Obelisk Art History

Art Nouveau
Out with the old, in with the sexy

Art Nouveau, ModernismPortrait of Fritza Riedler

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.


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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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