ATT: Art Nouveau

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Can art really ever be new? Emerging in the early 1890’s, Art Nouveau (New Art) encouraged the continuation of ideals started under British artist and designer William Morris: the synthesis of art and craft, or the fine and decorative arts. Dominated by men like Gustav Klimt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Émile Gallé, Antoni Gaudí, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Mucha, Art Nouveau built on the foundations laid by Morris, embracing “art for art’s sake” and seeking a greater coordination between art and design. Despite culminating in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and effectively ending around 1910, Art Nouveau was evident in art and architecture throughout Europe and the United States. Though its name depended on the region, for example, Jugendstil or “young style” in Germany and “Tiffany Style” in America, its reach spread further than its predecessors, Morris’ Arts & Craft movement and the Aesthetic movement. Today, Art Nouveau is recognized as a bridge between 19th century aestheticism and 20th century Modernism.

Alphonse Mucha, Czech, 1860-1939. Poster for the première production of Victorien Sardou’s Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Lithograph, 1894. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Before Modernism’s function over form, however, Art Nouveau reigned supreme. The term first appeared in the Belgian art journal, L’Art Moderne, in 1884 to describe Les Vingts, a group of 20 Belgian Symbolist painters who exhibited together from 1891-1893. Eschewing the Impressionist penchant for painting the outer life, Symbolist’s depicted their inner life using mythological and dream imagery mixed with personal, private, and even obscure references. This philosophy influenced Art Nouveau, and in 1895 art dealer Siegfried Bing opened a gallery in Paris, Maison L’Art Nouveau, that popularized both the movement and the name.

Viewed by some critics as the first conscious effort to create a modern style, Art Nouveau artists were inspired by the natural world and the botanical studies and illustrations of deep-sea organisms, particularly those by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel. Artists utilized sinuous lines, organic forms, delicate tendrils, swooping and swirling lines, and whiplash curves they took from Rococo curves, Celtic graphic motifs, and the Japanese (Japônisme) prints by Andō Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Nowhere is this more evident than in the symbol of the Art Nouveau movement: Hector Guimard’s Métro gates. The iconic, plant-like swirls with distinctive lettering mark the entrances to the Paris Métro and serve as a reminder of the short-lived movement. In the US, Tiffany’s innovative fabrication of leaded glass and experiments with staining it in an array of colors, painting the fine details before firing, resulted in opalescent finishes that produced a dreamy quality of light. These functional, fine art pieces encompassed the goal of upending the hierarchical structure endemic to fine (painting and sculpture) versus functional (ceramics and glass) art. What brought Art Nouveau to the masses, however, were the graphic arts.

Tiffany glass was, and continues to be, expensive. Prints, on the other hand, are reproduced quickly, multiple times, and cheaply. Czech artist Alphonse Mucha rose to prominence following a commission from actress Sarah Bernhardt for a poster for her 1894 play Gismonda (see above). Rendered in pale pastels, it depicts the actress sensuously draped in Neoclassical robes with a flower motif. The following success led to a six-year contract with Bernhardt and commissions for advertising posters with companies like JOB cigarettes, Moët-Chandon champagne, Ruinart champagne, and Waverly and Perfect bicycles. Mucha’s posters are characterized by beautiful women with curly hair set amongst lavish backdrops that express the variety of women in Belle Époque society, like the femmes nouvelles, or new women, that rejected conventional femininity and its subservient roles. Similarly to Mucha, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec printed posters for the entertainments at the Moulin Rouge, such as the cancan ( below) and one dancer in particular: Jane Avril. His often provocative and decadent images brought the drama of nightlife to life, advertising it in its true form. Mucha, on the other hand, pursued a more decorative decadence and produced purely decorative panels, or posters without text, further embodying art for art’s sake. In true Art Nouveau fashion, Mucha also collaborated with jeweler George Fouquet, further unifying the fine and decorative arts.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864-1901. Moulin Rouge: La Goule. Color lithograph, 1891. Public Domain in country of origin (France) because copyright is author’s life plus 100 year. Public Domain in United States because it is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional work. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Spurning academicism, the movement inspired by the sinuousness and fluidness of lines in nature burned out, in part, because of its decadence, which created a separation between the wealthy patrons and skilled workers. In fact, Mucha himself spurned his Art Nouveau works, favoring his history paintings as his true masterpieces. Despite this, the flowing line of the “new art” is seen as symbolizing the freedom and release from critical expectations and the artistic tradition that these artists sought; and, most importantly, their attempt to synthesize art and craft that eventually ushered in Modernism.   

Experience Art Nouveau for yourself when you visit Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau on display at FMWoA through September 26th, 2021.

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