Art Deco Paintings: A Brief Introduction
Art Deco paintings emerged in Europe during the early 1920s.
Although short-lived as a movement (lasting just two decades), Art Deco paintings remain instantly recognizable today. These compositions' elegance, beauty, and stylistic control are truly unparalleled.
While the movement encompassed furniture, architecture, jewelry, and pottery design (just a few specialisms), this introduction will focus on paintings and famous Art Deco artists.
From defining the genre to introducing its leading artists and influences, we’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions about this revolutionary art historical style.
What is Art Deco?
Emerging in the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco is characterizes stylized geometric forms. The term appeared after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an exhibition held in Paris in 1925.
Sometimes also called “style modern,” the movement became a significant force in European and American Art. Indeed, Art Deco succeeded the Art Nouveau style, prevalent since the 1890s.
Art Nouveau employed sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes to profound effect. Contrastingly, Art Deco eschewed this flowing naturalism, replacing it with a more carefully controlled aesthetic.
Appearing during the interwar years, Art Deco reflected European society’s rapid technological progress and dreamed of the machine age.
What defines the Art Deco Style?
While the Art Deco style was inclusive and multifaceted, certain traits are identifiable.
One of the most important defining characteristics was a geometric, fragmented approach to design. Referencing the Cubist movement (also gaining pace at the time), Art Deco artists often subdivided and broke up their compositions with fiercely dynamic lines and shapes.
Further distinguishing features include simple, clean silhouettes producing a highly streamlined appearance. When purely decorative ornament and detailing appear in Art Deco wall art, it’s often heavily geometric, symmetrical, and stylized.
Art Deco’s inspiration came from many different fields. Central American art, Aztec artifacts, and Egyptian art all fed into its aesthetic style.
The influence of Art Nouveau was also evident, with some sinuous curves (often based on plant forms) appearing in amongst the controlled geometric forms.
While artists working in the movement represented the latest modernist trends, contemporary Art Deco reproductions were very rare. There were some mass-produced items and posters, but the overall focus was on sophisticated and exclusive elegance.
What were the three main influences on Art Deco?
While Art Deco took inspiration from various sources, the three main influences were:
- Art Nouveau: The movement which preceded and spawned Art Deco. Indeed, Art Deco was primarily a reaction against the sinuous ornamental of Art Nouveau painting and illustration. Despite this apparent opposition, many organic stylistic elements remained. Both movements show motifs of nude female figures, sun rays, and long sinuous animals and plants.
- Bauhaus: while this introduction focuses on Art Deco paintings, the movement was also highly relevant to the world of architecture and design. Here, the Bauhaus School was a fundamental influence. Founded by Walter Gropius, the school aimed to reimagine the material world and reflect the “fundamental unity” of all artistic creation.
- Cubism: Emerging in the early twentieth century, Cubism emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of a painting. This heavily influenced Art Deco artworks, particularly their rejection of foreshortening, traditional perspective, and chiaroscuro. Fundamentally, both movements refuted time-honored theories that art must imitate nature.
Who is famous for Art Deco?
Due to the vast array of creative specialisms and artistic influences, numerous artists and designers are famous for Art Deco.
In Art Deco wall art, famous artists included George Barbier, Paul Poiret, Erté, and Tamara de Lempicka. René Lalique produced some of the most delicate glass and jewelry designs, while the furniture of Maurice Dufrêne and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann transformed interiors.
Auguste Perret created landmark Art Deco buildings such as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées while William Van Alen designed the iconic spire of New York’s Chrysler Building.
Although famed today as a pioneer of Mexican muralism and political art, artists such as Diego Rivera also adopted Art Deco approaches. The movement’s strong lines and geometric modernity (often depicting nude female figures) appear in many of his oil on canvas works.
Who were the leading artists in the Art Deco movement?
Notwithstanding the many exceptional and innovative artists working in the Art Deco style, here are five artists who pioneered and drove the movement forwards.
- Coles Phillips (1880-1927)
An American artist and illustrator, Coles Phillips is primarily known for his elegant depictions of fashionable women. Mainly created for magazine advertisements, his illustrations entirely used negative space and contrasting solid colors.
In works such as The Magic Hour (also known as Afternoon Tea), his elegant sitter almost disappears into the golden background. Known as the “fadeaway” technique, portions of the figure’s clothing merge with the composition.
In an intriguing art historical link, Phillips established an advertising agency in the early 1900s. One of his first employees was the young Edward Hopper.
- Georges Barbier (1882-1932)
George Barbier’s art has come to define the age of Art Deco. One of the great French illustrators of the early twentieth century, Barbier enjoyed a prestigious and celebrated career.
Barbier illustrated haute couture publications, designed theater and ballet costumes, and led a flamboyant life well-suited to his art. Indeed, Barbier headed a group described by Vogue as “The Knights of the Bracelet” about their fashionable dress and mannerisms.
In works such as L'oiseau Volage (1914), a characteristically sophisticated woman contrasts with a monochromatic gray background. Referencing contemporary trends for Japonisme and Art Nouveau stylings, she coaxes the “flighty bird” down from a crimson red tree.
- Diego Rivera (1886-1957)
While not traditionally identified as an Art Deco artist, Diego Rivera’s art heavily references movement. His monumental frescos established Mexico’s place in international art, with murals created throughout North and South America.
In works such as Nude with Calla Lilies (1944), however, Rivera’s usual biting social and political commentary is absent. Instead, the painting celebrates the sculptural elements of the calla lily. The flowing geometric forms contrasting with the woman’s body create an exquisite Art Deco composition.
Erte Art Deco
- Erté (1892-1990)
Born Romain Petrovich de Tirtoff, this Russian-born artist is internationally known by the pseudonym Erté. Spending most of his working life in France, Erté created fashion, jewelry, interiors and theater set design, and stunning illustrations.
Inspired by Art Nouveau illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley, Erté initially worked with flowing sinuous lines and organic forms. He pursued a creative career in Paris against his father’s wishes, who wanted the young man to follow family tradition and enlist as a naval officer.
Erté secured substantial and lucrative contracts with leading magazines, designing over 200 covers for Harper’s Bazaar. Stylish works such as Spring Flowers and The Bubbles exemplify his heavily stylized Art Deco approach. The strong lines, stunning aesthetics, and vivid coloring secured Erté’s place amongst great illustrators of the age.
Tamara de Lempicka Paintings
- Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980)
Tamara de Lempicka paintings are some of the most recognizable and iconic creations of the Art Deco age. As an artist who courted controversy (in her art and personal life), she drove representations of femininity and sexuality into the modern industrial era.
In works such as La Dormeuse and Girl in Green Dress, Lempicka’s remarkable monumental realism creates a strong, sensual atmosphere. While visually striking, her paintings also referenced the darker side of European glamor during the early 1930s. The bloodshed of the Second World War was just around the corner.
Indeed, the paintings Auto Portrait Green Bugatti demonstrate society’s near-total trust in social progress and the positivity of the new machine age. The woman merges with the motor car while her glinting eyes knowingly gaze at the powerless viewer.
Art Deco Wall Art
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