From the 1880s to the outbreak of the First World War, Western Europe and the United States experienced the emergence of Art Nouveau, often referred to as the “New Art.” This influential movement drew inspiration from the untamed facets of the natural world, leaving an indelible mark on various artistic disciplines, including applied arts, graphic design, and illustration.
Characterized by sinuous lines and the distinctive “whiplash” curves, Art Nouveau found its roots in botanical studies and illustrations of marine life, notably exemplified by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834–1919) in his seminal work “Kunstformen der Natur” (Art Forms in Nature, 1899). Influential publications like “Floriated Ornament” (1849) by Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and “The Grammar of Ornament” (1856) by British architect and theorist Owen Jones (1809–1874) advocated for nature as the primary wellspring of inspiration, challenging a generation of artists to break free from conventional styles.
The flowing lines of Art Nouveau can be seen as a metaphor for the sought-after freedom and liberation from the weight of artistic tradition and critical expectations. The movement’s embrace of organic forms reflected a desire for a departure from established norms, symbolizing a profound shift in artistic expression during that transformative era.
Furthermore, the genesis of the new style found its roots in two significant English developments of the nineteenth century, both fueled by the impetus for design reform. This reform was a reaction to prevailing art education, the rise of industrialized mass production, and the dilution of historic styles. The Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic movement were pivotal in shaping this transformative era.
The Arts and Crafts movement advocated a return to handcraftsmanship and traditional techniques as a response to the mechanization of mass production. Simultaneously, the Aesthetic movement championed the credo of “art for art’s sake,” laying the groundwork for non-narrative paintings like Whistler’s Nocturnes. This movement also drew inspiration from Japanese art, known as “japonisme,” which surged into Western markets, primarily in the form of prints, following the establishment of trading rights with Japan in the 1860s. Indeed, the spectrum of late nineteenth-century artistic trends, encompassing painting and the early designs of the Wiener Werkstätte, can be loosely categorized under the umbrella of Art Nouveau.
The term “art nouveau” made its debut in the 1880s through the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne, describing the work of Les Vingt—a collective of twenty painters and sculptors dedicated to reform through art. Reflecting the broader artistic community across Europe and America, Les Vingt responded to the influential nineteenth-century theorists such as French Gothic Revival architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) and British art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900). These theorists advocated for the unity of all arts, challenging the segregation between the fine arts of painting and sculpture and the so-called lesser decorative arts.
Deeply influenced by the socially conscious teachings of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau designers aspired to achieve the synthesis of art and craft. Moreover, they sought the creation of the spiritually uplifting Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” spanning various media. This successful integration of the fine and applied arts materialized in complete designed environments such as Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde’s Hôtel Tassel and Hôtel Van Eetvelde (Brussels, 1893–95), Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald’s design of the Hill House (Helensburgh, near Glasgow, 1902–4), and Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Klimt’s Palais Stoclet dining room (Brussels, 1905–11).
Styles such as Post-Impressionism and Symbolism (the “Nabis”) shared close ties with Art Nouveau, influencing applied arts, architecture, interior designs, furnishings, and patterns, contributing to an overall expressive and cohesive style.
In December 1895, the German-born Paris art dealer Siegfried Bing opened L’Art Nouveau gallery, credited with popularizing the movement. The Art Nouveau style reached an international audience through vibrant graphic arts in periodicals like The Savoy, La Plume, Die Jugend, Dekorative Kunst, The Yellow Book, and The Studio. Influential graphic artists included Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, Jules Chéret, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Art Nouveau style, associated with France, received various names, including Style Jules Verne, Le Style Métro, Art belle époque, and Art fin de siècle. The movement captivated the public at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, showcasing innovative structures like the Porte Monumentale and the Pavilion Bleu.
The movement was also prominent in other style centers across Europe, known by different names such as Jugendstil in Germany, Modernista in Barcelona (with Antoni Gaudí as a key figure), Arte nuova and Stile Liberty in Italy, Sezessionstil in Austria and Hungary, and Stil’ modern in Russia. In the United States, it was referred to as “Tiffany Style” due to the influence of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
While Art Nouveau was a short-lived movement, its influence persisted, shaping subsequent design movements like Art Deco. The dramatic graphics of Art Nouveau found a resurgence in the 1960s, reflecting a new generation challenging conventional taste and ideas.