Aesthetics Wiki

Art Nouveau is an international style of art, architecture and applied art, especially the decorative arts. It was popular mainly between 1890 and 1910, its period ending with the outbreak of WW1. After the war, it was succeeded by Art Deco and other forms of Modernism.

Art Nouveau was a reaction to the academic historicism and eclecticism of the 19th century that favoured fine arts (paintings and sculptures) over applied arts (architecture, furniture, ceramics, etc., much of what we refer to today as "design"). It was inspired by natural forms, particularly the curved lines of plants and flowers, and whiplash forms. Other defining characteristics of Art Nouveau were a sense of dynamism and movement, often given by asymmetry and by sinuous lines;, the use of modern materials, such as iron pillars with glass, and the young European women depicted as femme fatales. Art Nouveau was known under multiple names based on country or region: Jugendstil in Germany, Nieuwe Kunst in the Netherlands, Modern Style in Great Britain and Modernisme in Catalonia and Spain. Despite being highly associated with the Belle Époque, the movement didn't have a hegemony in Western art of the period. While innovative Art Nouveau buildings were erected around the year 1900, historicist (Neoclassical, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, etc.) objects and structures were produced during the same period. Sometimes, this led to blends of historic styles and Art Nouveau.

After WW1, the movement was seen as very "passé", "dated" or "out of fashion", being replaced by Art Deco and Modernism, which featured angular shapes, a machine-inspired aesthetic, and sometimes completely rejected ornamentation. The avant-garde's preference for simple geometric shapes was better suited to industrial production. Later, Art Nouveau inspired the psychedelic art of the 1960s. Many psychedelic concert posters from the 1960s were in fact copies of Art Nouveau posters, with only their colours and text being changed. Today, many people love Art Nouveau, and some Contemporary artists take their inspiration from this style. Nowadays, the style is best known through Alphonse Mucha's posters that feature young women and foliage designs.


Vase decorated with orchids, by Ernest Léveillé and Eugène Michel, 1892, glass

Vase decorated with orchids, by Ernest Léveillé and Eugène Michel, 1892, glass. This vase is similar with Japanese pottery due to its similpicity and earthy colours

Round Art Nouveau window of building no

Round Art Nouveau window of building no. 5 Place Victor Carbonnelle, Brussels, Belgium, reminiscent of moon gates found in Japanese zen gardens

The taste of Europeans for Japanese art was one of the key factors that led to the emergence of the movement. Multiple Western artists who worked in this style had collections of Japanese art in their homes, serving as early iterations of weebs. Art Nouveau posters were particularly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, featuring blank colours and faded earthy colours, like olive green, and visible outlines. Ceramics and glassware were influenced by Japanese pottery, usually being simplistic and in darker earthy colours. Another Japanese influence were the circle-shaped windows present in Art Nouveau architecture; these were frequently based on moon gates found in zen gardens.

Due to the fact that Art Nouveau appeared in the late 1880s and 1890s, the movement was somewhat influenced by styles of the 19th century. Usually, these influences range from very subtle to non-existent. In rare cases, some Art Nouveau objects like furniture, ceramics, or metalworks may have some Gothic Revival or Rococo Revival elements, especially in France. In Spain, Antoni Gaudí, the most famous Art Nouveau architect and designer, frequently took inspiration from traditional Catalan styles and Mudéjar and Gothic architecture, and was a prominent figure of the Modernisme movement in Catalonia. In the UK, artists were influenced by the complex knots found in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artifacts. In Romania, Art Nouveau was a factor that led to the emergence and popularity of the Romanian Revival, or Brâncovenesc Revival style, using elements taken from peasant and Brâncovenesc architecture. Similarly, the National Romantic style appeared in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia), and some Hungarian examples of Art Nouveau have folkloric sources of inspiration.

Despite historic inspirations in some cases, Art Nouveau was a form of anti-historicism. This is because the 19th century was one of revivals, with Greco-Roman revivals (aka Neoclassicism and the Greek Revival style), the Gothic Revival, the Rococo Revival, the Renaissance Revival, the Egyptian Revival, etc. At the end of the century, some artists felt the need to free themselves and their art from this historicist tradition, creating new styles adapted to the spirit of their time. This is particularly the case of the artists and architects of the Vienna Secession, who reacted specifically against the conservative historicism of the Künstlerhaus.

Local versions[]

Art Nouveau wasn't a consistent style, having different local versions in multiple countries. What most people picture when they think of Art Nouveau is the French and Belgian version, with whiplash lines and foliage ornamentation. The British version had its roots in the Arts and Crafts movement. Because of this, in the UK, the Glasgow School produced objects and structures using straight geometric lines and gentle floral decoration. In Austro-Hungary, artists of The Vienna Secession reacted against the mid- and late-19th century academic eclectic style. Like in the UK, they frequently used straight lines and geometric designs. Examples of this are the Secession Hall in Vienna, Austria (1897-1898, by Joseph Maria Olbrich), the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, Belgium (1905-1911, by Josef Hoffmann), and Gustav Klimt's pantings from his golden period, like The Kiss (1907-1908). Due to these facts, some of the fonts used in British and Austrian Art Nouveau posters are reminiscent of Art Deco and Bauhaus typefaces. Local versions of the movement were also determined by the fact that artists sometimes took inspiration from styles specific to their country. In Sweden and Norway, some of the Art Nouveau buildings and objects were inspired by those of Vikings, usually with complex knot-shaped ornaments (aka interlaces). In Romania, the style was not allowed by the authorities, due to the fact that it was popular in Transylvania, a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time where Romanians were oppressed. So, the Romanians who wanted an Art Nouveau home in the 1900s and early 1910s could only put some subtile ornaments reminiscent of the style, while the rest was completely in the academic Beaux Arts style.


Les Modes - 1906

Despite the fact that there is no clear Art Nouveau fashion, the outfits and clothes of the 1890s, 1900s and early 1910s were definitely influences by the style. This regular 1906 female outfit is reminiscent of Art Nouveau through its lines and shapes

Key Art Nouveau visual elements and features:

  • Faded and earthy shades green (more specifically olive green), brown, skin colour, yellow and gold
  • Young feminine figures, sometimes depicted as femme fatales
  • Hand-lettering
  • Plants such as cyclamen, iris, orchid, thistle, mistletoe, holly, water lily
  • Animals such as swans, peacocks, dragonflies and butterflies
  • Whiplash curves: asymmetrical, curved lines in an S shape, frequently incorporated into natural forms such as women's hair and the stems of plants

The most recognisable and iconic characteristic of Art Nouveau is the use of motifs based on plants and organic shapes like flowers, vines and leaves, most often represented in ironwork. In many ways, the use of organic shapes was a conscious reaction to the Beaux-Arts academic style. The whiplash, or whiplash line, is a motif of decorative art and design that was particularly popular in Art Nouveau. It is an asymmetrical, sinuous line, often in an ornamental S curve, usually inspired by natural forms, which suggests dynamism and movement.

Architects liked to use the mix of glass and metal in Art Nouveau architecture, which was seen as a sign of modernity at that time. The Paris metro entrances, designed by Hector Guimard around the year 1900, are a very good example of this. Thus, in contrast with the past, Art Nouveau architects didn't try to hide the metal structure of a building, instead making metalwork an integral, intentional, and beautiful part of a building.


  • Alphonse Mucha
  • Gustav Klimt
  • Antoni Gaudí
  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh
  • Émile Gallé
  • René Lalique
  • Aubrey Beardsley
  • Henry van de Velde
  • Victor Horta 
  • Louis Comfort Tiffany
  • Hector Guimard
  • Henri Privat-Livemont


External links to help get a better understanding of this aesthetic.

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