Part 1: History and/or Context
Art Nouveau is a style that was popular in Western Art between 1890 and 1910. But it’s history, its influences, are as complex as it’s characteristic sinuous lines, that often intertwine with one another to form organic, vivid patterns. So in order to understand Art Nouveau, one may have to go back about a century earlier.
At the turn of 1800s in Europe, Neoclassicism was the most popular style of painting. Known by some as a recycled form of classicism, the artworks were “entirely smooth and utterly devoid of any brushstrokes… figures were easily distinguishable from shadow and were characteristically well-lit… and the focal point of paintings were made very clear to the viewer” . The artists often looked to the past for their subject matter and inspiration.
But by the 1850’s, it was a time of profound change. Various wars and civil wars were being fought, and slavery was eventually abolished. The industrial revolutions were leading to mass urbanization. New inventions like the motor cars and steam engine completely changed the way people travelled, while radios and telephones changed communication. Other inventions like the gramophone, moving pictures, photography, sewing machines, electricity and the light bulb transformed daily lives. These inventions also meant art could now be mass produced.
The way art was consumed was also rapidly changing. The opening of the first public museums meant “high-art” became more and more accessible to the larger public . Leading nineteenth-century theoreticians, such as French Gothic Revival architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) and British art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) began to question the hierarchy between fine art and so-called lesser decorative arts . Artists like Monet and the Impressionists began to break away from the past by painting subjects and events that were immediately around them. When asked to include angels in a painting for a church, Gustave Courbet is said to have replied ‘I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one’ .
Arts and Crafts Movement
By the second half of the century, art had started to become more autonomous – that is, artists had a higher degree of control regarding what and when to make. While machines and new inventions helped individuals and small businesses, capitalism inevitably favored the larger enterprises . This led to a concern over artistic values. In reponse to this, Arts and Crafts movement began around the 1880s in Britain. Chief influencer – William Morris – passionately believed in creating beautiful objects that could be used in everyday lives. And he believed the way to do this was to go back to the more intimate process of craft making through workshops and individual makers . He believed that it had the potential to change people’s lives.
Spread in Europe
Whether it changed lives or not, it definitely did inspire. For example in Austria, the Secessionists – a group of Vienna based painters, sculptors and architects who broke away from the city’s arts establishment – wanted to “reunite the fine and applied arts, and to use handmade goods to help rescue Austrian society from what they saw as the ‘moral decay’ of industrialization” .
And similarly in Belgium, there was L’Art Moderne – a journal “for all avant-garde tendencies within Belgian art, literature and music” . It quotes Edmund Picard in one of his speeches: “Our dominant idea is that of emancipation. We represent new art, with its absolute freedom of looks and trends with its modern character. We want free art, that’s why we will fight against those who want it as a slave” . New art, or Art Nouveau.
Elsewhere in Europe, Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh began combining the organic and practical characteristics of Arts and Crafts design with the creative freedom of Art Nouveau .
By this time, this growing clamour for a complete change in the arts had been brewing for some decades in Europe. Together with the significant changes in the way of life, it was reaching a high point by the end of the century. In Munich, 1892, artists broke away from their establishment, to form Munich Secession. They went on to start the highly influential journal “Jugend” in 1896. A platform to promote “new cultural renaissance” without going back to “established vintage art” .
In Spain, Catalan culture was experiencing its own rebirth, seen today as part of the Modernisme movement. This was expressed through architects like Gaudi and Domènech i Montaner through the imaginative style of Art Nouveau .
The style spread through other parts of Europe. In France 1895, a Parisian art dealer named Sigfried Samuel Bing opened a gallery – L’Art Nouveau – where he exhibited various works by Art Nouveau artists from all over Europe. He is often credited to have popularized the name Art Nouveau. Not long after, the movement reached it’s peak at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.
Check out our store for some Art Nouveau related products
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4luPnObQYo Goodbye Art academy, overview
 DeFina, C. A. (1985). Belgian avant-gardism, 1887-1889 : Les Vingt, L’Art Moderne and the utopian vision (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0096491
 The Met – Symbolism https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm
 Gaudi All Gaudi – Art Nouveau in Europe http://www.gaudiallgaudi.com/A0003.htm
 The Poster in History, Max Gallo pg.46
 John Ruskin & William Morris Aesthetics documentary by Peter Fuller https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5IWBdSGECU