Art Nouveau had a run from the 1880s to the start of W.W.I., peaking from 1890-1910. Like Arts & Crafts, it saw itself as a fusion of art and industry and a rebellion against Victorianism. Arthur Mackmurdo’s book Wren’s City Churches (1883) displayed its distinctive style for the first time.
While it was in fashion for a while in America (Luis Comfort Tiffany in New York), it was primarily European, and born in England. Aubrey Beardsley and others helped the movement leap the English Channel to the European continent. Art Nouveau designers used curves to give the movement an organic, plantlike quality. Artists favored birds and women. The knock on it is its frivolity. It obscured the design of something as badly as the Victorian decorations it so disdained. However, Art Nouveau did enhance the beauty of the machine-made, sterile products of the industrial age. And it did try to blend form and function to some degree. For example, the plantlike lines are an integral part of the design, instead of ornamentation on a rigid structure
Art Nouveau was ubiquitous: buildings, glass, silverware, interior design like staircases and furniture. It’s hard to imagine a graphic movement dominating the world like Art Nouveau did (Art Deco did the same thing 25 years later). Today, everyone is connected — it’s a global conversation, with thousands of looks and sub-movements have emerged. And the news gets old fast, too. Today’s society chews up “looks” and spits them out, ready to move on to a new one almost right away.
It tried to make art a daily thing for people. This, combined with innovations in commercial printing, made Art Nouveau accessible for the masses. The posters for events and commercial products exposed the work to the people, instead of paintings in a salon for a privileged few — it was called the “art of the street.” It fueled a poster boom in the 1890s. Special editions were made for collectors; posters were stolen off walls. Artists, in turn, felt liberated from the constraints of the academic Beaux-Arts drawing tradition.
Art Nouveau began in the hands of handfuls of talented people. It eventually became so pervasive, copied, bastardized, reduced and deformed and died in its pure form around the first world war. Deco helped revive it, and it really saw resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s in American psychedelic hippie look.
French Art Nouveau
Rococo ornamentation was a big influence on French Art Nouveau, just like Arts & Crafts was a big influence on the English version. It was known as L’Art Moderne in France and Belgium.
In 1881, a new law concerning freedom of the press allowed posters almost everywhere. The cabaret posters of Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec dominated the streets. In addition, Paris had just been re-designed by Baron Haussmann, the architect for Napoleon III. The wide boulevards that everybody loves today were built to accommodate artillery for mob crowd control. Chéret’s lively, colorful posters appeared like explosions of color on the white walls of the newly laid-out city. He took the “look” used by circus programs and combined it with a great sense of style and layout, natural ability and skill as a lithographer. Pop art + great painting = Chéret. With his hundreds of posters all over Paris, Chéret was the best-known artist of la belle époque (the beautiful era). Chéret is now called the father of the modern poster.
Chéret’s father, a poor typesetter, spent his money to get his son a 3-year apprenticeship as a lithographer. Chéret saw after his training that pictorial lithographs would replace typographic letterpress, so he started doing posters. He spent seven years in England in 1850s-60s, then returned to Paris with latest machinery that could print up to 10,000 posters an hour. He improved the lithography process by using larger stones. He also reestablished the practice of painting directly onto the stones, like Goya had done earlier in the century, as opposed to commissioning craftsmen to do the job.
His first poster, The Doe In The Wood, for a play starring Sandra Bernardt, rocked Paris and secured his fame. He had invented the visual poster. His style in the 1880s was thick black lines with primary colors. The women in his posters were called “the Chérette” by the masses. His favorite model, the Danish entertainer Charlotte Wiehe, was called “La Chérette.” Her looks were widely imitated. Forerunner of feminism: women were self-confident, liberated, enjoying their lives — perfect for the gay 90s. Chéret’s posters conveyed the spirit of the fin de siécle.
Many of his posters were over-sized (7-1/2′) so the people appear life-sized. He was huge in his own time, receiving honors & awards and critical & public acclaim. He made over 1,000 posters, nearly all for theatres and music halls. Retired to south of France to paint, and died at age 97. There is now a Chéret museum in Nice, France. Chéret helped launch the poster craze in France and America.
Chéret’s influence on Seurat are evident in Seurat’s paintings Le Chahut and Le Cirque, which have circus backgrounds and dancers instead of nature. Chéret designed the grand opening poster for the Moulin Rouge, in 1889. Lautrec, Theóphile Alexandre Steinlen and Pierre Bonnard followed in 1890s.
Lautrec was born wealthy and began drawing and painting like a dervish after breaking both his hips in an accident as a teenager. Lautrec got the job in 1891 to do a poster for the Moulin Rouge (The Red Mill) highlighting their new star, La Gouloue. He painted only 31 posters, mostly the characters of the clubs he inhabited. Lautrec took Chéret further, diving into the lives and minds of the subjects of his paintings. Chéret called Toulouse-Lautrec “a master.” A lot of people didn’t like Lautrec. They felt his subjects were ugly and disturbing, as opposed to the beauty of Chéret. He had a failed show at a gallery in London in 1898. However, insightful art critics saw that his paintings were caricatures.
Steinlein and Lautrec used posters to make social commentary. Steinlen started working in Paris at 22. Most widely known for his work with cats — you’ll rarely see a Steinlen poster without a cat. Steinlen did over 2,000 magazine covers, sheet music covers, book illustrations and posters. They had a big influence on Picasso. Art Nouveau design also has big Japanese influence, especially in Paris.
Swiss Eugéne Grasset was almost as popular as Chéret. His two-year project Histoire des Quatre Fils Aymon (History of the four Aymon sons) incorporated illustrations, type & format. He was known for his “coloring book style,” which featured black outlines with color. He used more subtle colors than Chéret. Grasset did textiles, windows, typefaces and more and actually claimed to dislike Art Nouveau. He loved medieval decorators and died at 37.
Alphone Mucha personified Art Nouveau from 1895-1900. He had a huge output, designing everything from posters, furniture, carpets and stained glass windows to two-dimensional patterns. He was born in 1860 in Bavaria and moved to Paris at 30. Like Chéret, he eventually abandoned posters to become a painter. Mucha’s best-known posters are also of Sarah Bernhardt. She commissioned his 1st poster, Gismonda, 1894, which made his reputation in Paris. That poster was done at the last minute because he was the only one around in the studio at the time. He was so identified with the movement that l’art nouveau was often called le style Mucha. The spaghetti-like hair of his models was his signature style. Sarah Bernhardt, who didn’t like his Joan of Arc poster, nevertheless signed him to a six-year contract. He went to America, and then returned to his native Czechoslovakia to work mostly on his Slav Epic: 20 murals of Czech history. Mucha was one of the first people arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in W.W. II; he died a few months later.
British Art Nouveau
William Morris’ designs still held sway in England. The most significant Art Nouveau contribution was from Aubrey Beardsley with his black and white stuff. Beardsley had five years of incredible work then died at 26 of TB (consumption). Mort D’Arthur made him famous at 20. Morris hated Mort D’Arthur so much that he contemplated suing Beardsley over it. In 1900, Walter Crane wrote a popular book, Line & Form, that analyzed design geometrically.
Belgian Art Nouveau
The “Group of 20” included Baron Victor Horta (architect, book designer, jewelry maker), Henri van de Velde (designer, architect, painter), and Jan Toorop (artist).
Horta in 1892 built a townhouse for Emile Tassel that was first of its kind in Art Nouveau design.
Van de Velde was a seminal figure in the Art Nouveau movement. He combined Japanese, French, English Arts & Crafts and Glasgow schools. In 1892, van de Velde wrote an essay called Déblaiement d’art, that called for an art that was contemporary, yet integrated with work from the past. In his heart, van de Velde was an Arts & Crafts advocate. He wrote a book called The Renaissance in Modern Applied Art in 1901 that was a bible for 20th century architects & designers. It discussed the presence of “negative space,” like the sunlight outline of a shadow. The book discussed the interrelationship of all the creative and applied arts. In 1902, the Grand Duke summoned him to Weimar to reorganize the art schools. This was a forerunner to Gropius founding Bauhaus in 1919. van de Velde eventually returned to Belgium where he was honored and beatified by his government and countrymen for the rest of his days.
Privat Livemont did nearly 36 posters in Mucha mode. His style was a thick white outline that separated the subject from the background.
American Art Nouveau
The art poster for ads became hugely popular by the 1890s. In 1891 & 92, Grasset designed covers for Harper’s magazine. They were designed in Paris and shipped to NY to be bound. Englishman Aubrey Beardsley was more popular in America than England.
Biggest practitioners of Art Nouveau in America were British expatriate Louis Rhead and American William Bradley. Bradley was prolific. Critics called him “The American Beardsley.” He often squeezed the type into a rectangular box. From 1905 and on, he became enamoured with American colonial design and layout and devoted most of the rest of his career to pursuing it.
Maxfield Parrish and Howard Pyle also made the scene now. They, along with Norman Rockwell later and Leyendecker, were most popular illustrators of first half of the 20th century. Pyle made over 3,300 illustrations in his long career. He did illustrations for children’s books; four-volume legend of King Arthur, and more.