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Many Faces: Art Nouveau’s Themes and Influences

La Trappistine, Alphonse Mucha, circa 1897
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La Trappistine, Alphonse Mucha, circa 1897

Art Nouveau is a style that was widespread in Europe from the 1890s to World War I. It was known as a total art style because it didn’t only appear in paintings. Art Nouveau permeated architecture, textiles, lighting, advertisements, glasswork and more.

The term first appeared in an 1884 edition of the Belgian journal, L’Art Moderne. The publication used the term to describe art that followed the theories of French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and British critic John Ruskin. These men wanted to unite all art styles; by following this mindset, artists would combine elements of rococo, Japanese ukiyo-e, Celtic symbols, and other styles to form a unique, fluid aesthetic.

Cats, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, date unknown, the 2D style of ukiyo-e art had a sharp visual influence in art nouveau
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Cats, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, date unknown, the 2D style of ukiyo-e art had a sharp visual influence in art nouveau

The Arts and Crafts movement, which lasted from the 1860s-1900s, also influenced the formation of this style. English designer William Morris (1834-1896) spearheaded this movement by founding Morris, Marshall, Faulker & Co in 1861. At the time, people considered industrially-produced items to be non-artistic, and utilitarian. He sought to keep craftmanship alive within production, selling handcrafted jewels, books, furniture, etc. in this company.

All these influences gave Art Nouveau a multifaceted face with many different themes.

Major Themes in Art Nouveau

The Peacock Skirt, Aubrey Beardsley, 1892
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The Peacock Skirt, Aubrey Beardsley, 1892

Art nouveau often incorporates a combination of women, natural elements, and sensuality. While that sounds the same as Renaissance art, its distinctive visual nuances sets it apart.

You can see examples of art nouveau’s women in Alphonse Mucha’s work. He created advertisements for various businesses like publishing houses, travel companies, and theaters. You might recognize him as the artist behind the poster Monaco-Monte Carlo (1897).
Other romantic depictions of women appear in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. These drawings, such as The Peacock Skirt (1893), portray women in 2D, similar to ukiyo-e art.

Monaco-Monte Carlo, Alphonse Mucha, 1987, credits to Sofi on Flickr.
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Monaco-Monte Carlo, Alphonse Mucha, 1987, credits to Sofi on Flickr.

When we say natural elements, we mean more than flowers. Brooches in the shape of delicate, colorful insects were popular. You could buy a copy of Pride & Prejudice with a peacock’s feathers adorning the cover. Art nouveau celebrated nature as another way to reject industrialism. Flowers, vines, and animals could also be used to create a sensual picture.

copy of Pride and Prejudice, 1894, credits to Ransom Center Magazine
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copy of Pride and Prejudice, 1894, credits to Ransom Center Magazine

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec portrayed sensuality in his art nouveau-style posters. He was a dedicated patron to the cabaret Moulin Rouge. There, he would paint dancers in his personal art, and create posters for events. His illustration of Le Chat Noir (1896) and Jane Avril (1893) both continue to follow this 2D style, and include the delicate tendrils, lines, and detail of art nouveau.

Jane Avril, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893, PD-Art
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Jane Avril, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893, PD-Art

Is Art Nouveau the same as Art Deco?

Although their names would have you confused, art nouveau and art deco are distinct in both style and era.

Art nouveau ended where art deco began. But it had a similar run, lasting from the 1920s to World War II. Art Deco used different materials from its predecessor, such as chrome and steel. It aimed to embrace an industrial aesthetic as opposed to going back to nature.

Visually, you can tell the two apart by looking for geometric patterns. Art nouveau lets its lines run without rules, similar to the way plants grow in nature. Art deco, on the other hand, uses hard shapes like squares and circles to make their pieces.

Art Deco details in the Rockefeller Center, NY, notice the geometric anatomy, credits to Andrew Prokos.
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Art Deco details in the Rockefeller Center, NY, notice the geometric anatomy, credits to Andrew Prokos.

Many Names: Art Nouveau to Tiffany’s

The metro stations in Paris are a quintessential example of art nouveau. When the Compagnie du Métropolitain was developing it for the first time, they wanted it to feel welcoming. They knew that a train system would be a strange, new addition to the people of Paris. So they had a contest to design the entrances, and Hector Guimard won with his sketches of green canopies and vines. Since then, the French government demolished some of these landmarks. Luckily, 88 remain that are protected as historical monuments since 1978. It’s no surprise that it would be called art nouveau in France, but many people don’t realize that it took on different names (and changes) across other countries.

Metro station in Porte Dauphine in Paris, designed by Hector Guimaud
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Metro station in Porte Dauphine in Paris, designed by Hector Guimaud

In Germany, the Jugendstil style was an offshoot of art nouveau. The word comes from the phrase Die Jugend (meaning the youth), and was named after a magazine dedicated to emerging art styles. Germany’s take on the style also featured flowers, but it involved more arabesques and abstract figures.

In Austria, art nouveau became the Secessionist movement. In 1897, Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Josef Hoffman all quit the traditional artist society of the Künstlerhaus to create an association called the Vienna Secession.

They encouraged a break away from rigid standards of art; as a result, artists from this school had various styles. But they did share one thing in common: a search for “inner higher truth.” Olbrich constructed the “golden cabbage” of leaves on top of the Secession building in Vienna, Austria. The gold is visible from afar, and meant to make it feel like a living thing. This harkens back to art nouveau’s emphasis on nature. It comes full circle with women and sensuality when you look at Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-1908).

The Golden Cabbage, credits to Charles Tilford on Flickr.
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The Golden Cabbage, credits to Charles Tilford on Flickr.

Art Nouveau was largely dominant in Europe, but influenced furniture in the US. Louis Comfort Tiffany, eldest son of the founder of Tiffany & Co., used art nouveau influences to create stained glass. Through his company, they sold lamps, windows, ceramics, and jewelry. Under him, the style became more impressionist, but retained the original appearance of curvy nature.

A View of Oyster Bay, Louis Comfort Tiffany, credits to chaostrophy on Flickr.
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A View of Oyster Bay, Louis Comfort Tiffany, credits to chaostrophy on Flickr.

To this day, people give art nouveau credit for changing how we think of design and production. Although it’s not at its height anymore, vendors still sell posters and antiques inspired by this eccentric era.

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