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Art Nouveau {ahr noo-voh'}, a French term meaning new art, refers to a style of architecture, of commercial and decorative art, and, to some extent, a style of painting and sculpture that was popular about 1900. Although the style was then thought of as modern and was given the title "new art," it was adapted from older styles and art forms. Much was derived from the Gothic and rococo and from the arts of Java and Japan. The movement was also inspired by Celtic manuscripts and the drawings of William Blake. Persian pottery and ancient Roman glass also served as models for some Art Nouveau craftsmen.

The style's patterns and motifs were taken primarily from nature and were often carried out with unrestrained exuberance of form, color, and especially line. The characteristic line, a flowing curvilinear, was to give Art Nouveau the descriptive nicknames "noodle," "whiplash," "tapeworm," and "cigarette-smoke style."

A favorite Art Nouveau theme was a nymph with flowers in her abundant streaming hair. She appeared on the posters of Alfons Mucha and among the opals and moonstones of René Lalique's jewelry. Other favorites were peacocks, dragonflies, and moths. In brilliant enamels and gold filigree, they were worked into combs, brooches, and other adornments. Morning glories glimmered through the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Irises were inlaid in the marquetry cabinets of Louis Majorelle (1859-1926). Cresting waves broke and seaweed clustered around Art Nouveau vases. A dish might be an unadorned lotus leaf. Other botanical forms were arranged in abstract patterns and were symmetrically arrayed around mirror or picture frames or repeated on fabrics and wallpapers or in mural decorations.

Art Nouveau was a rich, voluptuous style that appealed to an enlightened elite, to personalities such as Sarah Bernhardt and Loie Fuller, and to the nouveaux riches, whose tastes, uninhibited by tradition, encouraged designers to stylistic excesses. The style's patrons grew bored with it, however, and it declined in fashion within a decade.

Yet not all Art Nouveau was frivolous and evanescent. Its serious adherents viewed it as the answer to a serious problem that had become apparent by the end of the 19th century: to find a style suitable for the industrial age rather than, as the academically trained architects of the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts were doing, applying past styles to contemporary works.

In 1861 the English designer William Morris, concerned with this problem, started the Arts and Crafts Movement in an effort to improve the tastes of the Victorian public. He hoped to overcome the banality of industrially produced decorative arts by fostering a return to medieval craftsmanship. Although not a solution to mass-produced articles, the movement did revive an interest in craftsmanship that had been diminishing steadily since the French Revolution.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was the parent of Art Nouveau, but it persisted into the new period and after 1900 merged into the mainstream of the newer style. This was also true of symbolism, a Continental movement in poetry and painting that appeared in the 1870s. Much of the enigmatic form and color of Art Nouveau is related to the spirit of symbolism, as are such motifs as Medusa heads, Pans, and woodland nymphs. The atmosphere of decadent cynicism found in the drawings and paintings of Aubrey Beardsley, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edvard Munch, as well as the otherworldly qualities found in the works of Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and Gustav Klimt, were derived from the symbolist poets, yet the rendering in color and line related to Art Nouveau.

One other development that influenced Art Nouveau was the Aesthetic Movement, an English decorative-arts style created by followers of William Morris during the 1880s. The Aesthetic Movement took its sources from medieval art, as did its Arts and Crafts Movement counterpart, but it adapted the newly discovered arts of Japan as well. It survived for only a decade, and much of the style was absorbed into Art Nouveau. Some of the Morris-inspired fabrics and wallpapers of Walter Crane, Charles Voysey, and Arthur Macmurdo (1851-1942), designed in 1882, could easily be taken for Art Nouveau circa 1895.

In fact, the British developments attracted interest on the Continent. The Belgian architects Victor Horta and Henri Van de Velde introduced the works of the English designers in a Brussels exhibition in 1892. They were considered very advanced and were called "Style Anglais." Also, in 1892, when Horta designed a home in Brussels for a Professor Tassel, he amalgamated these recent influences in a linear design, a biomorphic whiplash, and thus created the first Art Nouveau architecture. The French architect Hector Guimard was aware of the work of Horta and Van de Velde, and in 1900, Guimard made brilliant use of Art Nouveau in his design for the entrances to the new Paris subway system, the Metro. For some time thereafter the style was called "le Style Metro." A Metro gate by Guimard is now in the sculpture garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Architects in other parts of the world had been leaning in the direction of Art Nouveau even before 1890. One was the American architect Louis Sullivan, the teacher of Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan made use of ancient Celtic designs, incorporating them in the decoration of his otherwise functional buildings, such as the Auditorium Building (1889) and the Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, both in Chicago. In Barcelona the Spanish architect Antonio Gaud was another precursor of Art Nouveau. Employing medieval Spanish traditions, Gaudi, like Sullivan, created a uniquely personal style. He combined typical Spanish materials such as wrought iron and colorful tile with cast concrete to create fantastic structures in an unusual Art Nouveau idiom. Gaudi's plans and structural models for the still uncompleted Church of the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family), begun in 1883, show his power of invention as an engineer.

Emile Galle, the French designer of glass and furniture, was following William Morris's precepts before 1880. Inspired by Chinese cameo glass, he created glassware that was to influence Tiffany in the United States. Tiffany achieved an iridescent glass by using unusual chemical techniques; to Americans his name became synonymous with the new styles of 1900. During the 1890s Arthur Lasenby Liberty's shops in London and Paris were outlets for the modern style. Italians called Art Nouveau "Stile Liberty" and "Stile Floreale." The Germans referred to it as "Jugendstil," after the avant-garde art periodical Jugend (Youth). But the present-day label is derived from Maison de l'Art Nouveau, a shop opened by the dealer Siegfried Bing in 1896.

A rational architectural approach to the style was achieved by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scotsman. His work so impressed Josef Hoffmann and the Viennese Secession (or Sezession) group that they adapted a similar modification of Art Nouveau, and in doing so created a new style that many decades later became known as Art Deco. Hoffmann's Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905) was a precursor of the French Art Deco style of 1925.

Art Nouveau was out of fashion before World War I had begun. From the 1920s to the 1950s it was considered by critics a moribund, even ugly, style. About 1960, however, a reappraisal began. In reaction to the unimaginative glass-and-steel rectangular architecture of the 1950s, critics began to turn back to the style of 1900 with favorable reconsideration. Numerous exhibitions were held, scholarly publications on Art Nouveau began to appear, and prices for Art Nouveau objects soared. Art Nouveau was incorporated in the rebellious psychedelic style of the 1960s and finally achieved its place as a significant style in the history of modern art.

E. M. Plunkett, Art Historian.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Samuel Bing, Artistic America, Tiffany Glass, and Art Nouveau (1970); Alastair Duncan, Art Nouveau (1994); Hans-Dieter Dyroff, ed., Art Nouveau: Jugendstil Architecture in Europe (1989); William Eadie, Movements of Modernity: The Case of Glasgow and Art Nouveau (1990); Constance M. Grieff, Art Nouveau (1995); Stephen T. Madsen, The Sources of Art Nouveau (1959; repr. 1975); Nikolaus Pevsner, The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968); Peter Selz and Mildred Constantine, eds., Art Nouveau (1959; repr. 1976); Gabriele Sterner, Art Nouveau: An Art in Transition from Individualism to Mass Society, trans. by F. G. and D. S. Peters (1982); Roberta Waddel, Art Nouveau Style in Jewelry, Metalwork, Glass, Ceramics, Textiles, Architecture and Furniture (1977); Gabriel P. Weisberg, Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style 1900 (1986).
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Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]


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