Art Nouveau was a global phenomenon emerging in the 1890s. Encompassing fine arts, architecture, interior design, and fashion (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 this movement, its famous oil paintings, and its pioneering artists.
The aim of Art Nouveau artists is Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art”). The concept involves incorporating fine and applied arts in everyday life, including furniture, book illustration, painting, music, architecture, and design.
Today, Art Nouveau creations feature train stations, department stores, private houses, and public restaurants. Alongside Symbolism (emerging around the same time), the movement prioritized ideas and style over realistic depictions. Instead, their stylish, elegant creations focused on psychological, mystical effects frequently revolving around themes of love, fear, death, and unrequited desire.
Although it was a global movement, it was especially prominent in France and Britain. However, 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, birds, flowers, and beautiful women. Elongated geometric shapes and straight lines contrast with curved forms.
The term stems from a Belgian art journal L’Art Moderne. Coined in 1884, it refers 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. Its reach is varied and widespread, known as Jugendstil, Modernismo, Secession, and Stile Floreale.
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.
In Britain, the movement followed a distinct path. Here, the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh notably defined the style. Mackintosh employed the typical Art Nouveau flowing lines and organic shapes as an architect, designer, and artist.
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 responded to growing industrialization and factory mass production.
Unlike many other artistic movements, it did not espouse a particular philosophy. Instead, their production was predominantly a matter of “style.”
Nonetheless, specific ideas define Art Nouveau. From the outset, 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.
Art Nouveau painters expressed a desire to push beyond artistic “historicism.” Consequently, artworks (fine art, architecture, or design) are freshly analyzed natural forms. The results are beautiful creations, with decoration and function merging as one.
A single look or mood does not define the movement. 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. Klimt's 1907 painting represents a glittering example.
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.
Originally titled Liebespaar (The Lovers), it also deals with classic themes of love, longing, life, and death. The Kiss remains one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous oil paintings.
Delicate floral motifs decorate the woman’s dress and the floating meadow supporting the two lovers, contrasting with the strong geometric forms of the man’s cloak and the sinuous lines of the couple’s bodies.
The painting 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 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.
The movement was a broad movement, inspiring many artists working all over the world. In addition to famous figures such as Gustav Klimt, five Art Nouveau artists championed the genre.
As a Dutch-Indonesian painter, Jan Toorop worked across multiple styles, including Symbolism, Art Nouveau, 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 deep Art Nouveau Poster for Delft Salad Oil.
Alphonse Mucha was a Czech painter, graphic artist, and pioneer of the 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 posters, featuring classic motifs such as stylized typography, ornamental flowers, and a long, flowing Japonism-inspired outfit. As well as these posters, Mucha also produced decorative panels, illustrations, and advertisements. As a result, they are now some of the most recognizable Art Nouveau images.
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 produced famous Art Nouveau posters for leading Paris institutions such as Reine de Joie and Moulin Rouge La Goulue.
A Canadian artist, Tom Thomson was incredibly influential during his short career. However, 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.
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). As a result, many Gerda Wegener paintings (classed as “lesbian erotica” at the time) proved shocking to contemporary audiences. These artworks include oil paintings such as Lily Hot Summer (1924) and Les Femmes Fatales (1933).
If you love the beauty and elegance of Art Nouveau artworks, explore our extensive collection of fine art reproductions.
Enjoy museum-quality oil paintings on canvas, including Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Jan Toorop, Gerda Wegener, and her Lili Elbe paintings.
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