Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: art nouveau from The Penguin English Dictionary

(often Art Nouveau) a decorative style of late 19th-cent. origin, characterized by flattened curves and plant motifs [French art nouveau, new art].

Summary Article: Art Nouveau
from The Bloomsbury Guide to Art

An international style of decoration and architecture which developed in the 1880s and 1890s. The name derives from the Maison de l'Art Nouveau, an interior design gallery opened in Paris in 1896, but in fact the movement had different names throughout Europe. In Germany it was known as 'Jugendstil', from the magazine Die Jugend (Youth) published from 1896; in Italy 'Stile Liberty' (after the London store, Liberty Style) or 'Floreale'; in Spain 'Modernista', in Austria 'Sezessionstil' and, paradoxically, in France the English term 'Modern Style' was often used, emphasizing the English origins of the movement.

In design Art Nouveau was characterized by writhing plant forms and an opposition to the historicism which had plagued the 19th century. There was a tension implicit throughout the movement between the decorative and the modern which can be seen in the work of individual designers as well as in the chronology of the whole. Its emphasis on decoration and artistic unity links the movement to contemporary Symbolist ideas in art, as seen in the work of the Vienna Secessionists, but the movement was also associated with Arts and Crafts ideas and, as such, Art Nouveau forms a bridge between Morris and Gropius (recognized by Pevsner in his book, Pioneers of the Modern Movement, 1936).

In Britain the style was exemplified by the architecture of Rennie Mackintosh, and the design work of the Macdonald sisters. The lingering impact of Morris in England slowed down the progress of the new style in design although Mackmurdo, Godwin, Townsend and even Voysey were influenced towards Art Nouveau. It was in illustration that the ideas were most keenly felt, through the new periodicals and presses - the Yellow Book, the Studio, the Savoy, the Hobby Horse - and though the work of Beardsley, Ricketts and Selwyn Image.

In France, despite Guimard's famous glass and iron Métro designs, the movement was best expressed in the applied arts, especially the glassware of Lalique (1860-1945) and Gallé (1846-1904). In Belgium, the style was promoted through the Société des Vingts (Les Vingt) established in 1884, and including Ensor as well as the more characteristically Art Nouveau architects Horta and Van de Velde in its members. In Spain the style was concentrated in the eccentric hands of Gaudí in Barcelona. In Vienna, architects like Wagner, Hoffmann and Olbrich, and artists such as Klimt gathered to promote the style through the Secessionist magazine Ver Sacrum. In Germany, the movement split between the decorative tendencies of Otto Eckman (1865-1902) and the Pan magazine, and the streamlined design of Behrens. In America architects like Sullivan and Wright were influenced by European ideas but conceived Art Nouveau in different terms, whilst designers like Tiffany enthusiastically embraced the movement.


Barilli, R., Art Nouveau, London, 1969; Bouillon, J.-P., Art Nouveau, London, 1985; Masini, L.V., Art Nouveau, London, 1984; Schmutzler, R., Art Nouveau, London, 1962

Bloomsbury Guide to Art, © Bloomsbury 1996

Related Articles

Full text Article ART NOUVEAU
France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Art nouveau describes a movement in the visual arts extending from Europe to North America and dominant between 1890 and 1910, characterized by...

Full text Article Art Nouveau
The Bloomsbury Guide to Art

An international style of decoration and architecture which developed in the 1880s and 1890s. The name derives from the Maison de l'Art...

Full text Article Art Nouveau
Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought

Art Nouveau (French, ‘New Art’), known in Germany as Jugendstil (‘Youth Style’), was a style of decorative art and...

See more from Credo