Art Nouveau Art Movement 101

Around the year 1900, the visual arts flourished. This enveloped everything from painting and illustrations to decorative design, architecture, and the applied arts. A particularly seductive modern style, characterized by a powerful dichotomy that embodied the artistic and social tensions of the era, was dubbed Art Nouveau.

Toulouse Lautrec Moulin Rouge Art Nouveau Art Movement

Artists from around the world captured the era’s mood between 1890 and 1910. Their work was not immune to criticism, and Art Nouveau was indeed often used as a propaganda tool.  

Be that as it may, Art Nouveau’s golden period is short-lived but fascinating, at times disturbing, and it has certainly left its mark on the world. Art Nouveau artists and works, especially those by Art Nouveau designers, continue to inspire to this day.

A Brief History of the Art Nouveau Art Movement

Art Nouveau or the Modern Style was one of the revolutionary moments to mark the turn of the Fin de siècle. The international and incredibly versatile movement was so varied in its numerous manifestations that it was both elitist and populist, traditional and modern, lavish and simple, conservative and radical. This perspective provides a curious insight into the chaotic circumstances and the schizophrenic mindset of that era.

The global movement which embodied all these mismatched elements had its local names: La Stile Liberty in Italy, the Modernista movement in Barcelona, Jugendstil in Germany, and the Secession style in Austria and Hungary. In the UK and the US, the movement was considered within the broader scope of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

It had its official debut at the 1900s Paris Universal Exposition and is characterized by flowing fantasy, organic shapes, linear forms, voluptuous feminine imagery, and intricate ornaments and arabesques. 

Outside of Paris, Art Nouveau developed a rich aesthetic that often relied on geometric austerity, especially in Vienna, Austria, Glasgow, Scotland, Munich, Germany, Nancy, France, Brussels, Belgium, and across the East European area, where artists added local flavor to their works.

Modernists showed disdain for its organic ornaments which they considered bourgeois antics but at the same time, they credited their own functionalism to the Viennese geometric approach. At one point, the movement’s polished aesthetic fell out of favor. In France, this nearly led to the destruction of some of the most famous examples of Art Nouveau architecture. Between the two wars, Art Noveau gradually evolved into Art Deco, equally despised by the more radical Modernists. 

After WWII, Art Nouveau was embraced as a subject worthy of academic study, and this movement, along with Art Deco, was frequently revisited and revived in the decades to come, especially owing to the American West Coast psychedelic movement, which can be perceived as a unique brand of Art Nouveau set in the 1960s.

Famous Art Nouveau Artists

Below is a list of nine of the era’s most influential figures of the Art Nouveau art movement. Not all the names may ring a bell today, but they went down in history as the greatest creative forces of their era.

English illustrator and author Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898)

Pen and ink were Beardsley’s weapons of choice. Although he died from tuberculosis at the age of 25, Beardsley was one of the key figures of the Aesthetic Movement in London, and his works coincide with the early stages of the Art Nouveau movement but exemplify it in all its glory and maturity. He remains one of the most important Art Nouveau illustrators. His most popular works are illustrations for works of fiction such as Le More d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and Salome by Oscar Wilde, but he is also known for his refined depictions of the decadent life in 18th-century France.

French artist and graphic designer Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

In Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec first picked up a paintbrush in the 1880s, under the heavy influence of Symbolism. But he is most famous for his stylized posters depicting decadent Parisian nightlife. Even his earliest poster designs, which date back to 1891, were praised by critics. His works are some of the biggest crowd-pleasers in art history and he remains one of the most prominent Art Nouveau artists of all time.

French symbolist painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist, and writer Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Gauguin was born in Paris, and raised in Peru, but is best remembered for his Tahiti-inspired works, where he lived later in life. He took up painting while he was working as a banker in Paris. He made it a full-time endeavor when he joined the Impressionists. Gauguin worked extensively with Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. He also developed his own unique brand of Symbolism, finding inspiration in Japanese art and relying heavily on flat bright colors with the use of simplified lines.

Austrian symbolist painter & member of the Vienna Secession movement Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna alum Klimt opened a studio in 1883. He abandoned his early academic approach to painting when he embraced Symbolism. This subjected him to heavy criticism. Klimt is one of the most famous Art Nouveau artists in history, and he co-founded the Secession, which challenged the conventional ideas and adopted a heavily stylized aesthetic through its recurring themes, in 1897 and remained one of the leading figures in the movement until 1905.

English-born Scottish painter and designer Margaret Macdonald (1865-1933)

Scottish architect, designer, watercolorist and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)

Macdonald was one of the Glasgow Girls. She met Mackintosh at the Glasgow School of Art and later married him. The two Art Nouveau designers worked closely together. The work done by the duo influenced both Art Nouveau and Secessionism. 

Mackintosh was one of the iconic figures of the Modern Style, which is the British Art Nouveau style, and his distinct style was influenced by Symbolism. Trivia time: the raincoat was not named after the great artist but after his compatriot, the Scottish inventor and chemist Charles Macintosh.

French architect and designer Eugene Gaillard (1862-1933)

Gaillard was supposed to be a lawyer but had a change of heart and chose home décor instead. He devoted his career to industrial and interior design, architecture, and decoration. A vocal advocate of modern design, Galliard created abstract natural-shaped furniture that reflected his sentiment about historicism.

French Jeweler Georges Fouquet (1862-1957)

Fouquet was the son of a goldsmith who took over the family business and became a renowned French jewelry designer. He is also known for his collaborations with Alphonse Mucha. Fouquet sought inspiration from nature and Japanese art and his most famous creations exemplify Art Nouveau. He also welcomed the arrival of Art Deco in the 1920s and created geometric pieces featuring Egyptian motifs.

American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Wright’s early work bears a striking resemblance to the European brand of Art Nouveau.  Wright’s designs often included very prominent natural features. He created a famous series of “prairie houses” that combine stylized ornamentation and low geometric forms.

American illustrator William H. Bradley (1868-1962)

Bradley’s work exemplifies early American Art Nouveau. Midway through to the 1880s, he switched from wood printing to line engraving. In the later stages of his career, he concentrated on commercial printing and type design.