Art Nouveau, French for ‘The New Art’, was an international style of art, decoration, and architecture that developed in the late 19th century and lasted until about the time of World War I. Representative artists sought to elevate the decorative arts to higher standards and to apply such standards to all forms of art including furniture, textiles, glass, wallpapers, architecture, as well as clothing and jewelry. In the United States, Art Nouveau as a description became synonymous with these media that carried its decorative style. The 'S' curve was a signature motif---organic, flamboyant and erotic---suggestive of the sophistication of cigarette smoke, the sensuality of flower stems, or sinuous vines and tendrils. For these reasons, some critics described the Art Nouveau aesthetic as feminine.
Art Nouveau often embraced the spirit world, fantasy and myth, and representative artists often portrayed naked or scantily clothed women, perhaps as nymphs or mermaids, in fantastic settings. Art Nouveau artists reacted against the Victorian aesthetic, which they felt was inhibited and fussy. Unlike their Victorian predecessors, these artists were not reluctant to show the naked body in erotic or ethereal poses. The style with its freedom in natural forms was also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the perceived shoddiness of machine-made, mass-produced goods. It reached its peak in 1900 at the World’s Fair/Exposition Universelle in Paris, and for this reason is sometimes called the fin de siecle (end of the century) style.
Influences that were the roots of the Art Nouveau style include Romanticism, Symbolism, and the English Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized applying art to practical, daily life objects. Englishman William Morris (1834-1896), an architect and designer, is regarded as the defining figure of the Arts and Crafts movement. The stylized flora and organic forms he used in his patterns as well as his writings that extolled the primacy of craftsmanship in art were influential in the evolution of Art Nouveau.
The origin of the name Art Nouveau comes from an interior design gallery in Paris called the Maison de l’Art Nouveau that opened in 1895 and was an outlet for decorative creations by American Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and French artists including glassmaker and furniture designer Emile Galle (1846-1904), designer and architect Eugene Gaillard (1862-1933), and glass and jewelry designer Rene Lalique (1860-1945).
In other countries of Europe, Art Nouveau was known by names such as Jugenstil (Germany), Stile Liberty (Italy) and Modernista (Spain). Many of these artists dabbled in a variety of decorative art forms, and in numerous cases collaborated on projects. As a result, Art Nouveau in various geographical areas became a concerted attempt by a number of talented artists and designers to create an international style, based on decoration that would be appropriate to the modern age. Some of the key non-American figures were English artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898); French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942), noted for his Art Nouveau glass and iron Metro, and French painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). In Spain, Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) is regarded as the founder of the Spanish Art Nouveau movement and is especially famous for his architectural work in Barcelona. Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) promoted the style as well.
In the United States, designer Louis Tiffany exemplifies Art Nouveau, as does the artwork of graphic artist William H. Bradley (1868-1962). Bradley's work drew on the contrasting influences of English artists William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), and his illustrations were among the earliest examples of American Art Nouveau. Czech/American artist Alphonse Marie Mucha (1860-1939), known for his Art Nouveau posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt and for cigarette and champagne advertisements, made several trips to the United States, where he worked in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Poster artist Edward Penfield (1866-1925) and illustrator Louis Rhead (1857-1926) were also in the forefront of Art Nouveau as were illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) and highly recognized artist Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966).
Other American Art Nouveau artists include the creators of Newcomb Pottery at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. Newcomb potters were always men, and designers were always women and girls. Nature-oriented motifs, often depicting local flora, were carved into the pottery, which was then finished with a matte glaze. The Rookwood pottery factory of Cincinnati also produced Art Nouveau work. Potter and painter Artus Van Briggle (1869-1904) spent time at Rookwood before moving to Colorado where he founded his own pottery, which was known for its Art-Nouveau designs.
Art Nouveau glass, with classic, simple lines, was a reaction against the heavily decorated Victorian art glass, and it was made especially popular by New-York jewelers Tiffany and Company, and the Steuben Glass Works in Corning, New York. In architecture, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is associated with Art Nouveau, as is his famous student Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
The murals and paintings of Californian Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) exemplify the style with their ‘delineated sinuous lines’ (Gerdts). In New York State, a well-known poster depicting Niagara Falls by artist Evelyn Cary (1855-1924) related to ‘contemporaneous Art Nouveau aesthetics’ (Gerdts).
A group that developed strategies related to Art Nouveau were the theosophists of Lomaland, an art school and community at Point Loma in Southern California. Reginald Machell (1854-1927) was one of the artists who settled there, and he was involved with the decoration of buildings, carving of furniture, screens and frames in an Art Nouveau style.
Ultimately the Art Nouveau style was replaced in the early 20th century by the Art Deco style, and sometimes the two are confused. The distinction is that Art Deco evolved as a reaction to Art Nouveau. Rather than using nature as inspiration, those adopting Art Deco took a new direction, which was away from the curvilinear and sinuous. Instead, it took its inspiration from machinery and geometry, and utilized more hard and sharp lines.
Written by Teta Collins and Lonnie Dunbier, with credit for the above information given to the websites of the National Gallery Museum of Washington, D.C.; to artlex.com; to artcyclopedia; and pbs.org; Kimberley Reynolds and Richard Seddon, "Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms"; "The Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art"; William Gerdts ‘Art in America’; website of Tulane University.