The natural world was a central inspiration in Art Nouveau, manifested in diverse ways. Perhaps prompted by mass urban migration, Art Nouveau designers using stylised floral and organic forms to bring nature back to modern life. Crustaceans and dragonflies, orchids and irises, poppies and tulips: many flora and fauna appeared on Art Nouveau glassware, ceramics, interiors and in book illustrations.
Naturalist illustrations were explicitly referenced by Art Nouveau artists and designers including Emile Gallé and Georg Hirth, publisher of Jugend.
German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was a proponent of Darwinism and a consultant to the British Challenger expedition that set out to explore the deep-sea environment. The 1904 publication of Haeckel's volume Kunstformen Der Natur, which presented watercolours and drawings from his travels, was a landmark in the genre.
Inspired by these exquisite botanical drawings, Art Nouveau designers transposed motifs from them into design sourcebooks, of which some of the finest examples were produced by the Swiss-born artist Eugène Grasset (1845-1917) and one of his pupils, Maurice Pillard Verneuil (1869-1942).
These volumes were studied not only in Europe’s fine art and architecture colleges, but also in industrial drawing schools across the continent. Their influence extended across Europe’s major cities, including Vienna and Budapest (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
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Animals, and birds in particular, were frequently used as decorative motifs in Art Nouveau. Butterflies and dragonflies were highly decorative subjects because of their filigree wings, while peacocks were attractive because of their spectacular plumage and dazzling colors.
The emergence of Japonism also played an important role, with dragonflies and cranes being favoured by both Art Nouveau and Japanese artists. The cross-cultural conversation was exemplified by Whistler’s magnificent Peacock Room of 1876-77.
The form and movement of a swan, with its curved neck and the flowing movements of water ripples in its wake, can be seen as an emblem of Art Nouveau.
Exotic creatures of the deep, in their surprising and often surreal forms, exerted a powerful fascination on visual artists. Nautical lifeforms like crustaceans, jellyfish and sea anemones suited the fluid lines and striking colours of Art Nouveau style. Artists also drew analogies between the mysterious waterworld and mythology of sirens and nymphs, as illustrated by the metamorphosis of Gustav Klimt’s Silverfish (Mermaids, Sirens) of 1899.
Art Nouveau’s infatuation with nature also encompassed the seasons and the cycle of life. The Seasons by Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) depicts four beautiful women, each one set against a natural backdrop that evokes the mood and colour of the season. Spring stands daintily among blossoms and birdsong, Summer wears a garland of poppies, Autumn harvests wild fruits and chrysanthemums, whilst Winter wears a cloak to insulate herself from the cold and snow.
Art Nouveau artists also explored darker themes of nature such as the cycle of life, decay and death, to create visions of netherworlds ruled by dark forces. The subject of Jan Toorop’s 1892 drawing O grave, where is the victory? is taken from a letter by the Apostle Paul concerning the victory of Faith over Death. Death is portrayed as the deliverer from earthly suffering. Lying near an open grave is the body of a man entwined with thorny branches, symbolising man’s sorrowful existence on earth. Two seraphim (angels) float above the grave and free the dead man from these branches.
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