What is Art Nouveau?

by Glenn Guerra, ©2001 MCRHS

Art Nouveau–like all art and decorative arts styles–has no clear-cut definition, but there are some characteristics of the style. The main interest is in all things natural and the work of man. There is a love of nature and a desire to showcase the work of the individual craftsman and not the machine work. The movement is recognized to have begun in early 19th century England. John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that the machine was a source of nothing but ugliness and despair. Only the hand of man could produce things with beauty and life.

Ruskin appointed himself the leader of Pre-Raphaelite painters who were driven by the same ideal. Two members of that group, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and William Morris (1834-1896) abandoned painting to concentrate on the decoration of the home. Morris later became a partner in Morris-Marshall-Faulkner and founded a decorative arts distribution and production firm in 1861.

It is stated that they flooded England, and later Europe, with furniture, wallpaper, fabrics, ceramics and stained glass all with a sense of decorative unity inspired by the new art form.

The style was gaining some popularity all through Europe, including England and Ireland. There was some effort to spur on this popularity and to interest more craftsmen in adopting the style. One of these was the Union des Beaux-Arts Appliques a L’Industrie in 1862. This was later followed by the Musee des Arts Decoratifs established in 1878 and aimed at promoting competitions. These collective efforts were not succeeding but the work of individuals and their groups was.

In the town of Nancy near Paris, France, Emile Galle was the head of a business making ceramics and glassware. He became interested in wood and furniture making and, as a result of his design work, the town of Nancy became famous for the style we now call Art Nouveau. But it was in Paris itself that the style’s name was coined. Samuel Bing was a wealthy patron of the arts, an art dealer, orientalist, and editor of a revue, Le Japon Artistique. It is interesting that he was converted to the new style after a trip to the United States in 1895. When he returned to Paris he converted his antique shop to the Galerie de L’Art Nouveau. The name Art Nouveau became associated with the style. Edward Colonna, who had a hand in the interior of Milwaukee Lake Shore & Western #63, became one of the main designers at Bings’ gallery in Paris.

The Art Nouveau movement remained strong through the 1890’s and into the early 1900’s but was never very unified or as universally accepted as the next popular movement. In America, the Craftsman Style was replacing Art Nouveau. Like Art Nouveau, the Craftsmen Style favored the tulip motif but in a more stylized form. In Europe, the world was changing and growing tensions would lead to the First World War. Art Nouveau became unpopular for political reasons. After WWI, the style diminished further. Some Art Nouveau work was exhibited at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925, but that exhibition is generally considered to be the genesis for the Art Deco movement.