Arts and Architecture

What is art nouveau?
Answered by Kim Williamson
  • Kim Williamson

    Kim Williamson

  1. Unlike other art movements that focused primarily on the fine arts, Art Nouveau was far-reaching, influencing disciplines like architecture and decorative arts.  Two guiding premises helped form the Art Nouveau movement. The first was the appreciation of "art for art's sake." This belief held that art should be appreciated for itself on its own merits, not judged for the expression of political or social opinions or its usefulness. The second principle sought to debunk the traditional hierarchy of art, which placed the liberal arts, like painting, at the top. Those ascribing to the Art Nouveau movement believed that the applied arts were just as important as the fine arts, and that this area had been overlooked.

    Many artists in the late 1800s thought that 19th century art was excessive, too fancy and ornate. Additionally, a great deal of art in the 1800s focused on the Classical style, which was subtle and controlled. Art Nouveau artists broke from that, looking for a new style -- many were influenced by Japanese art as well as painters like van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.  The British Arts and Crafts movement in 1880 also had a weighty impact on Art Nouveau. Prior to the 1880s, decorative arts were lackluster, showing inferior craftsmanship and a lack of originality. In London, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society formed in 1887, lashing out against the idea that fine art was more important than applied art. Artists in the movement demanded and received better working environments and a new focus on bringing all forms of art together [source: Ceramics Today].

    Examples of Art Nouveau were as diverse as the movement itself. Aubrey Beardsley did the poster, The Peacock Skirt (1894), influenced by Japanese prints and woodcuts, and demonstrating graceful, winding lines throughout. Architecture was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau, probably because the style translated nicely on a larger scale. Architect Victor Horta designed a townhouse, Hotel Tassel (1893-4), that was devoid of the traditional 19th-century style and excess, opting instead for modern materials like steel and glass. He disposed of the long, endless corridors and made the rooms independent units, or endpoints, within the residence. During the 1900 World's Fair, the Grand Palais, one of the buildings on display, featured an interior glass dome in the Art Nouveau style. Other examples of how Art Nouveau affected architecture are the entrance to the Paris subway, made of cast iron and glass, the Glasgow School of Art Library as well as the Marshall Field Wholesale store in Chicago, which was demolished in 1930 [source: Arnason]. Art Nouveau's influence can also be found in design, jewelry, furniture and even the dramatic arts. Tiffany glass and Mackintosh chairs are just a few examples of the style.

    Although the movement originated in France, it spread around the globe to Austria, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain -- but often under different names -- ending rather abruptly in the 1920s. Styles like Art Deco and Modernism, influenced by Art Nouveau, were gathering strength and replaced the Art Nouveau movement, which according to some critics, had regressed to encompass some of the principles it had originally disparaged.

    Arnason, HH. and Mansfield, Elizabeth. History of Modern Art, 6th Edition. Prentice Hall. 2010.
    Duncan, Alastair. Art Nouveau. Thames and Hudson, Ltd. 1994.
    Farthing, Stephen. Art: From Cave Painting to Street Art. Universe Publishing. 2010.
    Janson, Anthony. History of Art, 5th Edition. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1995.

    Alphonse Mucha illustration
    Original works by the Czech Art Nouveau illustrator Alphonse Mucha are mostly museum pieces, but reprints in Europe and the United States, where the Art Nouveau style was popular from 1890 to 1910, aren't hard to find. (Hulton Archive)

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