Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.2: Art Nouveau (1890-1914)

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)


    Art Nouveau's design brought an ornamental, decorative style of artwork based on long linear lines, moving asymmetrically throughout the design. Artists frequently used the shapes of nature; insects and their wings or how the flower grows and twists. The style was applied to painting, prints, architecture, glass, furniture, and jewelry, often detailed and created with multiple materials. Starting around the 1890s in Europe and America, the movement continued almost until World War I and was influenced by Japanese art Ukiyo-e. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec brought acceptability forward with his dramatic posters of women, not in traditional scenes, created with dramatic lines and colors. The movement also had elements of Rococo, using gold gilt or luxurious materials. Women became one of the major themes. During this period, women were frequently "kept as virtual pets, set up on marble pedestals and made to feel helpless and therefore desirable."[1] Women's clothing was restrictive at the beginning of the century until women started to become employed, needing free-flowing clothing instead of corseted Victorian dress. Art Nouveau artists tended to portray women as playmates, posed in provocative stances and wearing decorative baubles.

    Critics and historians have been in disagreement about the characterization of art and the segregation of painting and sculptures in a fine arts category and the rest into decorative arts. Art Nouveau bridged the argument, incorporating designs into furnishings, architecture, or other decorative forms, embracing the idea art should be found as part of ordinary life. Female forms, plants, and flowers became common subjects incorporated into the designs. The artists pressed beyond the limits, adding unusual patterns and beauty to any object, pushing the boundaries of classical or predictable images. Artists included are:

    Gustav Klimt

    Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was born in Austria and studied art at the Vienna School of Decorative Arts. He started his studio specializing in painting murals with a classical style, receiving many commissions for Vienna's public buildings. Around the age of thirty-five, he helped create a new group of artists who wanted to develop their styles independent of existing standards. Klimt did paint landscapes, although his main interest was the figure. In 1894, he was hired to paint murals at the University of Vienna, paintings called pornographic and radical and not ever hung in the building. When the SS forces of Nazi Germany were retreating in World War II, they destroyed all three of the mural paintings as unacceptable.

    After he failed in Vienna, Klimt started what many called his 'golden phase,' when he used gold leaf on his paintings. He had traveled to Italy and was motivated by the Byzantine mosaics and the use of gold. Klimt used the concept of gold in his paintings and was very successful with the style, developing a set of patrons. When he painted a subject, they usually had to sit for long periods while he painted the spectacular detail. Most of his paintings followed a similar theme during his gold periods, dominated by a woman, frequently in erotic positions. The Three Ages of Women (5.2.1) demonstrates Klimt's allegorical subjects, the small child held by the young woman beside the older woman who bows her head, the symbols of passing the time. Klimt had seen a sculpture of Rodin with an older woman and used the same body shape for the painting. Originally, the background was painted with his usual gold color; however, the subject matter did not fit the color, and he changed to a darker palette.

    Two nude women and a child laying on a bed
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Three Ages of the Woman (1905, oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm) Public Domain

    Adele Bloch-Bauer's Portrait (5.2.2) was completed during the height of Klimt's gold period and career. He mixed the smoother, natural view of her face and hands with the brilliant, reflective, and geometric layers of mosaic-like shapes forming the images of the chair and dress against the golden background. Klimt used a mix of gold and silver leaf with oil paint made with a binder of chalk. Her husband commissioned the painting, and after her death, along with his other art collection, the portrait was seized by Nazi Germany. After the war, the painting was located in a gallery housing other works taken by the Nazis. In 1998, after the gallery refused to release the portrait to the legal heirs and a claim was made to the United States Supreme Court. Their ruling returned the painting and other works to their legal heirs.

    A woman in a gold and black dress against a gold background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Adele Bloch-Bauer's Portrait (1907, oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 138 x 138 cm) Public Domain

    The Kiss (5.2.3) is the most well-known of Klimt's paintings representing his gold period. Using a square canvas, he applied oil paint with multiple layers of gold leaf. The image portrays a couple embracing; his sumptuous robe with squares is intertwined with her slender dress decorated with circles. Her full face is seen while the man's face is hidden in the kiss. When Klimt painted the image at the age of 45, he lived with two of his sisters and his mother, a seemingly respectable life that hid his continual affairs with multiple women, and was believed to have fathered fourteen children. Historians suggest this painting reflects his continual interest in eroticism as the couple's intimacy is evident, although partially hidden in the opulence, standing in a meadow of flowers. 

    A man and woman embraced in a kiss against a gold background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Kiss (1907-1908, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 180 x 180 cm) Public Domain

    Alphonse Mucha

    Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), born in an area now part of the Czech Republic, was known for his gift to paint and sing from an early age. After applying to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague for training, he went to Vienna and worked painting scenery for the theater. When the theater burned down, he traveled to other cities in the area, learning to paint murals until one of his patrons paid for Mucha to go to Paris and study. Another Czech artist in Paris was an illustrator, and Mucha decided to try illustration to make money. In 1894, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, in Paris for a new opening, went to the publishing house where Mucha happened to be working, and she asked him to create a poster on a short schedule. This started his reputation, and he continued to make posters, product labels, tile panels, letterheads, and other commercial endeavors, all based on compositions with natural colors and hues and the sensuous art nouveau curved lines.

    Mucha's first poster was Gismonda (5.2.4), the advertisement for Sarah Bernhardt's upcoming play, a relationship that lasted for years as he made several different posters for her plays. The posters were hung all over Paris, giving Mucha instant fame. The subtle colors and long shape became characteristic of many of his posters; the Mucha style. He assembled the words and palm branch to form an arch over her head, a trademark he also used in multiple posters.

    A women dressed in a golden gown holding a large palm frond
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Gismonda (1894, lithograph, 216 x 74.2 cm) Public Domain

    In Paris, a champagne company commissioned the poster Moet & Chandon Cremant Imperial (5.2.5) to advertise their new product in the marketplace. Mucha used soft blues, whites, pink, and brown colors, hoping to give the poster a sophisticated look for the expensive champagne.  He added his characteristic swirling lines and flowers in his technique, much like a signature to demonstrate his work.

    A standing woman dressed in an orange gown holding a glass of champagne
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Moet & Chandon Cremant Imperial (1899, lithograph, 60.8 x 23 cm) Public Domain

    When Mucha was forty-three, he went back to his original home and painted the monumental images named The Slav Epic, a tribute to the history of the Slavic people in the area. Each scene in the twenty immense canvases portrayed a wide range of specific historical events. Fortunately, he was able to obtain funding from an American philanthropist to support the project, including renting a castle with enough space to hang the huge canvases. Ten of the paintings were based on Czech history, and the other ten on events throughout the Slavic area, which took Mucha over fifteen years. The entire set was given to the City of Prague to celebrate its tenth anniversary of freedom. The Slav Epic No. 5 King Premysl Otakar II of Bohemia (5.2.6) portrays the king famous for his military capabilities and wealth from silver mines. He united many of the other fiefdoms and brought peace. The painting depicts the king greeting attendees at his niece's wedding; the background tent was erected inside the chapel.  

    A large temple scene with many people surrounding a solitary person in the middle of the scene
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Slav Epic No. 5 King Premysl Otakar II of Bohemia (1924, oil on canvas, 405 x 480 cm) Public Domain

    Slav Epic No. 6 The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dusan (5.2.7) portrays the procession of the tsar who achieved multiple military victories, expanding his territory. Tsar Dusan is standing in the middle with others holding his robe, young girls leading the procession to represent the new generation of hope.

    A parade through town with several people watching from the sidewalks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Slav Epic No. 6 The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dusan (1926, oil on canvas, 480 x 405 cm) Public Domain


    Antoni Gaudi

    Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), born in the Catalonia area of Spain, was a child with poor health who was recognized early for his artistic abilities. He studied architecture and the humanities, quickly receiving commissions, earning him a solid reputation and a sponsoring patron who significantly helped his career. Gaudi understood the elements of a building, how to forge iron, the look of mosaics and stained glass, and how space was filled, all helping him develop his style as Gaudi incorporated an organic feeling with curved surfaces in his designs of buildings. He used colorful ceramic tiles, patterned bricks, and unusual metalwork arranged in animated patterns. His distinctive style was termed Catalan Modernism, a new ornamental use of materials formed into geometric shapes

    In 1883, Gaudi was given the task of constructing the cathedral in Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia (5.2.8). Although plans were already completed, Gaudi completely redesigned the concepts, making the cathedral his style. He wanted a building that could stand without external buttresses or internal braces and used tilted columns to hold the vaulted ceilings. By 1910, the very religious Gaudi stopped any other work to focus on the cathedral, even living in the workshop. When he died in 1926, the cathedral was still unfinished; only one of the four towers had been completed, and the rest of the building is still under construction today. Some historians described the cathedral as outstanding and creative architecture, while others thought it was the strangest-looking building.

    Gaudi knew the completed construction of the church would continue beyond his lifetime and he wrote, "There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the Church. I will grow old, but others will come after me. What will always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life depends on the generations it is handed down to…"[2] Today, La Sagrada Familia is in the process of additional construction to complete Gaudi's design by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death, adding six towers and incorporating the elaborate decorative scheme of Gaudi.

    A very large cathedral carved in stone with many spires
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Sagrada Familia (90 x 60 x 45 meters) CC BY-SA 4.0 

    The nave inside the cathedral (5.2.9) rose to forty-five meters and was constructed to form a hyperboloid vault, a tower structure that curves inward instead of following a straight line or curving outward. Gaudi took his ideas from the trees of nature, letting the pillars and branches resemble a tree reaching to the sky, the columns change shapes from square to octagon to a circle, all highly decorated. 

    A close up of the cathedral stone carving of many figures
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Nativity façade,  CC0 1.0 

    The first façade completed, Gaudi himself worked on, was the nativity (5.2.10) with ornate sculpture and decorations. The front of the façade is oriented to face the sun as it rises in the east, with three porticos representing faith, hope, and charity, and four steeples dedicated to four of the saints. Gaudi wanted this façade to be the map for the decorative structure of the cathedral, for others to follow when he was no longer living so they could continue his designs and concepts.  

    Ceiling a large cathedral interior with many columns and stained glass windows
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Dome above nave, CC BY-SA 2.0 

    Casa Batllo (5.2.11) is a building in the middle of Barcelona and is considered a masterpiece of Gaudi, a symbol of Art Nouveau. The building has few straight lines, irregular windows, and sculpted stone and glass facades applied in undulating lines of green-blue colors resembling ripples in the water. Multiple balconies protrude from the sides with oddly shaped doors and wrought iron ornamentation. The interior follows Gaudi's concepts of elaborate design, unusual arches, and colorful walls and windows. 

    Facade of apartment building with stained glass and balconies
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Casa BatlloCC BY-SA 3.0 

    The roof (5.2.12) arches upward and is described as the back of a dragon, even covered with shiny ceramic tiles resembling scales. An odd feature is that the turret with a cross on the top is dedicated to St. George, the slayer of dragons.

    Roof of apartment building with mosaic tiles and bright colored ceramic roof lines
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Roof at Casa BatlloCC BY-SA 3.0 

    Louis Comfort Tiffany

    Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) started his career as a painter and an interior designer before working with glass, producing his first set of works in 1893 and becoming one of America's most well-known artists. His father founded the Tiffany Company, making and selling jewelry. Louis Tiffany was able to travel throughout Europe to study different artists before focusing on interior design. One of his earliest projects was a window for his studio, an experiment using nontraditional methods. He incorporated techniques to make the glass appear marbleized with iridescent qualities, added small pieces of glass for a confetti look, and rough-cut other pieces. Tiffany built his reputation with the unique glass windows, forming his own company, and expanding into lamps and vases.

    He developed 'favrile' glass, a new form with color ingrained in the glass, giving an iridescent quality with a specific look of the color. He added different metallic oxides to molten glass; the oxides became absorbed as part of the glass and produced a unique iridescent look. The colors were so unusual they had specific names, including Aqua Marine – the color of deep water with bronze lights in it, a pale green with objects…floating in water, or Tel-al-amana, a form of turquoise shading from turquoise to peacock green, and Mazarin Blue, a deep blue with purple shading. The glass appeared very delicate; however, it is known for its durability.[3] The ability to create his glass colors freed him from the traditional methods of painting the colors on glass. By making the color part of the glass itself, the glass maintained its true transparency, letting in more light and enhancing the colors in the glass.

    Because the glass was made with various colors, striations, and textures, the glassmakers could use long pieces of randomly shaped glass to create the window without painting the glass before firing. The window, Magnolias, and Irises (5.2.13) were made as a memorial, depicting magnolias made from opalescent drapery glass folded along with irises in multiple hues. 

    Stained glass window of a landscape of mountains, trees, and a lake
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Magnolias and Irises (1908, leaded favrile glass, 153 x 106.7 cm) Public Domain

    The closeup section of the window (5.2.14) Tiffany installed in his studio displays his techniques. The white glass in the upper part demonstrates Tiffany's experiment with the confetti look, embedding small pieces of glass. He also used large pieces of rough glass in the window, developing a dimensional appearance. The marbled opalescence glass let the light shine through the multiple colors he created in the glass.

    close up of a small section of stained glass window
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Window part (ca 1880, leaded glass, 61.6 x 74.9 x 3.2 cm) Public Domain  

    The water-lily lamp (5.2.15) is Tiffany's most well-known design. The base has a group of lily pads whose stems move up the base and tumble out of the top of the shade to hold the blossoms. Tiffany used an assortment of glass types, alternating colors, and the light of the lamp, highlighting each flower's opalescent look.

    A stained glass lamp shade on a brass lampFigure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Water-lily lamp (1904-15, leaded favrile glass and bronze, shade 37.1 cm high) Public Domain

    Vase 1 (5.2.16) is an example of the hundreds of vase styles made by his company. The glass was originally clear, then a layer of chemicals was added to the interior, giving it a golden luster. Different oxides were added to create the flowers and leaves randomly around the bulbous top half of the vase resembling an inverted pear. Tiffany liked the design so much; that he made a series of morning glory vases. 

    A glass vase with a flower motif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Vase 1 (1913, favile glass, 16.8 cm) Public Domain

    Vase 2 (5.2.17) is part of the jack-in-the-pulpit series. The cup section resembles a flower with the top half flattened and opened. The exterior of the rim is ruffled; the iridescent color on the top developed when the molten glass was expanded to create thin fissures and give the wide rim a feathery manifestation.

    Two lamps with glass blown shades
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Vase 2 (1900-1915, favrile glass, 40.8 x 23 x 13 cm) CC BY-SA 3.0 by Sailko

    Virginia Frances Sterrett

    Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) was from Chicago, Illinois, and as a child, chose to draw instead of socializing with others. When her father died, the family went to Missouri, and she won numerous awards at the state fair, then returned to Chicago to study art. At the age of nineteen, her health began to fail when she was infected with tuberculosis. Fortunately, she received a commission from the Penn Publishing Company in 1920 to design illustrations for the book Old French Fairy Tales by Comptesse de Segur. Sterrett created some of the images in watercolor and others in pen and ink. Princess Rosalie (5.2.18) and The Dream (5.2.19) are both illustrations from the book of fairy tales. Rosalie looked at the tree of exceptional beauty in the garden while Violette sat by the water looking at the ugly toad, a monster from her dreams.  

    A woman dressed in white staring at a red branch in a made up backgroundFigure \(\PageIndex{18}\): Princess Rosalie (1920) Public Domain


    A woman dressed in white sitting on a rock on a lake
    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): The Dream (1920) Public Domain

    The Tanglewood Tales was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne fifty years earlier; however, the same publisher, Penn Publishing, gave Sterrett a commission to illustrate the tales because of her success with the Old French Fairy Tales. Hawthorne adapted Greek myths, writing them for children. The 1921 printing of the book was thought to be significantly improved because of Sterrett's illustrations. Ariadne (5.2.20) displays the moment she claps her hands, celebrating the slain monster. 

    A man dressed in war gear and woman in a white dress facing each other in a cathedral
    Figure \(\PageIndex{20}\): Ariadne (1921), Public Domain

    Jason (5.2.21) asked what they were viewing in the glowing object before them. Sterrett used pen and ink with a color wash to create detailed illustrations, focusing on combinations of blues, yellows, and pen lines.

    A man and woman looking at a spotlight across a valley in a rock outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{21}\): Jason (1921), Public Domain

    The family moved to California, hoping the warmer weather would help improve her health; unfortunately, she did not improve and finally went to a sanitorium. There, she started working on a book of her own, both the author and illustrator. As tuberculosis continued to ravage her body, she only drew for short times. Her interpretation of Arabian Nights, a commission taking three years to complete, her last work before she died, was only thirty years old. The original Arabian Nights were based on old Arabic folk tales, a topic for many different authors, including stories about Aladdin, Scheherazade, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor. Many critics believe Sterrett's illustrations for the book are her best. In the illustration, They Danced (5.2.22) her exquisite work and ability to use pen and ink to create extensive details attest to her capabilities. She used highlights of yellow/gold and red to accentuate the characters against the deep foreboding backgrounds. Following her death, the St Louis Post-Dispatch published:

    Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood ... Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.[4]

    Five people dressed in very ornate tight dresses inside an Arabian building
    Figure \(\PageIndex{22}\): They Danced (1928) Public Domain

    Art Nouveau concepts were found in objects other than paintings, a movement breaking from the past traditional standards. However, with the eruption of World War I and the devastating and bloody battles, the delicate, curvy, beautiful lines and colors became inappropriate. Artists began to use the more angular geometric designs of the later art movements. The concepts of art nouveau were found everywhere in architectural details. Gaudi incorporated imaginative shapes for columns, roofs, and walls in his buildings. Tiffany used the translucency of glass to construct his glass windows. Both artists experimented with how they incorporated color into their designs.


    [1] Thompson, J. (1971). The Role of Woman in the Iconography of Art Nouveau. Art Journal, 31(2), 158-167. doi:10.2307/775570

    [2] Fowler, A., Ubeis, J., (2010). Capacity Development in Practice, Routledge, p. 128.

    [3] Lehmann, H. M. (2007). Glass and Glassware, Lindemann Press, p. 120.

    [4] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 July 1931, p. 41.


    This page titled 3.2: Art Nouveau (1890-1914) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

    • Was this article helpful?