Art Nouveau: Architecture & Design

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever gotten tired of looking at things around you and felt the need to change everything up? In this lesson, we'll explore the flowing, plant-like architecture and design of Art Nouveau.

Definition of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau (meaning 'New Art' in French) was a European art movement that rose in the 1880s and lasted into the early 1900s. The artists of Art Nouveau worked in disciplines including decorative art, fine art and architecture. Similar ideas swirled throughout Europe in the late 19th century, and the thrust for new art in other regions resulted in movements almost synonymous with Art Nouveau: Jugendstil ('youth style') in German-speaking areas, and the Sezessionsstil ('Secessionists') in Vienna.

Artists in these movements reacted against academic art, Beaux Arts design and classicism, with its fussy decorative excesses and rigid rules of symmetry and balance; on example of this older philosophy is Hans Makart's Four Allegories of Music from the early 1870's, pictured here. The practitioners of Art Noveau wanted to break from this past and create a modern artistic vision for a new age.

Four Allegories of Music, 1870s, by Hans Makart
Four Allegories

Art Nouveau artists also wanted to elevate decorative arts (ceramics, furniture, metalwork, stained glass, etc.) to equality with fine arts like painting and sculpture. Art Nouveau stressed the importance of quality workmanship, good design even in utilitarian objects, and the idea that form follows function: that an object's shape should reflect its purpose. The philosophy of Art Noveau promoted the idea that all arts come together in unified style across all media.

Remember, Art Nouveau rose at the dawn of the 20th century. Such monumental time shifts often cause people to reflect, worry and anticipate what lies ahead -- remember the panic about Y2K? Of course, any new movement has its detractors and critics derided Art Nouveau by calling it names that evoked tapeworms, eels, or noodles!

Elements of Art Nouveau Style

Art Nouveau, whether in architecture or decorative arts, featured flowing lines and undulating forms, shapes that were nature-influenced and organic like leaves, trees, vines and flowers. Works sometimes included female forms with long strands of winding hair, incorporated exotic Far Eastern touches like sphinx figures or Egyptian falcons, or featured Asian-influenced details. Buildings and objects could be colorful and featured materials like wrought iron, glazed ceramic tile and stained glass.

Examples of Art Nouveau Architecture

Some of the most famous examples of Art Nouveau architecture can be found in Paris. They are the entrances and gates to Paris Metro stations, done between 1900 (when the metro opened) and 1912. They were designed by French architect and interior designer Hector Guimard (1867-1942).

Paris Metro Station by Hector Guimard, 1900
Art Nouveau train station

This image shows a postcard of one of them, near the Place de Bastille. Today, eighty-six of the gates still exist. They feature rounded sinuous arches that rise, swell and curve outward. You don't see harsh geometric angles, and you don't see elements like Roman columns and square windows. The forms, made of bronze and wrought iron, look like they're rising from the earth. Even the lettering is done in a rounded Art Nouveau style. In addition to Paris, cities that were turn of the century cultural capitals like Prague, Barcelona and Budapest are filled with wonderful examples of Art Nouveau architecture.

This curved, flowing style wasn't only used on the exterior of buildings. Architects and designers also used Art Nouveau on interior spaces. Pursuant to their goal of melding all the arts into a unified style, these artists included clear Art Nouveau elements in their room structures and interiors. The image includes an example from a house in Glasgow, Scotland. Look at the painted background panels, curved ceiling, and oval decorative element above the organ.

Art Nouveau interior of a music room in Glasgow, Scotland

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