When art nouveau was showcased first in Paris and then in London, there was outrage; people either loved it or loathed it. Within the style itself there are two distinct looks: curvy lines and the more austere, linear look of artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Some aspects of art nouveau were revived again in the 1960s.

The Art Nouveau Period

Art nouveau (c.1880 to 1910) The Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, a result of the revolt against tradition, emerged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Art Nouveau period created a revolutionary style of jewelry. It is characterized by female heads with long flowing hair, delicate enamels, sweeping flowers, and soft-colored stones. The Art Nouveau period ended the nineteenth century in a flourish of originality.
Art Nouveau was in many ways a response to the Industrial Revolution. Some artists welcomed technological progress and embraced the aesthetic possibilities of new materials such as cast iron. Others deplored the shoddiness of mass-produced machine-made goods and aimed to elevate the decorative arts to the level of fine art by applying the highest standards of craftsmanship and design to everyday objects. Art Nouveau designers also believed that all the arts should work in harmony to create a "total work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewelry all conformed to the principles of Art Nouveau.

Art nouveau embraced massive works of architecture and delicate pieces of jewelry, images of eerie seductresses and sinuous plant forms as well as flowing abstract shapes. The style transformed the decorative arts of many countries at a moment when Western culture believed itself to be on the brink of enormous change. Being ultramodern in the 1890s meant moving away from classical standards of beauty to create a sophisticated blend of nature and artifice. It also meant finding fresh inspiration in art history (Gothic architectural ornament, the airy curlicues of rococo art), non-European cultures (flat patterning in Japanese woodcuts, whiplash curves in Islamic art), or native folk art traditions.

Here is a link to some very good Books about the Art Nouveau Period

The Style

  • sinuous, elongated, curvy lines
  • the whiplash line
  • vertical lines and height
  • stylised flowers, leaves, roots, buds and seedpods
  • the female form - in a pre-Raphaelite pose with long, flowing hair
  • exotic woods, marquetry, iridescent glass, silver and semi-precious stones
  • Influences

  • arts and crafts - art nouveau shared the same belief in quality goods and fine craftsmanship but was happy with mass production
  • rococo style
  • botanical research

    At the time

  • 1859 The Origin of the Species is written by Charles Darwin
  • 1865 War and Peace is written by Tolstoy
  • 1867 Disraeli is prime minister
  • 1899 aspirin is first marketed
  • 1901 Marconi transmits first radio signals across the Atlantic

    Get the look

    Floors - are parquet and should be stained and varnished.
    Colour schemes - are quite muted and sombre and became known as 'greenery yallery' - mustard, sage green, olive green, and brown. Team these with lilac, violet and purple, peacock blue. Mackintosh experimented with all-white interiors.
    Walls - can either be painted in one of the colours of the palette or off-white, or papered
    Wallpaper - designs are highly stylised flowers, particularly poppies, water lilies and wisteria; branches, tendrils, leaves, stems, thistles, pomegranates; peacock feathers, birds and dragonflies.
    Tiles - use in panels and intersperse patterned ones with white. A technique called tube lining was used to make the design stand out from the surface - think of piping icing on a cake.
    Furniture - Mackintosh is renowned for extremely high-backed chairs in glossy black lacquer. If that's not your style go for curvy shapes upholstered in a stylised floral fabric.
    Stained glass - panels went in doors as well as furniture - wardrobe doors, cabinets, mirrors etc, with curved leading for the stalks and leaves, ending in a flower made from pearly enamels or semi-precious stones such as amethysts.
    Door handles - beaten metal for door handles and light fittings are perfect for that handmade finish.
    Lighting - you've got to have a Tiffany lamp - the beautiful umbrella-shape rainbow of favrile glass with bronze and metal latticework. Original ones cost the earth but most of the high streets stores produce very good imitations.
    Fireplaces - look for cast iron hoods with the raised sinuous curves of flowers growing up each side and tiles. Many original ones can be picked up in salvage yards but make sure you know whether you're buying a repro or an original. If you're unsure whether a salvaged item is art nouveau, study the design carefully: it should grow from the ground upwards with a continuous organic movement.
    Ornaments - in silver, pewter and glass. There are hundreds of outlets selling Mackintosh-style clocks, frames, jewellery boxes etc. Typical art nouveau glass is iridescent with patterns of liquid oil. Lalique glass is usually a pearly opaque with etched designs.
    Flowers - and peacock feathers are the epitome of art nouveau style.

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