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Art movement series: Art Nouveau

As the Second Industrial Revolution swept through Europe, so too was art undergoing a significant shift. Tired of the various historicism movements of the mid-1800s and also looking to break away from the harshness that industrialization was bringing to everyday life, artists sought out something more natural, gestural and sensual.

Margaret Macdonlad McIntosh, Winter, 1898
Margaret Macdonlad McIntosh, Winter, 1898

Art Nouveau was this break, an ironic antithesis to the starkness of automation. Proponents of Art Nouveau wanted to find a harmony between all disciplines of fine art, a uniformity across all forms of art whether it be visual, architecture, fashion, jewelry or any other discipline.

Going against previous movements such as Neoclassicism and Historicism with their rigid forms and symmetry, Art Nouveau found its expression in asymmetrical lithe curves and lines. Its inspiration was in the organic rather than the mechanical that Industrialization promoted.

The term itself was coined by a Belgian newspaper in 1884 to describe a group of 20 artists. However, it quickly spread. By 1895, the term was popularized by the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Parisian art gallery.

While Art Nouveau was born in part as a reaction to the mass production and automation that characterized the era, it also heavily relied on them in order to reach a larger audience. This was especially evident in graphic art with the many posters that were mass-produced using Art Nouveau elements.

Elements of Art Nouveau

Organic sensualism

Supple curves and natural shapes characterized Art Nouveau. Inspiration was derived from the human body with sweeping, rounded forms.

Both the male and female forms fueled artistic ideas. Women were often depicted with sensual overtones not to sexualize, but to show confidence in the expression of the self.

There was something unabashed about how women were shown, and much of this can be attributed to the rise of many influential women as artists during this time period such as Alice Russell Glenny, Frances MacDonald and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.

Japanese art

Japanese art was increasingly accessible throughout Western Europe as a result of Siegfried Bing’s exhibition in Paris in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, Ukiyo-e, a form of Japanese woodblock printing, had the most influence on Art Nouveau. The fluidity, vibrancy of colour and use of space can all be attributed to Ukiyo-e.


In keeping with its influences of the natural, Art Nouveau looked to nature. Organic curves and asymmetry, straight lines that bend subtly and elegantly, flowing and intertwining lines and shapes were all found in Art Nouveau just as it was in the natural world.

Colours were very natural as well. Art Nouveau was dominated by natural colours of browns and greens and of pastels found in flowers.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908

By Nathan Durec


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