Art Nouveau is a decorative style that flourished in most of Western Europe and the United States from about 1890 through to 1910. Its name, translated from French as "new art", describes an art movement that broke away from its traditional predecessors to create something new and vibrant.
Flowing lines and undulating curves characterized the Art Nouveau movement, which some critics argue was the first self-conscious attempt to create a modern artistic style. Dynamic and decorative "whiplash" lines distinguish Art Nouveau pieces from their predecessors. These lines, which can be seen in the flowing hair of the Alphonse Mucha poster below, have been interpreted as a symbolic attempt to break away from traditional constraints.
Art Nouveau’s popularity spread rapidly across Europe and the US, though it was known under different names in each country. In Germany, it was called Jugendstil, or "young style". In France and Spain, it was the "Modern Style" and in Italy it became known as the "Stile Liberty".
It was such a popular movement that it wasn’t limited to fine artists alone. Many architects, graphic artists, jewellers, interior designers and furniture makers enthusiastically embraced the style, leaving a legacy around cities and houses to this day.
Art Nouveau reached a peak in its popularity at the Paris International Exhibition in 1900. But its decline came swiftly and by the end of that decade, it had all but finished as an art movement. It was replaced instead with other modernist movements, such as Expressionism and Surrealism.
Influences on Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau grew out of Symbolism and the Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized art for art’s sake. The Japanese art of wood blocking also influenced Art Nouveau artists as Japanese print art began to flood Western markets.
Central to the movement was the possibility of mass production, which included recent innovations in colour printing for graphics. In keeping with Vintage Poster Art, Art Nouveau was created using such popular, reproducible forms as advertisements, posters, labels, and magazines.
Art Nouveau artists drew upon nature for inspiration, looking back to pre-industrial times to evoke a bygone era that emphasized the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Many Art Nouveau posters featured flowers, seeds, shoots and vines in their borders and backgrounds.
Women were likewise cast as important subjects in Art Nouveau pieces. But while women have always been common subjects in paintings throughout the history of art, their role in Art Nouveau was reevaluated. They came to be portrayed as alluringly feminine, independent and sexualized creatures.
Prominent Art Nouveau Artists
Czech painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha has been lauded as the "Father of Art Nouveau". He produced hundreds of paintings, posters, advertisements and book illustrations during his career. One of his first – and most famous – works of art was an advertising poster for a play featuring the famous actress Sarah Berhnardt. Bernhardt was so pleased with his work that she began a six-year contract with Mucha.
Other notable Art Nouveau artists include English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi and American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The Decline of Art Nouveau
As innovative and influential as Art Nouveau was to the art world, the movement was short-lived. It did not last through World War I, replaced instead by the more elegant Art Deco style. Despite this quick decline, examples of Art Nouveau are revered today as bold, beautiful and stylish pieces of vintage art worthy of both admiration and protection.
Continue reading more about Vintage Poster Art Part III: Art Deco>>
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