Art Deco Paintings: A Brief Introduction
Art Deco was an artistic style emerging in Europe during the early 1920s.
Although short-lived as a movement (lasting just two decades), Art Deco paintings remain instantly recognizable today. The elegance, beauty and stylistic control of these compositions is truly unparalleled.
Whilst the movement encompassed furniture, architecture, jewelry and pottery design (to name just a few specialisms), this introduction will just focus on Art Deco 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 was characterized by stylized, geometric forms. The term emerged 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 major force in both 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 dreams for the machine age. In the advent of the carnage of the Second War however, these optimistic hopes rapidly faded and the movement lost momentum.
What defines the Art Deco Style?
Whilst the Art Deco style was incredibly broad 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 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. In addition, the age of steam ships, trains, motor cars and the First World War also fed into the imaginations of this generation of painters.
Whilst artists working in the movement represented the very latest modernist trends, contemporary Art Deco reproductions were very rare. There were some mass-produced items and posters, but the overall focus aimed at sophisticated and exclusive elegance.
What were the three main influences on Art Deco?
Whilst 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 ornamentality of Art Nouveau painting and illustration. Despite this apparent opposition, many organic stylistic elements remained. Characteristic motifs of nude female figures, sun rays and long sinuous animals and plants appear in both movements.
- Bauhaus: Whilst 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 wide array of creative specialisms and artistic influences, there are numerous artists and designers famous for Art Deco.
In terms of Art Deco wall art, famous artists included George Barbier, Paul Poiret, Erté and Tamara de Lempicka. René Lalique produced some of the finest glass and jewelry designs whilst 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 whilst 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 female nude 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.
1. Coles Phillips (1880-1927)
An American artist and illustrator, Coles Phillips is primarily known for his elegant depictions of fashionable women. Mostly created for magazine advertisements, his illustrations made full use of negative space and strong contrasting 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 as a whole.
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.
2. Georges Barbier (1882-1932)
George Barbier 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. He sadly died at the height of his artistic success.
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” in reference to their fashionable dress and mannerisms.
With 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.
3. Diego Rivera (1886-1957)
Whilst 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 all over North and South America
Many of these creations (for instance the Detroit Industry series) play with the Art Nouveau fascination with modernity and the new machine age. They also carry Rivera’s unique social conscience and political insight.
In works such as Nude with Calla Lilies (1944) however, Rivera’s usual biting social and political commentary are absent. Instead, the painting celebrates the sculptural elements of the calla lily. The mixture of flowing geometric forms contrasting with the woman’s body creates a strikingly elegant Art Deco composition.
4. Erté (1892-1990)
Born Romain Petrovich de Tirtoff, this Russian-born artist was internationally known by the pseudonym Erté. Spending most of his working life in France, Erté created fashion, jewelry, interiors and theater set design as well as 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 the wishes of his father, who wanted the young man to follow family tradition and enlist as a naval officer.
Erté secured substantial and lucrative contracts with many 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.
5. 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 age.
In works such as La Dormeuse and Girl in Green Dress, Lempicka’s unique monumental realism creates a strong, sensual atmosphere. Whilst 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, 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, whilst her glinting eyes knowingly gaze out at the powerless viewer.
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