A decorative art style popular in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is characterised by stylised flowing lines of all kinds, most notably the distinctive “whiplash” curve, which was used to illustrate many forms including tendrils, plant stems, flames, waves and flowing hair.
The origins of Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau initially grew out of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s, with a similar aim to break down the barriers between fine and applied arts. Both movements rejected traditional Victorian culture with its cluttered, historical imagery, aiming to produce an entirely new kind of art.
For both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts artists any media was open to exploration, from fine art, architecture and graphics to applied arts, with an emphasis on skills and craftsmanship. Art Nouveau also took inspiration from the growing trend for Japanese art, with its sinuous, flowing lines and floral decorations.
The term Art Nouveau was first seen in print in the Belgian art journal L’Art Modern in 1884, to describe a series of artworks by the radical group Le Vingt, led by James Ensor, a collective of 20 artists who believed, like John Ruskin and William Morris, in the unity of all arts. The following year, art dealer Siegfried Bing founded a gallery space in Paris called La Maison de l’Art Nouveau, to promote and sell the art and design objects that were being produced in this distinctive new style. Artist and illustrator Walter Crane later described it as: ‘Line determinative, line emphatic, line delicate, line expressive, line controlling and uniting.'
An International Style
Art Nouveau swept across Europe and the United States from the late 1800s. It adopted different names for each country: Jugendstil (Youth Style) in Germany, Modernisme in Catalonia, Sezessionstil in Austria (after the Vienna Secession), Style des Vingt (after Les Vingt) in Belgium, Stil’ Modern in Russia and Stile Floreale (Floral Style) in Italy. A series of major exhibitions helped spread the new ideas, including the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, the Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna in Turin, 1902 and the St Louis World’s Fair in 1902, where the style proved extremely popular.
Key ideas and influences
Art Nouveau was promoted as an entirely new visual approach, with distinctive, sensuous flowing lines and vivid colours. Along with the influence of Japonisme, ideas also came from other historical sources, including Celtic and Saxon jewelry and Gothic Architecture. The influence of Charles Darwin’s progressive discoveries changed attitudes towards natural forms in art, which were renewed with a source of wonder and discovery, something many art nouveau artists were keen to imbed into their artworks. Influences also came from fine art, particularly the bold outlines and flattened forms of the Post-Impressionists including Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
Many Art Nouveau designers had previously worked in an Arts and Crafts style, including British designer Arthur MacMurdo, who designed the title page for Wren’s City Churches in 1883 with oriental flower stems growing from the bottom of the page. British artist Aubrey Beardsley also made important contributions, with the flowing lines, decorative patterns and eroticism of his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome epitomising the Art Nouveau aesthetic. In Vienna, Gustav Klimt became a major figure, creating lavishly decorated paintings of elongated figures in sensuous, amorous poses.
Art Nouveau in Scotland
In Scotland, a unique brand of Art Nouveau developed, led by the Glasgow Four, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife, Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances Macdonald and her husband Herbert McNair. Together they explored a wide range of media including painting, architecture, interiors, furniture and book illustration. They also founded a later Art Nouveau style that was more geometric, with restrained ornamentation and curving vertical lines. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was arguably the most prolific, developing distinctive rose and leaf motifs and an instantly recognisable black and white geometric pattern, which has had a lasting influence on many art and design movements since.
The Art Nouveau style fell out of favour in the following decades, partly due to its increasing commercialisation. For many it had become too elaborate and was replaced in the early twentieth century with sparser, more geometric styles, including Art Deco. Nonetheless, the style’s influence was far reaching, particularly its emphasis on merging art with design and the meticulous qualities of its craftsmanship. Its expressive use of form, line and colour would also lead the way for a series of pioneering abstract art movements in the following decades, including Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism.