A Gentle Revolution: A Short History of the Art Nouveau Movement

By Kandace Merric, NAN-certified teacher

Lady Mack by Carlene Harwick, 2013. Inspired by the work of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in November 1995. Click here to see the original publication.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a gentle revolution by some young artisans against revised and traditional styles caused the flowering of a “New Art” movement. It began in England and quickly spread to Europe and America. The name Art Nouveau was first used by art dealer Samuel Bing, who opened a gallery in 1895 in Paris, and called it L’Art Nouveau. Some of the artisans exhibiting their work were Aubrey Beardsly, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Walter Crane.

The Art Nouveau period was a short one, lasting from the mid-1880’s until around 1910. This new style had its roots in the Arts and Crafts movement of designers, artists, and architects, such as William Morris, William de Moran, John Ruskin and A. W. N. Pugin who promoted craftsmanship and good design over the shoddy products being created since the Industrial Revolution. In the 1880’s, the American architect Louis Sullivan used a style he called “Quaint Style” which was a jumble of entwined lines, shell-like leaves, and various items from the sea.

Grace, light, and simplicity to create the essence of a design was a complete change from the heavy, ornate styles of the Victorian Era. Some artists of one group favored designs created from natural forms. Even motifs using such usually unappealing things as bugs, snails or frogs were done so elegantly that they seemed just a beautiful as flowers. Faeries, centaurs, satyrs and sensually clothed or unclothed figures were also popular. Another group favored an infusion of Celtic and Cymric designs and the sleek uncluttered lines that were the forerunner of what we consider the Modern style. If we remember that this was a revolution against the styles of the day, we can see how different groups perceived their designs. The criticism that this was a decadent style for the wealthy had some merit. The materials used were often luxurious and the craftsmanship was painstakingly done. The designs were not favored by those on the lower end of the marketing scale.

The New Art movement assumed many national names: in Austria, Sezessionstil; France, Style Moderne; Germany, Jugendstil; Spain, Modernista; and in Italy, Stile Liberty, which was named after Liberty’s of London. Artists were just as nationally diverse. The best known were William Morris and Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo of England. Austria was the home of the ultimate Art Nouveau artist Gustave Klimt. France claimed Emile Galle, Rene Lalique and the transplanted Czechoslovakian, Alphonse Mucha. Scotland’s “Glasgow Four” (Charles Rennie Macintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, Herbert and Frances McNair), the Dane, Georg Jensen; the Spaniard, Antonin Gaudi; and Norwegian Edvard Munch were other countries’ contributors.

Morris and his beliefs initiated the movement. A. H. Mackmurdo, the English architect, graphic artist and craftsman showed early practical use in design. Arthur Liberty played a great part in the early marketing of Art Nouveau decoration in his shop, “Liberty’s,” on London’s Regent Street The style was most successful in the graphic arts of Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsly, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and William Bradley.

In the later part of the 19th century, the decorative arts brought forward an exploration into the use of iridescence. The Art Nouveau movement introduced glass with a rainbow-like glaze. The cloudy, mysterious looks of opals and moonstones were also used. Louis Comfort Tiffany, Rene Lalique and Emile Gale employed these colors to great effect in their glassworks and jewelry.

The colors used for clothing were also affected. Designers discarded the dark maroons, browns, and blacks of the earlier Victorian era and made their creations using soft pastels. Young women wore crisp white fabrics. Older ladies wore soft mauves, taupes, and pale grays. Evening wear was adorned with sparkling beads and spangles.

Furnishings of exotic woods were complemented with the softer pastels. The natural vegetable dyes favored by the Arts and Crafts movement were still fashionable. Gone were many of the harsh reds, purples, and greens made from the new aniline dyes.

Brighter colors were also used by some designers such as couturier Paul Poiret who favored cerise, scarlet, and apple green. Explosive colors filled the designs of Leon Bakst, the Russian painter who created the scenery and costumes of the Ballet Russes.

When World War I broke out, color would once again undergo changes. Unfortunately, the style started to deteriorate into the grotesque. In an article in the Art Journal of October 1900, Lewis F. Day wrote that Art Nouveau “shows symptoms…of pronounced disease.” While attending an exhibit in Budapest in 1909, early promoter Arthur Liberty was quoted as saying, “It is painfully evident that the very name L’ Art Nouveau has been brought into contempt by the gross exaggeration of its principles and aims. The majority of the exhibits were not only crude, but meaningless. Nearly all the clever ones were either obtrusively revolting in subject… or else erotic imaginings of morbid brains depicted with a mastery of technique only too wickedly perfect.”

So, after a meteoric climb to glory, the Art Nouveau movement plummeted in the same fast way. There was a revival of this style in the 1960’s. Even though the period was short lived, the work of some of the artists of the movement still continues to be popular with many.


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