Art Nouveau is an international ornamental art style that characterized architecture, fine art and especially decorative arts across Europe and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.
The term ‘Art Nouveau’ – literally ‘New Art’ – was first used in the 1880s in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne to describe the work of Les Vingt, twenty painters and sculptors seeking reform through art. The name was popularized by the Maison de l’Art Nouveau (“House of the New Art”), an art gallery opened in Paris in 1895 by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing.
Art Nouveau emerged in Belgium and France in the 1890s, continuing through the turn of the 20th century until World War 1. Popularized thanks to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, Art Nouveau spread throughout Europe and to the United States.
From Belgium and France, it spread to the rest of Europe, taking on different names and characteristics in each country (see Naming section below). It often appeared not only in capitals, but also in rapidly growing cities that wanted to establish artistic identities (Turin and Palermo in Italy; Glasgow in Scotland; Munich and Darmstadt in Germany), as well as in centres of independence movements (Helsinki in Finland, then part of the Russian Empire – Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain).
By 1914, and with the beginning of the First World War, Art Nouveau was largely exhausted. In the 1920s, it was replaced as the dominant architectural and decorative art style by Art Deco and then Modernism. The Art Nouveau style began to receive more positive attention from critics in the late 1960s, with a major exhibition of the work of Hector Guimard at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970.
Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewelry and glass design, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design.
It was a reaction against the academic art, eclecticism and historicism of 19th century architecture and decoration. It was often inspired by natural forms such as the sinuous curves of plants and flowers. Other characteristics of Art Nouveau were a sense of dynamism and movement, often given by asymmetry or whiplash lines, and the use of modern materials, particularly iron, glass, ceramics and later concrete, to create unusual forms and larger open spaces.
One major objective of Art Nouveau was to break down the traditional distinction between fine arts (especially painting and sculpture) and applied arts. It was most widely used in interior design, graphic arts, furniture, glass art, textiles, ceramics, jewellery and metal work.
The roots of Art Nouveau can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England during the second half of the 19th century. Arts and Crafts is often seen as a response to growing industrialisation in Europe and the rise of factory mass production at the perceived expense of traditional craftsmanship.
Victor Horta’s Tassel House in Brussels is one of the earliest examples of the Art Nouveau style. Horta designed the building’s architecture and every detail of the interior decoration and furnishings, making the house into a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work in multiple media. The repeated use of organically curved, undulating lines — often called whiplash lines — unifies the design, repeating in the floor tiles, wall painting, ironwork, and even in the structure of the spiraling staircase and surging entryways.
Perhaps one of the first artists everyone thinks of when Art Nouveau is mentioned is the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. As the first president of the Austrian Secession group, the Vienna-based Art Nouveau group that brought together artists, designers and architects, Klimt worked towards the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk, combining beauty and utility. Eroticism and sexuality were important elements in Klimt’s work, elements that pervaded Vienna in philosophy, psychology and the arts around 1900.
Louis Comfort Tiffany became the name most associated with Art Nouveau in the United States. He was heir to the Silver Empire Tiffany & Co., which had been founded by his father in 1837. Tiffany started out as a painter, but became best known for his decorative artwork, in particular his fabrication of leaded glass. Tiffany produced stained glass with finely painted details, creating a revolutionary decorative style still synonymous with the company name to this day, and coining the catch-all term ‘Tiffany lamp’, used even for similar looking products made by rival designers from the same era.
Antoni Gaudí is one of the most famous architects associated with Modernisme, the Catalan variant of Art Nouveau architecture. The Catalan architect, most famous for the Sagrada Familia cathedral and Park Güell in Barcelona, worked with abundant curves, flamboyant smooth designs, and bold colours in his buildings.
Art Nouveau architecture was succeeded by Art Deco architecture, which became a dominant style in the 1920s, differentiating itself with its use of bold, striking, geometrical forms and high profile skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building in NYC.
Some of the most outstanding examples of Art Deco design can be found in New York City. These include the stunning Chrysler Building, designed by architect William Van Alen, with its polished stainless-steel spire that became an emblem of modernity. The Empire State Building, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon is another emblem of the Art Deco era, built in 1931, with bold, angular shapes and a streamlined simplicity that filled the city of New York with hope and optimism for the post-war future.