To be sure, under the label Art Nouveau, there resides a long list of diverse artistic styles, from two dimensional arts to constructive and geometrical arts.
Art Nouveau was an important architectural movement, inspired by the inherent patterns of nature. For example, C.F.A. Voysey's textile prints showcase plant forms in free curves, while Christopher Dresser's design philosophy stemmed from his knowledge of botany. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) is famous for his style of illustration that used curving linear forms. The work of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), of France, uses similar themes, as does Henri Toulouse-Lautree (1864-1901) and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Victor Horta (1861-1947), the Belgian architect and designer, had a body of work known for embodying all the qualities that are typical of Art Nouveau design. The Tassel house in Brussels (1892) has a symmetrical row-house facade with relatively conventional architectural styles. On the inside, though, there is a staircase of complex flowing iron railings, support columns, and electric light fixtures with curving lines. The curving lines appear to be brought into the stenciled wall and ceiling decorations. On the floor, there is a mosaic tile pattern. Compared with the Victorian practice -- associated with the past and therefore looked down upon by Art Nouveau artists -- spaces are more open and flowing. The van Eetvelde House in Brussels (1895) encompasses a salon where iron columns support a glass dome in such way as to hint at the Crystal Palace, but with the introduction of Art Nouveau's florid curves.
Horta was able to design in every detail, in his own house and adjacent office-studio in Brussels, so as to make every element an expression of Art Nouveau, curvilinear, nature-related decorative detail. Indeed, the house is now preserved as a museum. In the Hotel Solvay (not a hotel but a luxurious private house), also in Brussels, there are interiors with an even richer display of Art Nouveau ornamentation. Maison de Peuple (1896-9), no longer standing, was a building still larger than Hotel Solvay. It was composed of an iron and glass facade that curved to follow the form of the adjacent street on which it stood. Its top-floor, which functioned as a meeting hall, had its iron structural elements exposed. The lighting was magnificent, suggestive of twentieth century styles. Horta was very successful early on, but then turned to dull, conventional styles. His career, nonetheless, was quite successful.
Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957), of Belgian, was an important Art Nouveau stylist. His own house of 1894 showcased great Art Nouveau styling, exhibiting his desires to create everything in a new and unified manner. The house, furniture and contents were all designed by Van de Velde, including the table silver and kitchen cookware. He moved to Paris from Brussels, where he was to become the designer of the shop founded by Samuel Bing (1838-1919) that gave the name to the style and period. British work of that time influenced largely Van de Velde, thereby working as a bridge between British and continental Art Nouveau.
Eventually, Van de Velde moved to Berlin. Most of the Art Nouveau furniture that gave him his reputation was developed during his time in Germany. It is composed of the flowing, curved forms typical of Art Nouveau. It is complex and decorative, but certainly lacks any overt references to historical movements. He designed the Art School Building at Weimar in 1904-11. The building was to house the post-World War I Bauhaus artists at that movement's inception. Van de Velde was key to promoting a new and progressive direction in design.
In France, Art Nouveau developed in two different places; in Paris and in a smaller city called Nancy. In Nancy, Eugene Vallin (1856-1922) designed the interiors for a house of 1903-1906 which included a dining room considered by many to be an archetypical Art Nouveau achievement. The woodwork, ceiling moldings, wall treatment, carpet, lightning fixtures, and furniture were of his design. This resulted in a fantastic environment of closely related, original, curvilinear, and complex forms. The School of Nancy was where many designers, such as the master of decorative craftsmanship in glass, Emile Galle (1846-1904), and the furniture designer Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), came together to discuss issues and art of the day. Each had mastered ornate and complex designs. Majorelle specialized in the design of furniture using carving, inlay, and ormolu or other metal decorative elements. The floor themes were typically inspired by floral patterns. He started a successful business with showrooms in Paris, as well as in other French cities. The work of artists in Nancy is diverse, original and beautiful, although many have commented on the overbearing richness of decoration. (Sayer)
The most important figure in Paris was Hector Guimard (1867-1942). Although he was an architect, his work included the interior design of many of his buildings, the design of furniture and smaller objects, as well as decorative aspects such as tiles, window and door trim, and fireplace mantels. He was a pioneer industrial designer of a wide variety of objects, while at the same time being a forward-thinking practitioner. He designed visible components of the Paris Metro, the Paris subway system constructed at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of Guimard's early works, including some of the small houses and villas he designed during his career, seem bizarre and magnificent. His major works, though, are what are considered to be some of the best of Art Nouveau. His Castel Beranger (1894-9) is a six story Paris apartment house built around a centerpiece courtyard, accessible through a vestibule passage. The entrance arch reminds one of Romanesque architectural achievements, although upon closer inspection the stubby columns at either side, with their swirling carved ornament, makes it clear that the design is original to Art Nouveau, and not derivative.
Every so often, the social agenda of the movement was brought to the forefront, as was the case in the International Exhibition of Art and Popular Hygiene, which attempted to link the most boring public institutions and facilities -- among which were included railways stations, public houses, toilets, etc. -- with the spiritual righteousness of art. In many cities and nations, socialists and free thinkers adopted the new movement, for it offered a style that could be marketed internationally for all people, as well as because the movement was anti-Catholic Church and other forms of traditional piety and morality. The lack of adherence to Catholic Church code is obvious by the obvious sense of sexuality in many Art Nouveau paintings and other arts. One feature of Nouveauian women are there confident postures and content gazes. Many analysts have pointed out the way in which they seem to have a sense of themselves, of their independence and desires, as if they were out of the future.
[Gustav] Klimt created an ideal type in his Viennese woman: the modern female, slender as an ephebe -- he painted creatures of an enigmatic charm -- the word 'vamp' was not yet known but Klimt created the type of a Greta Garbo, a Marlene Dietrich long before they existed in reality. -- Bertha Zuckerkandl
Despite all of its political and social programs, one might be surprised to find that many of these female illustrations created by Art Nouveau was used for advertisements. This is the first time art has major artists drawing, for in some cases the lion's share of their income, sexual portraits of women to sell products.
The various movements of Art Nouveau -- especially in visual art and architecture -- had a number of things in common. They all desired to try something new, something which represented a sharp separation with traditions in art, taking advantage of an atmosphere of perceived new freedoms, and the re-emergence of the strong belief that art does matter as a catalyst for spurring a decadent and tired culture at the end of the 19th century to work for some higher purpose.
The new art movement paralleled new political movements fixated on doing away with old and oppressive imperial orders. The ideology of Art Nouveau, so to speak, was to be the new axiom from which a lifestyle would sprout, engulfing every aspect of a person's home or cause them to behave in certain ways because of the way in which a painting was rendered. It was a holistic movement, not only in its diversity, but also in its very faint relation to eastern philosophy.
As we have seen, the Art Nouveau movement had a strong commitment to doing away with distinctions between high and low art or major and minor arts. For many of the Art Nouveau artists, a desire to affect and unify the lives of people, in oil paintings for rich people, in institutional salons, as well as through the essential objects of daily lives, like homes, furnishings, cups and saucers, advertisements, wall hangings, door handles, lamp posts, sewer gratings and even toilet seats.…