What Characteristics Define the Art Nouveau Movement?


Though the art nouveau movement is most associated with the turn of the 20th century, it actually started around the mid 1880s. The name actually belonged to a Parisian design shop called the "Le Maison de l'Art Nouveau" -- and the shortened version was attached to the movement. Defining characteristics of art nouveau include curves, organic images and shimmering surfaces. What first influenced the visual arts soon engulfed jewelry, decorative accessories, interior design and architecture.

Principles of the Art Movement

  • At the heart of the art nouveau was a belief that mundane objects should be beautified and available to everyone, according to Debora L. Silverman's book "Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, psychology and Style." One of the fathers of the movement was Alfonse Mucha, an artist whose posters for the play "Gismonda" helped to shape this new international aesthetic. As a result, symbolism and romanticism resided at the core of the movement. Additionally, art nouveau was also heavily influenced by the industrial revolution, as factories were churning out new cheaper materials to produce these decorative works.

Organic Images

  • Art nouveau was filled with images from natural plant life, which was translated into simple free-flowing design. Flowers were a common element, as the lily, poppy and iris were popular motifs in the period's signature asymmetrical borders. The integration of organic objects into the design didn't stop there, as bugs, leaves, vines and blades of grass were typical in border posters, interior design and decorative accessories. One example of this style is the dragonfly that was popular in Tiffany lamp design.

Flowing Curves

  • Another signature element of the art nouveau era was "whiplash curves," which was a term given to the S-shaped curves found in much of the artwork. These fluid lines were a stark contrast to the rigid Neoclassical symmetry and geometry that dominated art and architecture in the previous decades, according to the book "Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe" by Jeremy Howard. Architects like Antoni Gaudi applied this design element to national parks, cathedrals and houses in Barcelona, while architect Hector Guimard translated free-flowing lines to Parisian metro station entrances.

Opalescent Materials

  • The use of shimmering color replaced flat color in art nouveau in jewelry, paintings and the decorative arts. Opalescent elements, such as enamel, mother of pearl and opal, were laid into flat mosaic-like designs to create jewelry that was very different from the chunky separated stones in previous designs. Decorative accessories such as jewelry boxes, lamps and vases were manufactured out of iridescent mediums, including the opalescent Favrile glass. Even art nouveau paintings and prints were often accentuated with shimmering hues and rich golden colors, as evident in Gustav Klimt's painting "The Kiss."

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  • "Design"; Thomas Hauffe; 1998
  • "Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, psychology and Style"; Debora L. Silverman; 1992
  • "Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe"; Jeremy Howard; 1996
  • "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History"; Jill Condra; 2008
  • "A History of Interior Design"; John F. Pile; 2005
  • Photo Credit Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images
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