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The Italians sometimes called Art Nouveau dolce stil nuovo, or "sweet new style," but there was nothing particularly sweet about it. Art Nouveau—which a century ago spread across the Continent and to America with astonishing speed—was noisy and self-righteous. It poured out manifestos and magazines. It squawked for attention in a Babel of voices—it suffered from multiple-personality disorder. In one city it was known as "Moderna"; in another it was ferociously anti-"modernismo." It was prim and erotic, artisanal and mass-produced, revolutionary and reactionary, wild and spare, Gothic and Rococo—often in the same city at the same time. The English sculptor Alfred Gilbert, who created the statue of Eros in London's Piccadilly Circus, once pronounced himself "incapable of understanding what such a movement can mean." His fellow sculptor and countryman George Frampton answered by saying: "I trace the present growing advance in decorative art . . . to that Englishman, the greatest master of our time, Alfred Gilbert."

What one observer called the new "tendency" did have some roots in England: in the Arts and Crafts Movement, in the Aestheticism of Oscar Wilde, and in the critic John Ruskin's observation that "there is no existing highest-order art but is decorative." But it also derives from Japan, which opened to the West in the 1850s, and which seemed to Westerners to offer the sort of aesthetic they were after, in which there was no dividing line between the useful and the artistic; and from North Africa and the Middle East, where the delicate and sinuous architecture and decoration provided a clear alternative to the brutal rectangles of Western city life. Art Nouveau, in fact, was the product of a world which, after Charles Darwin, was having to come to terms with a new vision of man's place on the planet and in nature. It was waking up to other cultures; it was becoming, in effect, one. This realization—sparked by travel and commerce and sustained by a series of expositions and world fairs in major European and American cities—raised the question to which Art Nouveau was the overwrought international answer: In a brand-new age of electricity and the motorcar, of department stores and skyscrapers, what role must a modern art play?

It is to the credit of the curators of Art Nouveau 1890-1914, opening next month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that they've somehow managed to discipline and make coherent the hydra-headed phenomenon that was the collective response of architects, painters, designers, and craftsmen in more than a dozen countries to this one great question. For the past 90-odd years Art Nouveau has been severely out of fashion: It was dismissed as decadent kitsch by the stern tastemakers of Modernism. There were flickers of interest in it during the 1960s and '80s; but in the past quarter-century the only important exhibits to feature the "New Art" have been in Paris and Brussels. Art Nouveau 1890-1914, then—which has already (in a slightly different form) been a triumphant success at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—is the first show in the United States to not only fully take on the last global style to embrace all the arts, but also to demonstrate convincingly that it was, in several ways, a vital expression of the tensions of its time: between the competing claims of the past and the future, the rational and the mystical, the body and the machine.

The Washington show is set to open with a grand flourish: two rooms devoted to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, a landmark historical showcase for the New Art. Forty-eight million people visited this huge international trade fair (the population of France at the time was 38 million), and its opening coincided with the inauguration of the Paris Métro, with stations designed in modular cast iron by Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard. (A survivor—astonishingly—has been gathered together in pieces from a private collection and will be reconstructed here for the first time.) The exposition's main entrance, the vast Islamic-style Porte Binet, sported a statue of a favorite Art Nouveau icon, the Egyptian priestess Salammbô (personifying electricity); and many of its pavilions were decked out with what are now recognized as masterpieces of the style. Among them (and in the show) were Otto Eckmann's Five Swans tapestry, René Lalique's extraordinary Dragonfly Woman corsage ornament, Vittorio Valabrega's huge glazed ceramic, brass, and glass chimney piece, and Louis Comfort Tiffany's muted, autumnal, three-panel folding screen in bronze and leaded glass.

Even more important than these was the presence at the exposition, each with their own pavilion, of an extraordinary man and woman who, though they never made anything, both influenced and symbolized the development of the style in ways that resonate through the show. The man was Siegfried Bing, an entrepreneur who in 1895 had raised the name "L'Art Nouveau" over his gallery and shop on Paris' Rue de Provence; the woman was an exotic dancer from America called Loïe Fuller who, starting at the Folies-Bergères in 1892, regularly transformed herself onstage from a bat into a vampiress.

Watching some footage of Fuller in the show, one feels that if she had not existed she would have had to be invented. A big, stocky woman, Fuller whorled and arced around as she danced in veils of diaphanous silk, as if she were the heart of a living Möbius strip or an animated Japanese print of a sea storm. Lit by colored electric lights (Fuller was the first entertainer to use electricity as an integral part of her act), and allowing glimpses of her naked body, she clearly struck a deep chord in the imaginations of artists who flocked to watch her. Pierre Roche made the statue which presided over her pavilion at the exposition, and Agathon Léonard designed an elaborate table decoration for Sèvres in her honor. Jules Chéret and Manuel Orazi made posters for her, and she became the subject of a great deal of excitable statuary, including a bronze-gilt lamp by Raoul-François Larche in which her hair and drapery fly upward like a giant flame. She was, according to none other than Oscar Wilde, "the idol of the Symbolists" (who occupy their own niche in the exhibit); and it's easy to see in her the incarnation of all the vampires and winged women, the Salomes and Sphinxes (by Edvard Munch, Lalique, and Gustave Moreau, among others), that confront the visitor in this and other sections.

If Fuller, then, represents the anxiety-ridden, erotic dream world of Art Nouveau, Siegfried Bing represents the movement's hard-nosed salesmanship and commerce. Art Nouveau was not only the child of dream-driven artists; it was also the child of new money, of a brand-new class of consumers who wanted to throw off the styles of the past and be recognized as modern. Bing managed to marry this money to the Art Nouveau style. During the previous two decades he'd played much the same role with Japanese art: Through traveling exhibitions and an international journal published in French, German, and English, he'd promoted Japanese prints, textiles, and objets to both collectors and artists. Gustav Klimt, chairman of the Vienna Secession, bought a complete set of the journal in 1906. Aubrey Beardsley (whose 1893 illustration J'ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, for Wilde's Salomé, is perhaps the first important Art Nouveau icon) decorated his bedroom with erotic prints such as Kitagawa Utamaro's Lovers Resting by a Tree. By 1895, when he opened his new gallery and shop, Bing had developed considerable experience and knowledge in the selling of the New Art. His first show included work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose designs for the New York house of sugar baron Henry Osborne Havemeyer he had admired the year before. He showed Willy Finch's ceramics from Finland, goblets by Karl Koepping of Berlin, and metalwork and lamps by the four great artists of the Nancy school: Louis Majorelle, the Daum brothers, and Emile Gallé.

Bing also commissioned some of the greatest artists living in Paris. He encouraged painters of the Nabis group—like Pierre Bonnard (poster for La Revue Blanche) and the Hungarian József Rippl-Rónai (a plate from Georges Rodenbach's Les Vierges)—to experiment with chromolithographic posters and book illustration. From Nabi Paul Ranson, the painter of the highly colored, occult Nabi Landscape, he commissioned designs for textiles, like the printed cotton fabric on loan from The Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. He also collaborated closely with Eugène Gaillard, Edouard Colonna, and Georges de Feure, three of the greatest and most versatile of Art Nouveau designers, whose work and wide influence, through Bing's canny sales to many of Europe's new museums for the decorative arts, appear again and again in the show. De Feure, for example, is represented by a suite of Rococo-style furniture and a collection of silver-electroplated furniture fittings, both sold by Bing almost straight out of his exposition pavilion to The Danish Museum of Decorative Art and the V & A, respectively.

Paris occupies, of course, only part of the exhibition—and of the Art Nouveau story. Toward the end of the show there are sections devoted to the applied art of seven other cities: Vienna, Munich, Glasgow, Turin, New York, Chicago, and Brussels—the last of which, with designer-architect Victor Horta's 1893 Tassel House, might be said to have kick-started the New Art's desire to create Gesamtkunstwerke, or complete aesthetic environments. Before this, though—in what was the most stimulating part of the V & A exhibit—there are demonstrations of Art Nouveau's origins in everything from the Celtic and Viking revivals (inspired by mid-19th-century archeology) to the work of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Here the objects have been chosen to allow the eye to make its own connections. In the section on Rococo, for example—which had deep roots in France—a spectacular mid-18th-century chest of drawers by Jean-Mathieu Chevallier is flanked by furniture and vases by artists of the Nancy school and an extraordinary clock by the most famous of the architect-designers based in Barcelona, Antoní Gaudí. In the Islamic section, the nature-derived arabesques and whiplash curves of Persian and Egyptian design flow naturally into fabrics, ceramics, glassware, and even furniture produced in Italy, France, Hungary, and the United States. As for the section on China and Japan, it's actually difficult to determine exactly who was influencing whom. Without looking at the labels, it's impossible to be sure where particular objects—such as a black-and-gold lacquered wood scroll box, a Lalique silver buckle, and a pair of early-19th-century bronze vases—might have been made.

As the show unreels, you begin to feel all these sources flowing together into a deeper and deeper tide. The vernacular art of the Celtic and Viking revivals is taken up in a Breton corner cupboard by Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard and then reappears, in a different form, in the medieval Gothic of Edward Burne-Jones' sideboard in the English Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement section. Islam and Japan are united in textiles by William Morris and Charles Voysey, and in a Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrait of a woman that—with the flat-patterned color of Japanese prints and more than a hint of the seraglio—prefigures the work of the fin-de-siècle French Symbolists. Everywhere you look you see signs and echoes of something else: of Islam in the vases of William De Morgan; of Japan, Josef Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and even Frank Lloyd Wright in an early (1867) ebonized wood sideboard by E.W. Godwin. Then, suddenly, all these separate influences—these historical and geographical pollinations—seem to unite in an extraordinary middle section called The Cult of Nature.

Here, in every kind of medium, are the sorts of works we usually associate with the full-blown Art Nouveau style: objects of conspicuous consumption that make use of new techniques in smithing, electroplating, enameling, carving, and firing. The whole section writhes with arabesques and japonaiserie, and squirms with an opulent insect, plant, and animal life that somehow combines the mystical and the symbolic with close observation of nature. There's an astonishingly delicate floral plique-à-jour cup by the Norwegian Thorolf Prytz cheek by jowl with an ivory-and-silver beetlelike monstrosity by the Belgian Philippe Wolfers. Buds of glass burst from metal stems, snakes coil (round an almost sadistic walnut chair by Rupert Carabin), and everywhere, in bracelets and brooches and pendants and vases, there are irises, orchids, dragonflies, beetles, bats, hornets, magnolias; sometimes it's difficult to tell which is which. Many of these objects—particularly a pair of opalescent Tiffany vases and Lalique's famous damselflies necklace in gold, enamel, aquamarines, and diamonds—are truly exquisite on their own. But together they require something of a strong stomach. En masse they have a feverish hothouse quality, and their insistence calls to mind one of Adolf Loos' ukases against Art Nouveau in his 1908 book Ornament and Crime: "The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use."

It's something of a relief, then, to step out into the wider vistas of the final part of the show, which focuses on the cities that were the chief laboratories of the New Art. There are some magnificently evocative pieces here: In the Paris section, for example, there are posters by Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec, and fittings and jewelry that must once have graced the shop windows of René Lalique and Maison Vever. But as you travel from set piece to set piece—from Paris to Brussels to Vienna, for example—you become more and more aware of the sheer variety of expression that's contained (under pressure) within the portmanteau term Art Nouveau. And it becomes increasingly difficult to see how a fantastical chair, say, by the Parisian Rupert Carabin—the back of which is carved in the image of a naked woman—connects with the bracing lucidity of a steam-bent beechwood armchair by the Viennese Josef Hoffmann; or what a radical from Brussels like Victor Horta could have had in common with a decadent Munich painter like Franz von Stuck (The Sin), or with the Celtic- and nature-inspired skyscraper architect, Chicagoan Louis Sullivan (Getty tomb door).

Perhaps this is what one is meant to see in these last groupings: That precisely because of these oppositions, Art Nouveau carried the seeds of its own destruction. One impulse within the New Art wanted to reflect modern society, its anxieties, its dreams, its taste for opulence, while a second aimed to change its entire relationship to materials, to everyday objects and the industrial environment. The first tendency led to the self-congratulatory Art Nouveau, to the volcanic extravagance of Tiffany's iridescent vases and glassware and to the sumptuous ivory objects of Philippe Wolfers. The second tendency, in the hands of people like Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (who dominates the Glasgow section), looked forward, whether it knew it or not, to the spareness and understated lines of Modernism.

The tension between these two inclinations gives this last part of the show an odd poignancy. While it lasted, Art Nouveau was an extraordinary enterprise, a collective effort of all the arts to create a unified vision of modernity. Yet after a few brief years it vanished, leaving little behind. (The final section's prize piece, Frank Lloyd Wright's dining table and chairs for the Robie House in Chicago, is like a back-turning goodbye to it all.) Many Art Nouveau buildings were torn down or radically altered in the years that followed—with some notable exceptions, like Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art and Sullivan's Schlesinger Meyer department store in Chicago. The movement's all-in-one interiors were stripped, its objets separated and scattered, its furniture and graphic work consigned to the basements of design museums like the V & A. By some miracle a few complete ensembles survived. Mackintosh's Ladies' Luncheon Room, made for a Glasgow café, is here, as is a double parlor designed by Agostino Lauro for a villa near Turin. But otherwise what we find gathered here are fragments.

The curator, Paul Greenhalgh, and assistant curator, Ghislaine Wood, have done everything humanly possible to fit these fragments together into a cohesive whole. (The exhibit is enormously intelligent; it's didactic without being preachy.) But what they cannot do, of course, is fully re-create the unitary effect that the artists-craftsmen of Art Nouveau were after. To do that, they would have had to surround the entire exhibit in its own age—"an age of engines and of ghosts," in the curators' words, in which "psychoanalysis and the séance were seen by many as part of the same world." That world and that age have passed, destroyed on the battlefields of World War I, but the objects and paintings displayed in Art Nouveau 1890-1914 are their exquisite, and often haunting, echoes.

"Art Nouveau 1890-1914" opens at The National Gallery of Art on October 8 and runs through January 28. The core of the exhibition then travels to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. The exhibition catalog, edited by Paul Greenhalgh and published by Abrams, is available for $75 (hardcover) and $35 (soft-cover). Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C.; 202-737-4215.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the changing face of Dublin, 17th-century Dutch masters, and Tuscany's garden of La Foce in the May/June issue of Departures.


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