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Art Nouveau vs. Art Deco

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 wanted to create a totally new style? Artists at the turn of the early 20th century did. Some used flowing lines and natural forms, but others later shifted to geometry and industry. In this lesson, explore the differences between the styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

A Search for Modern Style

Throughout history, artists and designers around the world have tried to create distinct styles to reflect time and society. Art Nouveau and Art Deco are examples of such movements. Both influenced visual arts, graphic arts, architecture and design. They're related but not the same. In this lesson, let's look at some differences between them.

First, let's define them and briefly explore their history.

What is Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau, which means 'new art,' began in England and spread through Europe in the late 1800s. Reaching its peak in the early 1900s, it fell out of favor before World War I. Artists, interior designers, decorative artists, illustrators and architects wanted to unify the arts and eliminate arbitrary differences between fine and decorative arts. They also wanted to abandon the past and create a new style for the turn of the century. Artists working in Art Nouveau sought to celebrate good craftsmanship at a time when new mass-produced objects of questionable quality were flooding society.

What are identifiable features of Art Nouveau works? They're inspired by nature and include organic elements like flowing vines and plant stems, flower buds and insects. You will find geometry in Art Nouveau, but usually in forms with curving rather than hard edges.

Swan, rush and iris wallpaper pattern, by English artist Walter Crane, 1875
Art Nouveau wallpaper

In this example of a wallpaper pattern by English artist Walter Crane, you see several elements considered central to Art Nouveau, including an emphasis on curving natural forms, echoes of things like leaves and birds and flowing lines that connect everything.

Art Nouveau emphasizes long lines and whiplash curves, forms in which lines bend and veer back on themselves. As you might guess by this description, line is more important than color, which was sometimes be muted. In Art Nouveau, all elements seem to connect organically together. There's an emphasis on natural materials like wood and natural colors like muted greens, browns and deep reds.

By around 1910, things began to shift, and Art Nouveau fell out of favor. But it spawned other styles, including Art Deco.

What is Art Deco?

Art Deco developed in the 1920s and was used through the 1930s before declining in popularity by World War II. Sometimes you see it called style moderne. This new style became prominent after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a large art and design exhibit in Paris in 1925. The name is important because it's where the term Art Deco came from (it wasn't actually shortened to Art Deco until the 1960s).

Art Deco is angular. It uses geometry to create a sleek, streamlined style that doesn't reflect nature. It is also rectilinear, which means a particular emphasis on the vertical. It uses design elements like zigzags and chevrons (a repeated upside down V). Art Deco was inspired by machine-made elements and technology and used new industrial materials like aluminum, chrome, stainless steel, plate glass and Bakelite (a type of plastic). Art Deco could be bold and colorful, and buildings sometimes included brightly painted terra cotta tiles.

Decoration to the entrance of the Chrysler Building in New York
Entrance detail Chrysler Building

In this image of decoration at the entrance to the Chrysler Building, a famous Art Deco skyscraper in New York, you can see the emphasis on industrial materials and geometry. Everything is angles, and several areas include repeated chevrons and zigzags. Art Deco celebrates technology (think radios, airplanes and automobiles) and progress in developments like electricity. It's the style used on skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Comparing Art Nouveau and Art Deco

Now that you know a little about each style let's look at examples of architecture to compare Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Example of Art Nouveau, pharmacy entrance in France
Art Nouveau example

The first image is of an entry to a French pharmacy done in the Art Nouveau style. Its graceful arch and glass windows are surrounded by curving lines. The doorway and surrounding metalwork feature rounded curving forms. A series of whiplash lines emerge from the bottom of the far gate edges like an octopus. The metal railing is a deep green, echoing organic elements like leaves and trees. It's made of building materials like metal and stone, but you can sense the echoes of nature.

Example of Art Deco, detail of the Niagara Mohawk Building in Syracuse, New York
Art Deco example

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