Art Nouveau Artworks: A Brief Introduction
The Art Nouveau movement was a global phenomenon emerging in the 1890s. Encompassing fine arts, architecture, interior design, and fashion (to name just a few genres), it brought an entirely new, elegant aesthetic to creative endeavors.
Characterized by flowing lines, geometric forms, symbolic figures, and floral ornamentation, the movement flourished in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Like many avant-garde artistic developments, however, it petered out with the horrors of the First World War.
In this brief introduction, we look at the defining characteristics of Art Nouveau, famous oil paintings, and pioneering Art Nouveau artists.
What is Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau artists aimed at Gesamtkunstwerk (which means “total work of art”). This meant applying both fine and applied arts to everyday life. This included furniture, book illustration, painting, music, architecture, and design.
Today, Art Nouveau creations feature in train stations, department stores, private houses, and public restaurants. Alongside Symbolism (emerging around the same time), the Art Nouveau movement prioritized ideas and style over realistic depictions. Their stylish, elegant creations instead focused on psychological, mystical effects. This often revolved around themes of love, fear, death, and unrequited desire.
Although it was a global movement, Art Nouveau was especially prominent in France and Britain. It came to a broader audience after the 1900 Exposition Universelle.
Art Nouveau artists firmly believed beautiful objects should be part of everyday life. They consequently created decorative arts featuring intertwining leaf and tendril motifs, organic curvaceous forms, as well as birds, flowers, and beautiful women. Within this, elongated geometric shapes and straight lines contrasted with these sinuous forms.
Who is the founder of Art Nouveau?
The term “Art Nouveau” stemmed from a Belgian art journal L’Art Moderne. Coined in 1884, it referred to a group of like-minded painters, designers, and sculptors. Named Les Vingts (or Les XX), their founding members included James Ensor and Théo van Rysselberghe.
The spirit of the Art Nouveau movement quickly traveled throughout Europe, however. Known variously as Jugendstil, Modernismo, Secession, and Stile Floreale, its reach was varied and widespread.
In addition, a Parisian gallery named La Maison de L’Art Nouveau also emerged. Owned by the avant-garde collector Siegfried Bing, he displayed works from the movement. After the 1900 Exposition Universelle (the Paris World’s Fair), the gallery’s name was synonymous with the style as a whole.
In Britain, the Art Nouveau movement followed a distinct path. Here, the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh notably defined the style. As an architect, designer, and artist, Mackintosh employed the typical Art Nouveau flowing lines and organic shapes.
He combined these with more severe geometric shapes, often creating long floral forms adorning his furniture, buildings, and painterly compositions. Inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, it was a response to growing industrialization and factory mass production.
What defines Art Nouveau?
Unlike many other artistic movements, Art Nouveau didn’t espouse a particular philosophy. Instead, their production was predominantly a matter of “style.”
Nonetheless, specific ideas define Art Nouveau. From the outset, Art Nouveau artists advocated the unity of all the arts. They argued against discrimination between fine art (painting and sculpture) and the so-called lesser decorative arts.
This included a desire to push beyond artistic “historicism.” Consequently, Art Nouveau artworks (whether fine art, architecture, or design) are freshly analyzed natural forms. This resulted in beautiful creations, with decoration and function merging as one.
A single look or mood doesn’t define art Nouveau. Instead, an artistic focus on organic nature (contrasting with the modern machine age) was a critical defining feature.
In terms of famous Art Nouveau paintings, it doesn’t get more iconic than The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Painted in 1907, the painting is particularly representative of the Art Nouveau style.
What are the main characteristics of the Art Nouveau style?
Art Nouveau paintings often feature flowing, sinuous lines. Elegant, elongated forms combine with organic plant-based shapes to create a stylish yet natural effect.
In addition, there are three overarching characteristics of Art Nouveau. These include:
- Artistic design applied to everyday objects and scenes. Nothing is too utilitarian to be beautiful.
- A lack of separation between fine art (painting and sculpture) and decorative arts (such as furniture, ceramics, and practical objects).
- A response to the dominating geometry and precise compositions of Neo-Classicism. Art Nouveau moved away from the strict rules of leading artistic institutions.
What is the best-known work of Art Nouveau?
Delicate floral motifs decorate the woman’s dress and the floating meadow supporting the two lovers. These contrast with the strong geometric forms of the man’s cloak and the sinuous lines of the couple’s bodies.
Originally titled Liebespaar (The Lovers), it also deals with classic themes of love, longing, life, and death. As well as an example of an Art Nouveau painting, The Kiss remains one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous oil paintings. It develops themes seen in earlier Klimt works such as the Beethoven Frieze The Hostile Powers (1902).
Indeed, this Frieze series honored the great composer Ludwig Van Beethoven’s works. Initially destined for the Vienna Secession 1914 exhibition, it conveyed the power and feeling of his music through visual arts. Like The Kiss, the figures appear amidst shining golden tones in a dark and erotically charged scene.
While this introduction focuses on Art Nouveau paintings, other well-known Art Nouveau creations include the Paris Metro station entrances (designed by Hector Guimard), Tiffany’s iconic glass creations, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chair designs (as well as the Glasgow School of Art building) and iconic and ethereal book illustrations from the likes of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham.
Who were the leading artists of the Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau was a broad movement, inspiring many artists working all over the world. In addition to famous figures such as Gustav Klimt, here are five Art Nouveau artists who all championed the genre.
1. Jan Toorop (1858-1928)
As a Dutch-Indonesian painter, Jan Toorop worked across multiple styles, including Symbolism, Art Nouveau and even Pointillism and Impressionism. He lived in Brussels from 1882 to 1886, where he joined Les XX, led by James Ensor.
Toorop’s later works are the most distinctly Art Nouveau. Fatality is one example where Toorop plays with sinuous lines to striking effect. The combination of black and yellow sweeping forms also appeared in Toorop’s commercial work, such as his deeply Art Nouveau Poster for Delft Salad Oil.
2. Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)
Alphonse Mucha was a Czech painter and graphic artist and a true pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement. Mucha is best known today for his decorative and beautifully stylized theater posters featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Gismonda (1890) is one of the earliest of Mucha’s Art Nouveau posters, featuring classic motifs such as stylized typography, ornamental flowers, and a long, flowing Japonisme-inspired outfit. As well as these posters, Mucha also produced decorative panels, illustrations, and advertisements. They are now some of the most recognizable Art Nouveau images.
3. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901)
Another early pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, created some of the movement’s most familiar images. His immersion in nineteenth-century Paris's colorful, theatrical world produced unique artistic insight into contemporary society.
In works such as At the Moulin Rouge (1892), well-dressed faces and stylish shadowy figures peer eerily out of the composition. In addition to oil on canvas paintings, Lautrec also produced famous Art Nouveau posters for leading Paris institutions such as Reine de Joie and Moulin Rouge La Goulue.
4. Tom Thomson (1877-1917)
A Canadian artist, Tom Thomson was incredibly influential during his short career. He sadly died, aged just 39, from accidental drowning.
Nonetheless, Thomson produced 400 oil sketches and 50 larger oil on canvas paintings, mostly depicting his native Ontario landscape. In works such as Decorative Panel (featuring a single, stylized tree), his Art Nouveau sensibilities are apparent.
Indeed, the theme of single or small groups of trees is prevalent in Art Nouveau. They hark back to the “lone hero” idea in works such as The Lonely Tree by Caspar David Friedrich.
5. Gerda Wegener (1886-1940)
Gerda Wegener was a Danish painter and illustrator. Her paintings pushed the boundaries of gender identity, love, and sensuality. They caused a sensation in interwar society. Indeed, Wegener’s Lili Elbe paintings are amongst the earliest examples of transgender art.
These pioneering works utilized strong Art Nouveau sensibilities to portray Lili Elbe (a transgender woman and Wegener’s long-term partner). Many Gerda Wegener paintings (classed as “lesbian erotica” at the time) shocked contemporary audiences. This included works such as Lily Hot Summer (1924) and Les Femmes Fatales (1933).
Art Nouveau Paintings: Art Reproductions
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