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Art Nouveau: The International Movement

The term Art Nouveau is French for ‘new art,’ yet the style and movement it has come to represent was distinctly international, and represented itself in varied fashions and incarnations. As its name implies, Art Nouveau was a movement created by artists who were rejecting the “pastiche” style of the 19th century, and wished to create something original that the world had never seen before. In the general sense, Art Nouveau style was applied to all aspects of art and design, from the academic art of sculpture to the decorative arts and furniture, from the design of buildings and subway entrances to intricate jewels and glass vases. The intellectual beginnings of the movement sprang from a desire to unite all of the arts, without hierarchy or academic restrictions, to create a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” As noted writer, curator, and art historian, Paul Greenhalgh has stated, “this was a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon that defied—then and now—any attempt to reduce it to singular meanings and moments.”

In the beginning, the Art Nouveau style was known by many different names, and was claimed by various artists and locations. Hector Guimard, the famous Parisian architect who created the winged subway entrances, popularized the style—his work so epitomized the new aesthetic that when word of it spread to America it was called “Style Guimard.” Similarly, with the explosive success of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s 1894 lithograph advertisement for the play “Gismonda,” starring Sarah Bernhardt, the new style was dubbed “Style Mucha.” In Germany, the style was called Jugendstil, or “youth-style,” named after the magazine Jugend, which was an early and influential promoter of the style. The prolific work of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the States and his design innovations based on natural forms, became known as “Tiffany Style,” which was recognized as similar to, but not of the same movement as, the European aesthetic.

Nearly every European country had its own nomenclature for this movement, beginning with England and its “Arts and Crafts” movement. Leading English art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin, and his student, William Morris, posited theories based on an artistic renewal, advocating a return to forms found in nature. Ruskin’s call for a revival of handicrafts in harmony with nature was taken up by Morris, who eventually became the head of the Arts and Crafts movement. However, the beginning of this movement was a reaction to what Ruskin saw at the first Universal Exhibition that took place in London, in 1871. The building constructed for the occasion, built entirely of glass, was called the Crystal Palace. The exhibition sought to showcase the prowess of the technical and mechanical industries; thus many of the objects were machine-made, a relatively recent phenomenon. Ruskin found these examples so unattractive and poorly executed that he promoted a return to handcrafted production, based not on mechanical forms, but on forms found in nature. His utopic point of view was the official beginning of the Art Nouveau movement in England.

The first Art Nouveau building in Europe was the Hôtel Tassel, built in Brussels by the architect and decorator Victor Horta in 1893. This private home was a radical departure from accepted architectural aesthetics at the time—floral forms were used everywhere; in the mosaics, frescoes and stained glass, even in structural elements such the ironwork staircase. Victor Horta also designed the furniture to harmonize with the rhythm of the walls and architecture. With the Hôtel Tassel, Horta gave birth to gesamtkunstwerk in Art Nouveau. Horta did everything on the project, from selecting the site location and designing the external architectural façade, to such small details as door handles and light switches. Henry Van de Velde, a Flemish painter, architect, and interior designer, expanded on Horta’s efforts; it was his work which was first described as “Art Nouveau” by critics.

According to Cybele Gontar at the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the term Art Nouveau first appeared in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne, in the 1880s, to describe the work of Les Vingt, an artistic community of twenty painters and sculptors seeking reform through art. Additionally, the name “Art Nouveau” as a descriptor for the new movement in general was popularized by art dealer Siegfried (Samuel) Bing and his Parisian gallery Maison de l’Art Nouveau, which opened in 1896 and gained international fame at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Bing’s gallery was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement in Paris; his store was the first to show Eugène Gaillard’s furniture, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s ceramics, and Edouard Colonna’s work. The artists and style sold by Bing became the quintessential expression of the movement, just as the name became the overarching term used to describe the disparate movements as they manifested internationally.

Despite the outsized influence of Bing and his Paris gallery, Art Nouveau is most commonly tied to the small city of Nancy, in north-eastern France. Nancy was home to the largest concentration of artists and designers producing Art Nouveau works in the world. French artists flocked to this city on the new border of the Alsace-Lorraine, where they developed a mythic pride in French regionalism. The area’s artists, among them Émile Gallé, the Daum Frères, Victor Prouvé, Jacques Gruber, and Louis Majorelle, created the École de Nancy to promote cohesion among practitioners of the new movement. Their primary purpose was to glorify Lorraine, its many industries and its artisanal tradition in furniture, ceramics, glass, and metal. The École de Nancy was meant to be a collaboration of arts, architects, furniture and decorative arts, without the classical hierarchy of the Fine Arts promoted by the Paris Salons and establishment.

Fauna and flora were the main sources of artistic inspiration in Art Nouveau. For example, the extremely refined “Japonisme" cabinet of Émile Gallé is remarkable for more than the ombelle flowers that appear as ornaments on the crown. The ombelle also constitutes shelves, drawn from nature, and gently made of carved and molded wood. The front of the cabinet has a remarkable marquetry scene composed of different woods, representing a small bird perched on a tree in bloom at the edge of the water. Louis Majorelle’s tables, on the other hand, are often in a sleeker style than those of his contemporary Émile Gallé. Majorelle’s furniture is not dominated by nature, the designs conform to the tenets of classical furniture, lending his pieces a more masculine aesthetic. Majorelle also collaborated with fellow École de Nancy members, Auguste and Antoinin Daum, on lighting and glass work. Majorelle designed the pieces and fabricated the metal, and the Daum brothers created the glass necessary to create extraordinary pieces, such as the Magnolia lamp.

Even more so than furniture, members of the École de Nancy were noted for their glass objects. Art glass produced by the Daum Frères and Émile Gallé consisted of layers glass which were acid-etched or engraved to create an effect called “cameo.” Designs were often executed in the soft pastel palette common in Art Nouveau. The signature of the Nancéens glass is very often inlaid in glass rather than stamped under the piece, most signatures also bear a mark indicating origin in Nancy, in keeping with the regional pride common among artists. Another technique of Art Nouveau glass makers was termed “Pâte de Verre.” In this technique, a paste was made from glass and placed in a mold before firing. An advantage of the Pâte de Verre technique was the ability to place specific colors of glass more exactly, resulting in highly decorated and colorful finished pieces.

Outside of France and the École de Nancy, Art Nouveau could be found across Europe and America under different names. Austrian Art Nouveau was characterized by the “Wien Sezession,” created by artist Gustav Klimt in 1897. The Secession Palace, built in 1898 to house the exhibits of the Sezession group, was intended as a place to show art freely without censorship or discouragement. The motto of the group, written on the palace façade, “To each time its art; to art, its liberty,” underlined their belief that the art created was a new phenomenon, and a reaction to the rapid changes brought on by industrialization.

In Italy the forms and spirit of Art Nouveau was best exemplified by the artist Carlo Bugatti. Widely celebrated for his innovative “Snail Room” in the 1902 Turin exhibition, Bugatti’s furniture employed the asymmetrical curves of Art Nouveau furniture, but implemented elements of Islamic and Japanese designs to create furniture that broke with European traditions. “Stile Liberty” was the name given to the movement in Italy, so expertly displayed by Bugatti in his works. 

In the United States, Art Nouveau was best encompassed in the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios New York. In 1894, Louis Comfort Tiffany received a patent for a new form of glass he called “Favrile,” which was unique for its iridescent coloring. Tiffany Studios New York also created elaborate leaded glass lamps with organic themes; these Tiffany lamps can be extremely complex, ranging from simple lamps with a round Favrile glass shade, to those with different hues of glass depicting complex shade designs of dragonflies, wisteria, and pond lilies with irregular borders. Bases for Tiffany lamps also came in a wide variety, from simple bronze stands, to intricately blown glass bases, or those inlaid with mosaic tiles. Patrons of Tiffany Studios New York were primarily American, though his work was represented by Bing in Paris, and he received stained-glass window commissions from England, France, Cuba, and Australia.

The Art Nouveau movement, in its many regional forms, lasted for approximately 20 years, enduring its longest reign in Lorraine. By the end of World War I, Art Nouveau had come to an end, replaced by modernist movements, most significantly the emerging “Art Deco” style. In past decades, Art Nouveau has been recognized by historians as an important bridge between the progression of Neoclassical aesthetics and Modernism; UNESCO has included several Art Nouveau monuments on the World Heritage List. Sadly, after years of being passed over for more classical or modern designs, many Art Nouveau masterpieces have been torn down or left to decay. Victor Horta’s extensive townhouse is preserved today as a museum of the style, and many of Hector Guimard’s buildings remain private residences in Paris, along with two recreations of his famed metro entrances. Art and other decorative objects from the period are housed in many of the world’s top museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Musée d'Orsay, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 

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