An Overview on Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was a short-lived yet pivotally influencing movement in painting, graphic arts, architecture and the design of everyday objects. It peaked in popularity at the fin de siècle of the late 19th century and continued until the First World War. “Art Nouveau” comes from a French term meaning “New Art,” which reflects the attempt to create a new style free of machine-made uniformity. Its style was based on asymmetrical forms inspired by nature and influenced by Japanese art (Japonisme).

Artists like Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Aubrey Beardsley, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were a few of the major flag bearers of the movement.

Early Origins

The Arts & Crafts Movement and the Aesthetic Movement, two late nineteenth-century English movements, are sometimes viewed as the origins of Art Nouveau. The former tried to bring together craftsmanship and paintings. The latter advocated for the "art for art's sake" ideology, which is devoid of moral obligation or bourgeois class taste.

But it also emerged because of a real need to recreate decorative art, simply because there had been none since the beginning of the century. In the Ancien Régime, before the French Revolution, decorative art had flourished gloriously. Everything from people’s clothing and weapons, to bellows, chimney backs, and drinking cups, had its own design and beauty. But the nineteenth-century Bourgeois capitalism had concerned itself with little other than function and utility; ornament, finishing touches, elegance, and beauty were superfluous. 

The definitive trends capable of producing a new art would not materialize until the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. The examples offered by the 1889 Universal Exposition quickly bore fruit; everything was culminating into a decorative revolution. Free from the prejudice of high art, artists sought new expressions to represent their age.

The phrase "Art Nouveau" comes from Siegfried Bing's 1895-opened L'Art Nouveau ("The New Art") store in Paris. Bing sold outstanding pieces created in this style by many of the most well-known designers.

Art Nouveau reached its apogee in the 1900 Universal Exposition where several defining works were exhibited by the artistes of France, England, and Belgium among others. Art Nouveau style was particularly associated with France, where it was referred to as Le Style Métro and Style Jules Verne, respectively. It was known as Style nouille or Style coup de fouet in Belgium. It was known as Jugendstil in Germany, after the well-known publication Die Jugend. In Italy, it was named Arte Nuova.

The Transition in Style

Two forces drove the transformed design scene in Art Nouveau: a reaction against the prevalent taste for academic historical art of the 19th century; and the rediscovery of the arts of Asia—in particular Japan. Machine-produced pastiches of historical styles were shunned in favor of new designs that derived forms and decorative motifs from nature and fantasy. 

Art Nouveau was therefore organic in style. It has undulating lines and fluid curved forms, a sense of dynamism and movement, asymmetrical shapes, symbolism, material contrasts, mosaic, and the use of modern materials like curved/stained glass exposed iron, etc.

It also drew inspiration from aspects of Japanese art ("Japonism"), which flooded western markets after commercial rights were established with Japan in the 1860s, primarily in the form of prints.

Art Nouveau is also described to have a feminine character. Women, as a subject for admiration, representation and decoration, assumed a prominent position in this art. Women were depicted in a highly idealized state, as they would have been liked in that era. 


Alphonse Mucha’s “Daydream”

After 1910, the Art Nouveau movement started to feel out of date and was replaced by other trends like Art Deco. Following a number of notable exhibitions, there was a resurgence of interest in Art Nouveau design in the 1960s. Pop art and the psychedelic movement both used elements of the style. The flamboyant organic lines of Art Nouveau were resurrected as a new psychedelic style in clothing, typography, and commercial advertising, as well as on the covers of rock and pop albums. Examples include natural imagery like butterflies, earthy colors, and free-form lettering.

Written by Prachi Rautela

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