Acanthus, 1875, William Morris, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted

From the 1880s until the eve of World War One, Art Nouveau flourished across Europe. It was a universal style intended to unify the fine and applied arts to create a Gesamtkunstwerk ('total work of art'). Everything from furniture to book illustration was influenced by its elegant organic forms.

Art Nouveau was ubiquitous in Europe’s train stations, tea rooms and department stores: it belonged equally to the public and private realms. Art Nouveau flourished during a period of rapid social and technological change in Europe as industrialisation, mass production and urbanisation accelerated.

Today, we recognise Art Nouveau by its characteristic flowing lines, floral ornaments, geometric forms and use of symbolic figures. But how was the style formed and who were its key practitioners?

Portrait of William Morris, 1884, Frederick Hollyer, National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND
Portrait of William Morris, 1884, Frederick Hollyer, National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND

The roots of Art Nouveau can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England during the second half of the 19th century. Arts and Crafts is often seen as a response to growing industrialisation in Europe and the rise of factory mass production at the perceived expense of traditional craftsmanship.

The English writer, designer, architect and socialist William Morris (1834-1896) was its defining figure. Morris rejected the tawdry production values and dehumanising aspects of Victorian capitalism, looking instead to the communal values of the medieval era. Morris’s ideals of artisanal craftsmanship, and his use of stylised floral and organic forms, resonated with many Art Nouveau artists.

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. William Morris
Advertisement for the Fourth Annual Salon of la Libre Esthétique, 1897, Theo van Rysselberghe, Bibliothèque Municipale De Lyon, Public Domain Mark
Advertisement for the Fourth Annual Salon of la Libre Esthétique, 1897, Theo van Rysselberghe, Bibliothèque Municipale De Lyon, Public Domain Mark

The term Art Nouveau first appeared in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne in 1884, referring to a group of reform-minded sculptors, designers and painters called Les XX (or Les Vingts), whose founder members included James Ensor (1860-1949) and Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926). The spirit of the new movement quickly spread around Europe and its name was soon translated in various languages as Jugendstil, Modernismo, Secession, Stile Floreale and similar terms.

From the outset, artists working in the Art Nouveau style advocated the unity of all the arts and argued against discrimination between fine art (painting and sculpture) and the so-called lesser, decorative arts. Art Nouveau artists sought to integrate art with the everyday, producing beautiful objects to elevate people's lives.

   

Fish knife and fork, 1902, Alexander Schönauer, Museum Für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, CC0
Fish knife and fork, 1902, Alexander Schönauer, Museum Für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, CC0

As with the Arts and Crafts movement, it was held in the Art Nouveau period that aesthetic values should be combined with high standards of craftsmanship, and that works of art should be both beautiful and functional. The boundaries between fine art and the applied arts became blurred in the fields of furniture design, silverware and architecture, paintings, graphic art, jewellery, fashion and glassware.