Girl with daisy, 1900, Alphonse Mucha, Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, CC0

Women’s roles and status in society developed significantly during the late 19th century (as we explored in our 2016 exhibition Faces of Europe). Women became more independent and a growing number of metropolitan middle-class women enjoyed a disposable income. During the same period, (predominantly male) Art Nouveau artists and designers depicted women in highly idealised, feminine and seductive forms. Slender, attractive - and often naked - women with flowing hair featured heavily in Art Nouveau jewellery, paintings and printed works.

Advertising played an influential role in determining how the public perceived women and, just as today, they used the female body to sell lifestyles and products to consumers.

Advertisment for Job cigarettes, 1896, Alphonse Mucha, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
Advertisment for Job cigarettes, 1896, Alphonse Mucha, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark

Many Art Nouveau artists used eroticism in their work, none more profitably than the Czech painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). As a versatile designer of wallpapers, textiles, silverware and jewellery, Mucha’s work is instantly recognisable and was widely emulated after two volumes of his graphic designs were published in 1902.

Mucha’s advertisement for the Job cigarette company, shown on the left, illustrates the idea that "sex sells": a voluptuous woman holds a lit cigarette, as her closed eyes and parted lips suggested ecstasy. The very fact that this woman is smoking could be seen as scandalous, as few respectable women of the time would smoke in public.

Sarah Bernhardt in Theodora, 1902, Nadar, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
Sarah Bernhardt in Theodora, 1902, Nadar, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark

The personal life of French stage and film actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was as dramatic as her acting career. She was an icon of Art Nouveau style whose image endorsed a variety of products including cosmetics, clothing and food items like Lefèvre-Utile biscuits.

Bernhardt inspired and commissioned several works from Alphonse Mucha, such as Gismonda, and she commissioned jewellery, porcelain and other pieces from artists such as René-Jules Lalique.

Female celebrities like Bernhardt were important muses for many artists and there was great interest in artistes like the nightclub performer Jane Avril and the dancer Loie Fuller.

Often regarded as the personification of Art Nouveau, Fuller made her Paris stage debut in 1892 on the stage of the Folies Bergère. An early free dance practitioner, she developed a series of routines in which she whirled around the stage to the music of Debussy, Chopin and Schubert, illuminated by vivid lighting effects.

Here is a short film of Fuller’s famous Danse Serpentine, 1891, made by the Lumière Brothers in 1896. The dancer in the film is thought to be Caroline Hipple Holpin, known as Papinta "The Flame Dancer", rather than Loïe Fuller herself.

Fashionable women at Longchamp, 25 June 1911, Photographique Agence Rol., Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
Fashionable women at Longchamp, 25 June 1911, Photographique Agence Rol., Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain Mark

During this period, women’s fashion changed as the dress reform movement gathered momentum. Art Nouveau fashion designers developed female clothing with less restrictive, lighter and easier to wear designs. Soft gauzy fabrics and sinuous lines in modern shades were worn and, after 1900, a new corset style created an S-shape silhouette.

Sportswear, beachwear and cycle clothing for women appeared on the market. Shoes featured Art Nouveau motifs with stylistic detailing on heels. The latest fashions featured in fashion journals, newspapers and department stores, quickly spreading across Europe.

Explore our specially curated Pinterest board of Art Nouveau fashion (c.1890-c.1910), shown below.

In tune with contemporary artistic developments, many artists working in the Art Nouveau style portrayed women mystically and symbolically. European culture’s fascination with psychology and symbolism at this time had its origins in decadent poetry and literature, and the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s theories of the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams offered visual artists exciting new subjects to explore. Many artists rejected the constraints of realism and turned instead to inner worlds.

The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1895 , Franz von Stuck, Szépművészeti Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1895 , Franz von Stuck, Szépművészeti Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The notion of Woman as the embodiment of purity, or its opposite, was a common theme in art and literature of the fin de siecle period. Women were often portrayed as ethereal, seductive and deadly beings like Medusa and Salome. Franz von Stuck’s 1895 painting The Kiss of the Sphinx (illustrated above) depicts a female creature passionately kissing a man whilst overpowering him with her lion's talons.

The Austrian painter and Vienna Secession member Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was one of the most famous artists of the Art Nouveau era. Klimt’s work, such as the Danae of 1907-08 shown below, often depicted the female nude in a highly decorative and sensual manner. Klimt’s incorporated nudes with precious materials, such as gold and silver, to create brilliant mosaic-like surfaces.

Danae, 1907-1908, Gustav Klimt, Fondazione BEIC, Public Domain Mark
Danae, 1907-1908, Gustav Klimt, Fondazione BEIC, Public Domain Mark