Western Europe, America (ca. 1880s - WWI)
Art Nouveau was a modernizing movement in the decorative arts that developed in France and Britain in the early 1880s and quickly became a dominant aesthetic style in Western Europe and the United States. In its sinuous lines and flamboyant curves inspired by the natural world, Art Nouveau furniture, ceramics, jewelry, glassware and graphic design reflected a desire for freedom from the stuffy social and artistic strictures of the Victorian era.
Art Nouveau can be easily identified by its lush, flowing forms suggested by flowers and plants, as well as the lissome tendrils of sea life. The signature motif is the "whiplash" curve — a deep, narrow, dynamic parabola that appears as an element in everything from chair arms to cabinetry and mirror frames. The visual vocabulary of Art Nouveau was particularly influenced by the soft colors and abstract images of nature seen in Japanese art prints, which arrived in large numbers in the West after open trade was forced upon Japan in the 1860s.
The style quickly reached a wide audience in Europe via advertising posters, book covers, illustrations and other work by such artists as Aubrey Beardsley, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. While all Art Nouveau designs share common formal elements, different countries and regions produced their own variants. In Scotland, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh developed a singular, restrained look based on scale rather than ornament; a style best known from his narrow chairs with exceedingly tall backs, designed for Glasgow tea rooms. Meanwhile in France, Hector Guimard — whose iconic 1896 entry arches for the Paris Metro are still in use — and Louis Majorelle produced chairs, desks, bedframes and cabinets with sweeping lines and rich veneers. The Art Nouveau movement was known as Jugendstil ("Youth Style") in Germany, and in Austria the designers of the Vienna Secession group — notably Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich — produced a relatively austere iteration of the Art Nouveau style, which mixed curving and geometric elements.
Art Nouveau revitalized all of the applied arts. Ceramists such as Ernest Chaplet and Edmond Lachenal created new forms covered in novel and rediscovered glazes that produced thick, foam-like finishes. Bold vases, bowls and lighting designs in acid-etched and marquetry cameo glass by Émile Gallé and the Daum Freres appeared in France, while in New York the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany brought out buoyant pieces in opalescent favrile glass. Jewelry design was revolutionized, as settings, for the first time, were emphasized as much as, or more than, gemstones. A favorite Art Nouveau jewelry motif was insects (think of Tiffany, in his famed "Dragonflies" glass lampshade).
Like a mayfly, Art Nouveau was short-lived. The sensuous, languorous style fell out of favor early in the 20th century, deemed perhaps too light and insubstantial for European tastes in the aftermath of World War I. But as the designs offered here demonstrate, Art Nouveau retains its power to fascinate and seduce.