Exploring Art Nouveau

Featured art – Four Seasons by Alphonse Mucha, available here.

Art Nouveau is an international movement and ornamental style of art, architecture, and decorative arts. Born from rebellious artists looking to create a new and distinct style, it flourished between 1890 to 1910 and has the shortest ‘duration’ of any art movement – lasting only 20 years since its inception.

Despite its short tenure on the art scene, Art Nouveau leaves behind a lasting influence that’s still felt in decorative and graphic arts. It inspired later modern art movements like Art Deco and Modernism and essentially bridged the gap between 19th-century aesthetics with 20th-century design and beyond.

In this post, we explore the Art Nouveau movement – from its origins to its untimely end, and its impact on the world.

The Birth of New Art

During the late 1800s, art in Europe had become an academic endeavour. Aspiring artists were required to attend academies and rigorously study concepts like line, shape and form as if it were a science with the goal to create art and imagery of idealized subjects.

This approach to art not only turned away most artists, but it also inspired them to rebel on what they saw as a ‘limiting’ of the arts. To them, the current rules of art were impeding on their creativity and they expressed their art by defying the rules established by academic art.

Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is one of the most recognisable and celebrated works of the Art Nouveau movement.

The movement that would be called Art Nouveau did not originate in one place and had roots and took inspiration from earlier movements. In Britain, its precursor was the distinct style of Aubrey Beardsley who relied on organic lines. In France, it was greatly influenced by Japonism thanks to Japan’s import of ukiyo-e woodblocks and ceramics.

The term Art Nouveau was first coined in 1884 in the Belgian art journal L’Art Modern, which described the work of Les Vingt – a group of twenty Belgian painters who were pioneering this new art movement. By 1895, Siegfried Bing opened the Maison l’art Nouveau in Paris and the art movement was born.

Regional Terms

Art Nouveau developed simultaneously in different countries and didn’t have an ‘international’ name until it was formally recognised in L’art Modern. Even when the first Art Nouveau museum opened in Paris, it was often referred to by its regional term. Even in Belgium, where the movement was born, it was often referred to as Style Nouille or Style de Fouet – noodle and whiplash style respectively.

In Britain, it was better known as ‘Modern’ or ‘Glasgow Style’, whereas German and Scandinavian artists called it Jugendstil after the German art magazine. It was Stile Liberty in Italy and Modernismo in Spain, while American artists called it the ‘Tiffany Style’ after its local pioneer Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The Pioneers of New Art

Art Nouveau had many leaders based in different countries, with each developing their distinct artistic style yet still unified through the movement. Louis Comfort Tiffany pioneered the ‘New Art’ in the Americas while his English counterpart William Morris championed the art in England.

There was Gustav Klimt, arguably the most famous of the Nouveau masters, who was based in Vienna. Henri de Toulose-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha refined the art style in Paris, while Antoni Gaudi and Henry van De Velde proliferated the technique in Barcelona and Germany respectively.

Perhaps the most influential was English illustrator and author Aubrey Vincent Beardsley. He began his artistic career at just 19 years old and was the youngest leader of the Art Nouveau movement. He is best known for his perverse and grotesque art which, at the time, made him a very controversial figure.

Beardsley’s The Climax, 1893-4, from Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé

His most celebrated works are his India ink illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which established many of the movements’ ideals and norms. The mix of the shadowy imagery, the flat decorative patterns that hearken to Japonism, and the swooping lines eventually became staples for the budding Art Nouveau movement. 

Aubrey Beardsley died on 16 March 1898 at the age of 25 from tuberculosis. He was an untrained prodigy whose work would continue to influence the movement and later art styles.

What Defines Art Nouveau?

The movement was a response to the restrictions established by 19th century academic art and the industrial production of the decorative arts. What defined the movement was a return to form in good workmanship. Art not done to fit in with strict rules or to simply imitate earlier styles, but art for art’s sake.

Art Nouveau is characterised by its ornamental and asymmetrical lines, which undulate and twist and often take the form of sinuous and delicate natural objects, such as flower stalks, vine tendrils, and insect wings.

Artwork featuring these Nouveau ornaments are elegant but exude a whip-like force, which is why it was referred to as ‘whiplash style’ in parts of Europe. In both art and architecture, these whip-like elements were both ornament and the structure of the piece.

Le Train Blue in the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris, France is characterised by its Art Nouveau ornamentations.

Another defining trait of the art style is the emphasis of linear contours over colour. Even colourful pieces have a distinctly muted and subdued colour palette which is further highlighted by its sharp and distinct outline.

Left, Bijin-ga by Kaigetsudō Ando, 18th century. Right, Solome by Alphonse Mucha.  

As you can see above, this aesthetic is a remnant of one of the movement’s main influence, the ukiyo-e woodblock prints which have very strong outlines but subdued colours. The classic Japanese art also influenced the subject and imagery of early and even later Art Nouveau artwork, with a focus on female beauties, scenes from history and literature, and travel sequences.

Art Nouveau was also influenced by the local aesthetics and general art direction of its ‘home country’. Klimt’s famous pieces were influenced by the romantic atmosphere in Vienna at the time, while Tiffany perfected the ornamental elements of the movement in glass. Mucha dabbled in the more fantastic elements of Art Nouveau and would eventually become famous for his theatrical posters and decorative panels.

Decline and End

By the 1900s, Art Nouveau as a movement was experiencing a gradual decline and in retrospect, it was inevitable. The ‘new art’ was becoming old and the emergence of competing art styles like Art Deco saw artists moving from the now old Art Nouveau to the new one. Art Deco itself was a refinement of its predecessor which in turn would influence the later minimalist movement.

Art Nouveau was championed by artists trying to escape from the confines of academic art, but it wasn’t exactly readily available to all artists or its consumers. The fantastic ornamentation and impossible architecture cost a lot of money to make and construct, and this limited the potential buyers. It gradually became an ‘art for the rich’, which further divorced the movement from its clientele.

The movement was on its way out, and largely replaced by Art Deco, but its fate was ultimately sealed when World War 1 erupted in 1914. The ‘Great War’ saw many young men and innocents perish in a fulminating bloodbath of violence, and it soured the communal atmosphere of the people.

It didn’t help that the countries where Art Nouveau began and first flourished were embroiled in the war itself. Embittered and disillusioned by war, many saw Art Nouveau as a fantasy of the old world – an impossible dream that could never have a place in a world as grim and embroiled in violence.

Art Nouveau’s Legacy

Art Nouveau was inspirational and widely regarded as one of the predecessors of modern art. Later movements such as Art Deco, Modernism, and Minimalism were all influenced by the movement. It even created several sub-genres of art; it paved the way for posters and graphics and made them recognisable as legitimate forms of art. It influenced jewellery, architecture, and even furniture.

The art movement was rehabilitated in 1960s and many of the most recognisable pieces from the movement became part of major exhibitions around the world. The style itself is seeing a resurgence today; as art continues to evolve, artists experimenting with their craft look to the past for inspiration.


At The Canvas Art Factory, we’re proud to offer high-quality prints and reproductions of famous Art Nouveau pieces from around the world. Call us today at +61 7 3383 2880  to learn more.