Flourishing between 1890 and 1910, Art Nouveau was a short-lived but highly influential movement that spanned Europe from Glasgow to Vienna, creating an artistic style that had a huge impact on the applied arts and encompassed a wide range of figures, including Antoni Gaudí, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley, René Lalique, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Art Nouveau artists sought to abolish hierarchies between different forms of art, placing fine arts such as painting and sculpture on an equal footing with ‘lesser’ decorative disciplines such as furniture and jewellery making.
In an effort to break away from the historicism that dominated much of 19th century art and design, Art Nouveau devotees often looked for inspiration in the natural world. Nature, in contrast to the ordered precision of the modern age, was seen as an unstoppable and unruly force, a view reflected in a prolific use of exuberantly vital, heavily stylised natural imagery such as twisting stems and tendrils, flower buds, insects and lush foliage in Art Nouveau pieces, with an emphasis on sinuously curving lines and ‘whiplash’ curves.
See also: Art Deco
The female figure was also a common subject within Art Nouveau, with sensual, alluring images of pre-Raphaelite women with flowing hair featuring heavily in the work of artists such as Alphonse Mucha. There was also an emphasis on rich materials such as iridescent glass, semi-precious stones, silver and exotic woods and the linear designs of ukiyo-e, Japanese wood block prints, were also very popular.
Art Nouveau artists and designers, like their roughly contemporaneous Arts and Crafts cousins, also looked to a pre-industrial past for creative inspiration, emphasising fine craftsmanship and traditional techniques, although (unlike Arts and Crafts), Art Nouveau was more willing to embrace mass production.
As a movement it fell out of favour after the first decade of the 20th century, giving way to the more geometric, angular shapes of Art Deco, but although short-lived it is today regarded as a key transitional link between the eclectic historical styles of the 19th century and 20th century modernism.
For the Art Nouveau collector there are distinctive themes and motifs to concentrate on. Colour palettes are relatively muted, with shades such as olive green, brown, mustard and sage frequently paired with violet, purple, lilac and peacock blue. Furniture comes in two distinctive styles—curved pieces with stylised floral motifs or more austere items that place an emphasis on spare, severe lines, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s high backed, black lacquer chairs. Stained glass panels in wardrobe doors, mirrors and cabinets also feature heavily, and ornaments come principally in silver, glass and pewter.
Although Art Nouveau pieces are highly desirable, because they were frequently mass-produced many items hold little intrinsic value—although works by well-known artists and designers will still fetch extremely high prices. Such pieces include Tiffany lamps, with their distinctive colourful favrile glass shape (they must have a marked pad on the shade) and Emile Galle glassware, which usually comes with a cameo or signature. Glassware by names such as Daum Freres (look for the marking Daum Nancy) are also sought after, as is silverware from the likes of Liberty & Co. Original poster art by artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Jules Cheret and J M Cassandre are also highly desirable, although you will need to closely examine the quality of the paper in order to ensure it’s not a reproduction. A magnifying glass should reveal flat areas of colour in genuine items.