Articles and Features

Art Movement: Art Nouveau

Mucha Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha, Four Seasons, 1890s. Courtesy Mucha Foundation

By Shira Wolfe

“To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it.” – William Morris

What Was Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau was an art movement which swept across Europe and the United States around the Belle Époque period. It was known by many different names in different countries: Jugendstil in Germany, Viennese Secession in Austria, Glasgow Style in Scotland, Arte Nuova or Stile Liberty in Italy, and Art Belle Époque in France. The term Art Nouveau (‘New Art’) was first used in 1884. Art Nouveau artists believed that all arts should be united, which translated into a movement that encompassed many different art forms and fields. The aim was to modernise art and design, and artists took inspiration from organic and geometric forms, resulting in elegant designs with sinuous, asymmetrical curves and lines. Its main manifestations were in architecture and the decorative and graphic arts, though it also influenced painting and sculpture.

Key period: 1880-1910

Key regions: Western Europe, United States

Key words: organic forms, natural world, sinuous lines, curves, Gesamtkunstwerk, design, architecture

Key artists: Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley, William Morris, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Antoni Gaudí, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Henry van de Velde, Eugene Grasset, Jan Toorop, Victor Horta

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Gaudi Art Nouveau
Building facade by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona.

The Origins of Art Nouveau

In 1884, the term Art Nouveau first appeared in Belgian art journal ‘L’Art Moderne.’ It was used to describe the work of Les Vingt, a group of 20 artists including, among whom was James Ensor. These artists were dedicated to a unification of all arts. The proponents of the movement fought against the low-quality mass-produced products bred by the industrial revolution and the heavy, cluttered designs of Victorian-era art and architecture. They instead encouraged the incorporation of an aesthetic, functional design into the objects, architecture and design of everyday life. One of the movement’s philosophical founding fathers was the English designer and businessman William Morris, who wrote the main goals of the movement: ‘To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it.’ Another great influence that contributed to the development of the art movement was the penchant for Japanese art among European artists in the 1880s and 1890s, in particular for wood-block prints by artists like Hokusai. These prints contained many floral forms and organically shaped curves, which would all become key elements of Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau Across Disciplines

Following the movement’s mission to unify all different art forms, Art Nouveau was popular across a variety of disciplines. Artists worked in this style in the fine arts, in graphics and design, in architecture, in furniture and interior design, and in glasswork and jewellery. Sinuous curves, luxurious steel- and glasswork, golden elements, organic forms and patterns characterised the style.

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Key Artists of Art Nouveau

Gustav Klimt Art Nouveau
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907. Courtesy Belvedere Gallery Vienna

Gustav Klimt

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. This eroticism shines through clearly in Klimt’s most iconic work, ‘The Kiss’ (1907), which shows two lovers in a passionate embrace. The rich golden design, flattened form and sensual curves are exemplary for the Art Nouveau style of the time. 

Aubrey Beardsley art
Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax, 1893. Courtesy V&A Museum

Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley was a talented young English artist, who was never formally trained. Due to his bold depiction of provocative erotic topics, he became one of the most controversial figures of the Art Nouveau movement. Despite his untimely death at the age of 25, he produced a great deal of important artworks, including India ink illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. ‘The Climax’ (1893) depicts Salomé kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, and is filled with erotic symbolism.

Alphonse Mucha art
Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda, 1894. Courtesy Mucha Museum

Alphonse Mucha

The Czech artist Alphonse Mucha was primarily known for his commercial posters and advertisements. He was interested in depicting “the new woman,” celebrating femininity, sexuality and empowered women of the modern age. His poster ‘Gismonda’ (1894), made for Victorien Sardou’s play of the same name, became an emblem of the Art Nouveau style and inspired many artists after him. He is also famous for his depictions of the different seasons in the shape of women.

Jan Toorop art
Jan Toorop, Delftsche Slaolie, 1893. Courtesy Rijksmuseum

Jan Toorop

Jan Toorop was a Dutch-Indonesian artist working in the styles of Symbolism, Pointillism and Art Nouveau. His highly stylised figures and curvilinear designs are emblematic of the art movement. In his commercial poster for Delft salad oil, “Delftsche Slaolie,” he effortlessly merged the commercial world of consumers with fine art, depicting two beautiful, sensual women in flowing curves and lines pouring oil on salad. This influential poster is the reason that the Dutch Art Nouveau style was often referred to as “slaoliestijl,” meaning “salad oil style.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec art
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril. Courtesy Met Museum

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec can be categorised among Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. He was particularly known for his lithographs depicting scenes of bohemian life in Paris. He even produced a series of posters for the Moulin Rouge cabaret, which he frequented often. 

Tiffany Pond Lily Table Lamp, c. 1903. Courtesy Tiffany Lamps and Christies

Louis Comfort Tiffany

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, which created a revolutionary look that the company is still known for in its jewellery and decorative art.

Antoni Gaudí
Antoni Gaudí, Casa Battlo i Casanovas. Courtesy Casa Battlo i Casanovas

Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí is one of the most famous architects associated with Art Nouveau. 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.

Victor Horta
Victor Horta, Stairwell in Hotel Tassel, Brussels. Courtesy Hotel Tassel

Victor Horta

The Belgian Victor Horta was one of the founders of the Art Nouveau movement, and is one of the people responsible for expanding the movement from the visual and decorative arts into the field of architecture. He is famous for his design of the Hotel Tassel (1894) in Brussels, which is considered to be the first Art Nouveau building.

Paris Metro
Paris metro entrance, designed by Hector Guimard.

The Legacy of Art Nouveau

Around the period of the First World War, Art Nouveau began to be subjected to criticism for its overly elaborate, lavish decoration. Moreover, the intensive craftsmanship involved made it fairly inaccessible to a mass audience. Though the movement did not survive the First World War, it lived on in different movements that came later, such as Art Deco, Modernism and even Bauhaus. Art Nouveau was the defining visual language of a brief moment in time, and remnants of this beautiful style can still be seen in many cities all around the world, such as in Paris, where the entrances to the metro stations remain in the original style, designed by Hector Guimard between 1890 and 1930.

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more about the Art Nouveau art movement here:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Art Story

For other Artland articles about important art movements, see:

Top 25 art movements and styles throughout history

Art Movement: Harlem Renaissance

Art Movement: De Stijl

What is Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau is an art movement that flourished in Europe and the United States between 1890 and 1910. The movement is characterised by its elegant designs with sinuous, asymmetrical curves and lines, inspired by organic and geometric forms.

In which fields was Art Nouveau popular?

Its main manifestations were in architecture and the decorative and graphic arts, though the movement also significantly influenced painting and sculpture.

Who were the key artists of Art Nouveau?

Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley, William Morris, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Antoni Gaudí, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Henry van de Velde, Eugene Grasset, Jan Toorop and Victor Horta

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