. It became known as Art Nouveau shortly after Siegfried Bing opened a successful Parisian shop of that name which featured work in the modern style.
After the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Art Nouveau style spread across Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, and as far as Australia and America. The genre was then also identified by a variety of regional names indicative of its forms, schools of thought, or its practitioners or their locale. Like nouveau in Art Nouveau, most of these terms also share a reference to "newness."
In Italy Art Nouveau was known as Arte nuova and Stile Liberty, in the Netherlands, Nieuwe kunst, in Portugal Arte nova. In Spain, it was called Arte joven (young art) and in Catalonia, Modernisme. In the United States, it became Tiffany style and it was known as The Glasgow School in Scotland, after the institute founded by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
In Germany, it was Jugendstil and in Austria, Sezessionstil (Secessionist). It was also known by names that reflected its motifs and curvilinearity such as Stile Floreal ("floral style"), Style Nouille ("noodle style") and Paling Stijl ("eel style").
Significant Elements of the Art Nouveau Style
Given the descriptiveness of the different names for what today is commonly called Art Nouveau are indicative of the elements that comprised the style:
- Sinuous, flowing, gentle lines and "violent" (or "whiplash") curves
- Influences from the natural world -- plants and flowers, birds, etc. -- and geometric forms
- Quality workmanship (which was a reaction to the poorly made pieces that previously dominated the decorative arts)
- Function dictating form and everyday objects made into art
- Floral backgrounds and patterned surfaces
- Common materials: opals and semiprecious stones, glass, animal horns and ivory (the latter not often used today, particularly in the Western hemisphere)
A showcase of Art Nouveau across cities in nine countries.
10 Famous Art Nouveau Artists, Architects and Sculptors
Once it began, Art Nouveau quickly established its influence the world over. Artists from France, Belgium, Germany and other countries employed this distinct style combined with their individual touches and specialties to create truly unique designs.
This list is by no means all-inclusive. Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley, and many other well-known artists and designers do not appear here but will be featured in future articles.
The intent was to present a geographic and stylistic representation of the genre as an introduction to what has been called the first modern art movement.
Click on the names to read more about each of these influential artists. You'll see some of their works on this page.
Alphonse Mucha's Art Nouveau
More works by the artist who inspired this "new art" movement
Alphonse Mucha was a Czech painter and decorative artist who's credited with beginning the Art Nouveau movement. This actually happened quite by accident, when he wandered into a print shop one Christmas where he found out about the sudden need for a new poster ad for a play starring the most famous actress in Paris at the time: Sarah Bernhardt.
It was then that Mucha volunteered to create that poster within two weeks. Bernhardt loved the poster so much--and that poster received so much positive attention--she entered into a 6-year contract with him. Mucha went on to create many more paintings and posters, ads and book illustrations. This prolific artist also designed jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theater sets.
Art Nouveau Artist Gustav Klimt
This Austrian painter used gold leaf in many of his works, which often focused on the female form. Klimt's paintings have sold for some of the highest prices recorded for individual works of art -- as much as $135 million -- but you can own a Gustav Klimt print for just a few dollars, even pennies in fact.
Emile Gallé's Art Nouveau
This French glass artist is well known for the experimental techniques he incorporated into his pieces, including metallic foils and air bubbles.
He also infused life into the glass industry by establishing a workshop for mass producing his and other artists' designs.
The Work of Hector Guimard
This innovative French architect designed some complex structural frames which lent themselves to high quality acoustics, including that of the extraordinary concert hall Humbert-de-Roman.
He also designed the Hotel Guimard, built on ground too narrow for the exterior walls to be weight-bearing, making for a very unique arrangement of interior spaces.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Art Nouveau Style
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer, watercolorist and artist. He painted many floral watercolors and designed textiles.
Mackintosh also designed the Glasgow School of Art and Queen's Cross Church, as well as private homes, commercial buildings, interior renovations and and other churches; however, the majority of his more ambitious designs were never actually built.
Read More about Charles Rennie Mackintosh
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Lalique Art Nouveau Glass
Early 20th-century French artist and poet René Lalique became a master glass-maker, attracting the attention of museums and collectors all over the world.
Antoni Gaudi's Art Nouveau Architecture
Visit Barcelona on Spain's Costa Blanca and you will be surrounded by Antoni Gaudi's creations. The Catelonian architect's first love was for his native land, and many of his works reflect a quiet pride and radiate his intense faith. Perhaps his most famous work was the design and building of the beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, which continues to inspire artists today. Guadi's popularity as an architect is evident in the many commissions he undertook throughout his life. He's responsible for projects as varied as lampposts to entire buildings. Some of his most iconic work is found in mosaic style fountains and statues that decorate buildings and naves throughout the Mediterranean.
Art Nouveau Designs by Louis Comfort Tiffany
You may not know this highly influential American artist by his full name, but surely you've heard of or at least seen some of his world-famous art glass. Tiffany stained glass windows? Tiffany lamps? Yes, that's Louis Comfort Tiffany, who also designed glass mosaics and blown glass, jewelry, ceramics, enamels and metalwork.
Tiffany was most proud, however, of his favrile art glass, which demanded a great deal of skill. Some examples can be seen in the above photo. Tiffany's Favrile glass included colored, gold iridescent, blue iridescent, and opalescent forms.
Not many leaded glass lamps that use the Tiffany name reflect the original artist's committment to quality, but Meyda Tiffany (yes, she really is related to Louis Comfort) manufactures many traditional designs that are among the best being produced today.
Victor Mayer Art Nouveau
Througout his working life, German Victor Mayer drew his influences from at least four major art movements: Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Avant-garde. He trained in Germany and Vienna, and his Art Nouveau jewelry designs drew heavily on nature for inspiration. He specialized in enameling and engraving, and his jewelry was much sought after in high society. Some of his Art Nouveau belt buckles recently sold at auction for several thousands of dollars.
For More About Art Nouveau Jewelry
Art Nouveau jewelry is very popular today, including genuine antiques, vintage pieces, and new, very affordable designs. Learn about Art Nouveau and see our wonderful collection of great pieces.
Art Nouveau Designs by Victor Horta
Although Art Nouveau was overtaken by other styles in the 20th century, it's still considered a significant part of cultural heritage, having contributed a great influence in the world of art and architecture.
Riga, Latvia, is said to have the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. There are also four homes in Brussels designed by Victor Horta that are prime examples of Art Nouveau, showing the transition from 19th to 20th-century architecture.
A rare collection of Horta's original drawings plus archival images and stunning photographs illuminated by the insightful commentary.
Art Nouveau is Still Going Strong
Although the true Art Nouveau movement lasted for just twenty years (1890-1910), its popularity and desirability persists today.
When it comes to original Art Nouveau outside of fine art museums, you can still find pieces for sale by antique dealers and collectors, including jewelry, sculptures, furniture, prints and paintings and more. And sometimes you can find some surprises too.
If you're lucky, perhaps you'll discover a genuine Art Nouveau lithograph hidden behind a newer, cheap picture in old frame. Oftentimes, those who find these pictures in old frames don't know what they are or their true value.
But you don't have to hunt through bazaars or spend a lot on Art Nouveau antiques to bring this style into your own home or wardrobe. There are many new designs made in this still-popular, beautiful style, and many of those items are very affordable. While most people don't go all out with this ornate style today, it's fun to accent your home or your outfits with at least a touch of Art Nouveau elegance.
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© 2012 Chazz