Portrait of Fritza Riedler

Art Nouveau

Out with the old, in with the sexy

Art Nouveau appeared at the turn of the 20th century all at once, everywhere. A style defined by sinewy, organic lines and an overtly decorative flair, it was called Modern Style in Britain, Style Nouille in Belgium, Wiener Jugendstil in Germany, and Tiffany Style in the United States. So what on earth was it, and how did it spread so fast?

The decades before 1900 were a perfect storm of aesthetic developments and cultural evolution, leading to a global Art Nouveau takeover. We don’t usually go for bullet points at Obelisk, but there’s a lot to cover. Here are just a few of the influences:

  • Designer and writer William Morris harnesses the new power of industrial manufacturing to bring beautifully crafted objects to common people.
  • Japanese ukyio-e woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai are imported to Europe in the 1870s, and spread by Le Japon artistique, a monthly art journal by art dealer Siegfried Bing.
  • Magazines like The Studio in England, Arts et idèes and Art et décoration in France, and Jugend in Germany bring the latest art to a broad popular audience, and illustration flourishes.
  • Biologist Ernst Haeckel publishes his beautifully illustrated Art Forms of Nature in 1899 to massive popular success. The world goes nature-crazy.
  • Siegfried Bing opens a new gallery in Paris, the Maison de l'Art Nouveau, breaking new ground by showing more than paintings — including glass work, jewelry and posters.
  • Painter James Whistler’sThe Peacock Room and William Morris’s Red House show a trend of artists tackling full environmental design, called Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’.

So Art Nouveau was the complex child of illustrators, artists, Japanism, industrialization and enterprising magazine salesmen. But it exploded at the Exposition Universelle, the Word’s Fair held in Paris in 1900. Nearly 50 million people flooded into the city to see modern marvels like the escalator, diesel engines, and Matryoshka dolls. But the real highlight of the Exposition was the ‘new art’ — which was built into the event itself. The grand Porte Monumentale entrance and many of the pavilions were designed in the organic, ‘whiplash’ style, and perhaps most importantly, the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs — a decorative arts organization showcased purchasable art nouveau furniture and housewares, sending people all over the world back to their homes with a piece of the movement.

Perhaps because Art Nouveau grew so quickly, it also faded from popularity incredibly fast. By 1910, the style had evolved from organic floral into geometric angles — which would ubiquitous 1920’s aesthetic Art Deco.

Reed Enger, "Art Nouveau, Out with the old, in with the sexy," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 11, 2015; last modified May 20, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/art-nouveau/.

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William Morris, 1862-1864


William Morris, 1872


William Morris, 1875

The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler, 1877

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing

Art and Socialism

William Morris, 1884

Wild Tulip

William Morris, 1884

Willow Bough

William Morris, 1887

Hamlet and Ophelia

Mikhail Vrubel, 1888

The purpose of applying art: to add beauty to the results of the work of man and to add pleasure to the work itself

The Arts and Crafts of Today

William Morris, 1889

The Demon Seated

Mikhail Vrubel, 1890

Princess Reverie

Mikhail Vrubel, 1896

The Cave of Spleen

Aubrey Beardsley, 1896


Mikhail Vrubel, 1898

Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel as Princess Volkhova

Mikhail Vrubel, 1898

Judith and the Head of Holofernes

Gustav Klimt, 1901

Trees on a Yellow Background

Odilon Redon, 1901


Gustav Klimt, 1901-1902

Portrait of Emilie Flöge

Gustav Klimt, 1902

Portrait of Marie Henneberg

Gustav Klimt, 1901-1902

‘Surface Decoration,’ Cover

Koloman Moser, 1902

The Fallen Demon

Mikhail Vrubel, 1902

Hope 1

Gustav Klimt, 1903

Sketches for Eisler Terramare High Chair

Koloman Moser, 1903

Six-Winged Seraphim

Mikhail Vrubel, 1904

The Three Ages of Woman

Gustav Klimt, 1905

Portrait of Fritza Riedler

Gustav Klimt, 1906

Salomé, Plate 5

Aubrey Beardsley, 1906

Salomé, Plate 15

Aubrey Beardsley, 1906

Farm Garden with Sunflowers

Gustav Klimt, 1907

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Gustav Klimt, 1907

Water Snakes 1

Gustav Klimt, 1904-1907


Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

Hope 2

Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

The Kiss

Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

A Tree in Late Autumn

Egon Schiele, 1911

Portrait of Mäda Primavesi

Gustav Klimt, 1912

Ria Munk on her Deathbed

Gustav Klimt, 1912

Valentine Gode Darel in hospital bed

Ferdinand Hodler, 1914

Adam and Eve

Gustav Klimt, 1917-1918


Gustav Klimt, 1917-1918

Design for an Exhibition Building

Wenzel Hablik, 1919

1 Mark Notgeld

Wenzel Hablik, 1921

1 Mark Notgeld: Not Kennt

Wenzel Hablik, 1921

20 Mark Notgeld

Wenzel Hablik, 1921

Exhibition Space Wallpapers

Wenzel Hablik, 1921

Design for a Great Hall

Wenzel Hablik, 1924
Next Movement

Vienna Secession

"To every age its art. To art its freedom."


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