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The Background and History of Art Nouveau

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Chazz is an Interior Decorator/Consultant/Retailer, amateur photographer, cook, gardener, handyman, currently restoring an 1880 Victorian.

Detail from Mucha's Bicycle Ad, 1897

Detail from Mucha's Bicycle Ad, 1897

Art Nouveau Then and Now: An Overview of the Style and its Influence

Many people have heard of the term Art Nouveau and have at least a general sense of the style--flowing, ornate, organic--but no knowledge of its origins, the movement's most influential artists, or what truly makes a design fall into this genre, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still has a sizable following today, even if its fans don't actually know the name.

Today, you'll still find Art Nouveau pieces, from prints to sculptures to entire buildings, all over the world, in cities, towns, museums and attics alike. Some of these works were created during the height of the Art Nouveau movement and are truly valuable pieces. But you'll also see many newer or brand new Art Nouveau designs in the form of jewelry, furniture, sculptures, paintings, illustrations, and advertisements.

So, keep an eye out the next time you visit a yard sale or flea market. Be sure to check out those antique-looking picture frames, jewelry boxes, and those boxes loaded with Aunt Kay's stuff. You may just find one of the most famous pieces of Art Nouveau yet to be rediscovered.

First, though, read through this page and learn a bit more about what you're looking for and where you can find pieces for your own Art Nouveau collection, new and old.

Bistrot Du Peintre is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau Period Décor in Paris, France

Bistrot Du Peintre is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau Period Décor in Paris, France


The Beginning of the Art Nouveau Movement

The Poster That Inspired a New Style

The popularity of Art movements can often be traced back to a single artist and even a single work of art. The Art Nouveau movement received its first wave of popularity when a particular lithographed poster, an advertisement for the 1895 Parisian play Gismonda, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, was published. (The popularity of the play and the lead actress undoubtedly helped.)

The new style of art that was featured in this piece was initially called "Style Mucha" after the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who designed the poster, but it soon became known as Art Nouveau, which is French for "new art," and many other names.

Art Nouveau has Many Names

The term Art Nouveau originated in France but became the preferred term for the new style known as le style moderne. It became known as Art Nouveau shortly after Siegfried Bing opened a successful Parisian shop of that name which featured work in the modern style.

After the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Art Nouveau style spread across Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, and as far as Australia and America. The genre was then also identified by a variety of regional names indicative of its forms, schools of thought, or its practitioners or their locale. Like nouveau in Art Nouveau, most of these terms also share a reference to "newness."

© CJS. All Rights Reserved.

© CJS. All Rights Reserved.

In Italy Art Nouveau was known as Arte nuova and Stile Liberty, in the Netherlands, Nieuwe kunst, in Portugal Arte nova. In Spain, it was called Arte joven (young art) and in Catalonia, Modernisme. In the United States, it became Tiffany style and it was known as The Glasgow School in Scotland, after the institute founded by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In Germany, it was Jugendstil and in Austria, Sezessionstil (Secessionist). It was also known by names that reflected its motifs and curvilinearity such as Stile Floreal ("floral style"), Style Nouille ("noodle style") and Paling Stijl ("eel style").

Significant Elements of the Art Nouveau Style

Given the descriptiveness of the different names for what today is commonly called Art Nouveau are indicative of the elements that comprised the style:

  1. Sinuous, flowing, gentle lines and "violent" (or "whiplash") curves
  2. Influences from the natural world -- plants and flowers, birds, etc. -- and geometric forms
  3. Quality workmanship (which was a reaction to the poorly made pieces that previously dominated the decorative arts)
  4. Function dictating form and everyday objects made into art
  5. Floral backgrounds and patterned surfaces
  6. Common materials: opals and semiprecious stones, glass, animal horns and ivory (the latter not often used today, particularly in the Western hemisphere)
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Detail from book described below. Picture shows Art Nouveau Architect Victor Horta's Tassel House stairway in Brussels.

Detail from book described below. Picture shows Art Nouveau Architect Victor Horta's Tassel House stairway in Brussels.

10 Famous Art Nouveau Artists, Architects and Sculptors

Once it began, Art Nouveau quickly established its influence the world over. Artists from France, Belgium, Germany and other countries employed this distinct style combined with their individual touches and specialties to create truly unique designs.

This list is by no means all-inclusive. Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley, and many other well-known artists and designers do not appear here but will be featured in future articles.

The intent was to present a geographic and stylistic representation of the genre as an introduction to what has been called the first modern art movement.

Click on the names to read more about each of these influential artists. You'll see some of their works on this page.

From left to right: Dance, Painting, and Flower by Alphonse Mucha.

From left to right: Dance, Painting, and Flower by Alphonse Mucha.

Alphonse Mucha's Art Nouveau

More works by the artist who inspired this "new art" movement

Alphonse Mucha was a Czech painter and decorative artist who's credited with beginning the Art Nouveau movement. This actually happened quite by accident, when he wandered into a print shop one Christmas where he found out about the sudden need for a new poster ad for a play starring the most famous actress in Paris at the time: Sarah Bernhardt.

It was then that Mucha volunteered to create that poster within two weeks. Bernhardt loved the poster so much--and that poster received so much positive attention--she entered into a 6-year contract with him. Mucha went on to create many more paintings and posters, ads and book illustrations. This prolific artist also designed jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theater sets.

Art Nouveau Artist Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, a symbolist painter, was a prominent member of the Vienna Secession movement and perhaps the one most influenced by Japanese Art. Although his more erotic works are the most popular, Klimt also painted allegories, portraits, and landscapes.

This Austrian painter used gold leaf in many of his works, which often focused on the female form. Klimt's paintings have sold for some of the highest prices recorded for individual works of art -- as much as $135 million -- but you can own a Gustav Klimt print for just a few dollars.

Emile Gallé's Art Nouveau

This French glass artist is well known for the combination of ancient and innovative techniques he incorporated into his pieces, including enameling, cameo, inlay, metallic foils and air bubbles. Gallé, however, is best known for his use of heavy opaque glass with Japanese influenced designs. He added an air of mystery to his work by incorporating a poetic fragment or sentence into each vessel.

He also infused life into the glass industry by establishing a workshop for mass producing his and other artists' designs.

The Work of Hector Guimard

This innovative French architect, interior designer, and creator of art nouveau objects, was born in Lyon in 1867.By 1903, he had designed many of the Paris Métro entrances in wrought iron, bronze and glass. More than 85 of these structures still stand. Guimard was such an advocate of Art Nouveau that the French often call the style "Style Guimard."

Guimard also designed some complex structural frames which lent themselves to high quality acoustics, including that of the extraordinary concert hall Humbert-de-Roman, among other public and private buildings.

With the advent of Art Deco, Guimard's work fell out of favor. He emigrated to New York in 1938 and died there four years later.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Art Nouveau Style

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer, watercolorist and artist. He painted many floral watercolors and designed textiles.

Mackintosh also designed the Glasgow School of Art and Queen's Cross Church, as well as private homes, commercial buildings, interior renovations and and other churches; however, the majority of his more ambitious designs were never actually built.

Stained glass window from The Hill House, Glasgow by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, featuring his iconic "Mackintosh Rose."

Stained glass window from The Hill House, Glasgow by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, featuring his iconic "Mackintosh Rose."

Read More about Charles Rennie Mackintosh

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Ceylan Vase by René  Lalique  features eight birds in amber yellow glasss

Ceylan Vase by René Lalique features eight birds in amber yellow glasss

Lalique Art Nouveau Glass

Early 20th-century French artist and poet René Lalique became a master glass-maker, attracting the attention of museums and collectors all over the world.

Lalique was one of France's foremost designers of art nouveau jewelry. He transitioned to working in glass in the early years of the twentieth century, producting artistic decorative glass pieces such as inkwells, perfume bottles, vases, paperweights, bookends, and hood ornaments.

Lalique also designed several interiors including three Parisian ships, the Orient Express railroad cars, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Oviatt Building in Los Angeles, and St. Matthew's Church in Jersey.

The Lalique company has been reproducing some of René Lalique's glass works since 2009.

The facade of the Casa Batllo (1904-1907) in Barcelona, Spain. Designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.

The facade of the Casa Batllo (1904-1907) in Barcelona, Spain. Designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.

Antoni Gaudi's Art Nouveau Architecture

Visit Barcelona on Spain's Costa Blanca and you will be surrounded by Antoni Gaudi's creations. The Catelonian architect's first love was for his native land, and many of his works reflect a quiet pride and radiate his intense faith. Perhaps his most famous work was the design and building of the beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, which continues to inspire artists today. Guadi's popularity as an architect is evident in the many commissions he undertook throughout his life. He's responsible for projects as varied as lampposts to entire buildings. Some of his most iconic work is found in mosaic style fountains and statues that decorate buildings and naves throughout the Mediterranean.

Some examples of Louis Comfort Tiffany's blown glass

Some examples of Louis Comfort Tiffany's blown glass

Art Nouveau Designs by Louis Comfort Tiffany

You may not know this highly influential American artist by his full name, but surely you've heard of or at least seen some of his world-famous art glass. Tiffany stained glass windows? Tiffany lamps? Yes, that's Louis Comfort Tiffany, who also designed glass mosaics and blown glass, jewelry, ceramics, enamels and metalwork.

Tiffany was most proud, however, of his favrile art glass, which demanded a great deal of skill. Some examples can be seen in the above photo. Tiffany's Favrile glass included colored, gold iridescent, blue iridescent, and opalescent forms.

From Art Nouveau Jewellery from Pforzheim by Fritz Falk (see below)

From Art Nouveau Jewellery from Pforzheim by Fritz Falk (see below)

Victor Mayer Art Nouveau

Througout his working life, German Victor Mayer drew his influences from at least four major art movements: Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Avant-garde. He trained in Germany and Vienna, and his Art Nouveau jewelry designs drew heavily on nature for inspiration. He specialized in enameling and engraving, and his jewelry was much sought after in high society. Some of his Art Nouveau belt buckles recently sold at auction for several thousands of dollars.

For More About Art Nouveau Jewelry

Art Nouveau Antique, Vintage & New Jewelry

Art Nouveau jewelry is very popular today, including genuine antiques, vintage pieces, and new, very affordable designs. Learn about Art Nouveau and see our wonderful collection of great pieces.

Interior of the Hotel Solvay in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta in 1900.

Interior of the Hotel Solvay in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta in 1900.

Art Nouveau Designs by Victor Horta

Although Art Nouveau was overtaken by other styles in the 20th century, it's still considered a significant part of cultural heritage, having contributed a great influence in the world of art and architecture.

Riga, Latvia, is said to have the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. There are also four homes in Brussels designed by Victor Horta that are prime examples of Art Nouveau, showing the transition from 19th to 20th-century architecture.

Art Nouveau Patterns

Art Nouveau Patterns

Art Nouveau is Still Going Strong

Although the true Art Nouveau movement lasted for just twenty years (1890-1910), its popularity and desirability persists today.

When it comes to original Art Nouveau outside of fine art museums, you can still find pieces for sale by antique dealers and collectors, including jewelry, sculptures, furniture, prints and paintings and more. And sometimes you can find some surprises too.

If you're lucky, perhaps you'll discover a genuine Art Nouveau lithograph hidden behind a newer, cheap picture in old frame. Oftentimes, those who find these pictures in old frames don't know what they are or their true value.

But you don't have to hunt through bazaars or spend a lot on Art Nouveau antiques to bring this style into your own home or wardrobe. There are many new designs made in this still-popular, beautiful style, and many of those items are very affordable. While most people don't go all out with this ornate style today, it's fun to accent your home or your outfits with at least a touch of Art Nouveau elegance.


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© 2012 Chazz

Are You a Fan of Art Nouveau?

Chazz (author) from New York on February 16, 2013:

Thank you for your kind comments - Greatly appreciate each one.

LadyDuck on February 15, 2013:

Art Nouveau is beautiful. Your lenses really show up you are a professional interior decorator, in my opinion the most beautiful profession in the world! Congratulations for your lenses!

anonymous on February 04, 2013:

Oh yes, my favorite. Thank you for including the glassware. Often writers stop with Tiffany.

MaggiePowell on February 02, 2013:

I do love the color and style of Klimt...

Terrie_Schultz on February 02, 2013:

I love art nouveau. Beautiful lens!

slyounkin1 on February 01, 2013:

informative lens, thanks

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on January 31, 2013:

I'm one of those people you describe in your first sentence. I have a sense of the style - flowing, ornate, organic - but did mot know its origin. Thanks for this informative lens on Art Nouveau.

Rosetta Slone from Under a coconut tree on January 31, 2013:

I love art nouveau and your lens is fabulous. Such a pleasure to read it and see all the great pictures.

Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China on January 31, 2013:

I have loved art nouveau since I was a teenager and discovered it. You have a lot of interesting information here - thank you for doing such a nice page on this beautiful art style. Blessed.

john9229 on January 30, 2013:

I love this Art. Nice and informative you have share in this lens

ismeedee on January 30, 2013:

I like a lot of the Art Nouveau stuff. Have always liked Klimt!

JeffGilbert on January 30, 2013:

This is amazingly well researched and educational. It's a pleasure to read this kind of lens. Thanks for making it!! :)

getmoreinfo on January 30, 2013:

Thanks for the information about the History of Art Nouveau as well as the lovely photos.

Kimberley Vico on January 30, 2013:

Yes, Yes, Yes! Great Article... and very thorough too!

JoshK47 on January 30, 2013:

I am, in fact, a big fan of this art style - beautiful work! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

CampingmanNW on January 30, 2013:

What an interestingly and complete journey you have taken us on in this lens. Thank you

happynutritionist on January 30, 2013:

It was like going to an interesting art class through this page. I know of Art Nouveau, but didn't know the little details that set it apart from other art. Thank you for your time sharing all of this, and the purple star isn't quite art nouveau I don't think? But it sure is nice:-) *blessed*

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on January 30, 2013:

I've always loved Mucha's work and own a treasured box from my mother with one of his images. Very nicely presented. Muchas gracias

crstnblue on January 30, 2013:

Excellent lens, complex and informative!

Thanks for sharing & thumbs up for your great work done!


anonymous on January 30, 2013:

I've always liked art nouveau. I learned so much during my visit here today.

Titia Geertman from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on January 30, 2013:

Along with Art Deco, the Art Nouveau is the style I love most of all. Six years ago my aunt died and I had to clean up her house, which was build and decorated in 1930 and it had never changed since. I inherited all the Art Deco furniture which I'm putting in our guesthouse when it's finished. Loved my visit and congrats on the Purple Star. Blessed.

mrdata on January 30, 2013:

Valuable lens! You did a great job! Thanks for sharing your lens with us and your deserve the purple star. Congrats!

AlleyCatLane on January 14, 2013:

You always do such an excellent, thorough job of writing about design history. I love reading your articles. Blessed!

Leah J. Hileman from East Berlin, PA, USA on December 27, 2012:

I didn't know much about it. I love the curves, and the rich color palette. I like Flemish art from the 16th century for much the same reason. This is a very beautiful and informative lens, thanks for sharing.

BestRatedStuff on December 17, 2012:

I have always been drawn to this art form. Lovely sampling you have here.

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