Art Nouveau

Muses & Mysticism


The erotic nature of many Art Nouveau works was a common feature seen in the small-scale decorative arts and jewellery, furniture, paintings and printed material of the time. Mysticism and dream worlds, fantasy and folktales were portrayed by symbolist painters and interpreted on tapestries by Otto Eckmann in Germany, and Gerhard Munthe and Frida Hansen in Scandinavia. Women were visions of either purity or temptation. In the poster art pioneered by Jules Cheret, they were carefree and fun-loving.


Regarded by many as the embodiment of art nouveau, Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) made her debut in Paris on the stage of the Folies Bergère in 1892. An early free dance practitioner, she developed a series of routines that whirled around the stage to the music of Debussy, Chopin and Schubert, with revolutionary lighting and effects. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was another Art Nouveau icon. A French stage and film actress whose personal life was every bit as dramatic as her performing career, Bernhardt travelled and performed worldwide. She contracted Alphonse Mucha for several years, and commissioned jewellery, dinner services and other artworks from artists such as Lalique. A key figure of the age, she appeared on many advertisements endorsing products.

Female Forms

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) was a Czech painter and decorative artist born in southern Moravia, a Slavic province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He later moved to Paris to work for the lithographer Champenois. As a versatile designer of wallpapers, textiles, silverware and jewellery, Mucha’s work is instantly recognizable and was widely emulated, particularly after two volumes of his graphic designs were published in 1902. His first commission, a poster for Sarah Bernhardt for her performance in Gismonda in 1894, was the beginning of his success. Like many artists of the period, he was drawn to theosophy and the occult. When he fell from popularity towards 1910, Mucha returned to Prague and dedicated his efforts to the Slav Epic – 20 large paintings depicting Czech and Slavic history.

Symbolism and Folklore

A fascination with the visionary and mystic was shared ground among seemingly disparate artists portraying an inner world. Symbolism had its roots in literature and poetry, and Belgian sculptor and graphic artist Georges Minne (1866-1941) was internationally recognised as one of its leading protagonists by 1895. Although his subdued style seems at odds with the flamboyance of Art Nouveau, it was sold in the shop La Maison Moderne run by his friend Julius Meier-Graefe, the German art dealer and critic who founded the magazine Pan (in Berlin) and Dekorative Kunst (in Paris). Minne was part of a Belgian artistic group in Sint-Martens-Latem.