Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture




















SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

ARCHITECTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12





Art Nouveau

During the 1890s and early 1900s a movement now usually known as Art Nouveau arose throughout Europe and America. It takes its name from the shop opened in Paris in 1895 by the entrepreneur Siegfried Bing, who employed most of the leading designers of the day and helped to spread their work everywhere. By that time, however, the movement had already been in full force for several years. Art Nouveau has various other names as well: it is called Jugendstil (literally Youth Style) in Germany and Austria, Stile Liberty (after the well-known London store that helped to launch it) in Italy, and Modernista in Spain. Like Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, Art Nouveau is not easy to characterize. It was primarily a new style of decoration based on sinuous curves, nominally inspired by Rococo forms, that often suggest organic shapes. Its favorite pattern was the whiplash line, its typical shape the lily. Yet there was a severely geometric side as well that in the long run proved of even greater significance. The ancestor of Art Nouveau was the ornament of William Morris and the Japonist enthusiasm of Whistler. It was also related to the styles of Gauguin. Beardsley, Munch, and Klimt, among others. In turn it was allied to such diverse outlooks as aestheticism, socialism, and symbolism.

The avowed goal of Art Nouveau was to raise the crafts to the level of the fine arts, thereby abolishing the distinction between them. In this respect, it was meant to be a "popular" art, available to everyone. Yet it often became so extravagant as to be affordable only by the wealthy few. Art Nouveau had a profound impact on public taste, and its pervasive influence on the applied arts can be seen in wrought-iron work, furniture, jewelry, glass, typography, and even women's fashions. Historically Art Nouveau may be regarded as a prelude to modernism, but its preciousness was perhaps the most conspicuous symptom of the malaise that afflicted the Western world at the end of the nineteenth century. Hence it is uniquely worthy of our attention as our own culture passes through a similar transition.

Although it is usually thought of in terms of the decorative arts, Art Nouveau had perhaps its most important impact on architecture. As a style of decoration it did not lend itself easily to translation on a large scale. Indeed, it was aptly called book-decoration architecture by wags, for the origin of its designs, which were best suited to two-dimensional surface effects. But in the hands of architects of greatness, Art Nouveau yielded impressive results. Thus the authority of the "revival styles" was undermined once and for all in Europe.


The artistic movement at the turn of the century had many names: Nieuwe Kunst, Stile Liberty, Juqendstil and Art Nouveau. Even within reqional centres of artistic activity there were often fundamentally-opposed stances, even bitter disputes, and at all events divergent departures. The only common factor was   the conscious desire to be "modern" - whatever that might mean. This desire finally led architecture away from the now dubious terrain of traditional values and towards fashionable, current trends which - as with Art Nouveau - were frequently only short-lived.

The late nineteenth century saw the middle classes, feeling more and more politically threatened, escape into the world of decoration. The Makart style in Vienna, Alban Chambon's theatres in Brussels, London and Amsterdam, Charles Baudelaire's poetry in "Les fleurs du mal" and Ludwig ll's greenhouses and fairy-tale castles built to motifs by Richard Wagner all represent a post-Romantic flight from the overpowering world of industry. Obsession with decoration seems a form of self-deception on the part of a middle class in the face of responsibility for the social upheavals which were already clearly making themselves felt, even though their effects were still hardly imaginable at the Time. Unusual flora under filigree glass domes were a set piece of exoticism. Towards the end of the century, romantic nostalgia sent tourists fleeing to the cult and cultural centres of Italy and Egypt.

Meanwhile, discussions on architecture were dominated by theoretical exchanges on the aims of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, on Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc's "Entretiens" and Gottfried Semper's writings and works. The vehemence and passion of these discussions had many causes. Immense population expansion and increasing mobility had precipitated the building of numerous railway stations, town halls, covered markets, post offices, apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and prisons. These various building categories led to the emergence or a typological architectural order. Pavilions served as hospitals, the model of the pcnoptical prison building prevailed, cultural centres were built in primarily classical styles, while new solutions needed to be found for railway stations, department stores and indoor swimming pools. Ornamentation, it seemed, was a sine qua non, and aesthetic postulates such as "Functional buildings should be without ornamentation" was simply an excuse for budget cuts by French hospital administrators.

The achievement of architecture in the nineteenth century lay above all in its methodical development of building programmes. Stylistic specifications were often decided by central administrative bodies and reflected standards communicated nationally through the many new architectural journals. Architects got used to offering their designs in a number of alternative styles. What were not produced, however, were houses with which the progress-oriented middle classes could identify themselves. This explains the development of new movements, especially in the provinces, which sought to incorporate both regional thinking and modernity. This is true for Nancy, Darmstadt and Glasgow as well as for Barcelona, where Antoni Gaudi designed highly unusual works in the name of Catalan Modernism. The trend began, however, in Brussels, where an economic boom, combined with the strength of the middle class and the Socialist party, produced a new breed of architectural patron. Rich from profits made in the colonies, and yet in no way opposed to the ideas of Socialism, these sponsors awarded building contracts to their young architect friends. Since the city of Brussels incorporated many rural land plots, building sites were quite small. The street front of the van Eetvelde house, for example, was only nine metres wide. Attempts to redesign the city on the basis of Georges-Eugene Haussmann's Paris model failed. The large multi-storey buildings which had become the rule in other metropolises were unsuccessful here. Brussels remained characterized by the narrow bourgeois residence. Its form was rigidly governed by municipal building regulations. The heights of building and rooms, the measurements of plinths, cornices and balconies, even the sufficiency of insulation were all monitored. But it was precisely such limitations in the basic form and the lack of overall town planning which challenged the architectural imagination.

Many theoreticians had already taken a stance against the - now somewhat moderated - doctrines of academic architecture and the ornamental arbitrariness of the handicrafts industry. Viollet-le-Duc in France for one. In arguing for a return to the ideals of antiquity, and particularly of the Gothic, he propagated a philosophy of "honest" building appropriate to materials used. His writings were widely known. William Morris and John Ruskin opposed the evils of industrial production with their ideals of an arts and crafts culture, which did not prevent them, however, from designing machine-printed fabrics and wallpaper.

John Ruskin, too, found the Gothic the only style worth emulating besides the Pisan Romanesque. At the same time he wrote, in "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" in 1849: "... the time is probably near when a new system of architectural laws will be developed, adapted entirely to metallic construction.'' Viollet-le-Duc expressed a similar sentiment. In practice, however, Ruskin shied away from the consequences, for "true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material, and ... such works as ... the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations ... are not architecture at all."

The new theories and approaches allowed the use of all available building materials, as long as they were openly exposed and their integration within the building was logical and stylistically harmonious. The basic concept of the building was hardly questioned. Victor Horta's split levels, for example, were thoroughly common in their day. His facades blended quietly into their surroundings and were relatively inconspicuous and reserved. Only once inside, in interiors usually featuring glazed roofs and generous lighting, were their novelties first revealed: sweeping trains of ornamentation, a sensitive use of colour and surprising material combinations of steel, marble and precious woods Flat iron was coiled into artistic banisters and lamps, while load-bearing supports were revealed to the world.

Inspiration for this new ornamentation, its enthusiastic curves masterfully developed by Henry van de Velde in particular from constructive elements came from the graphic art of the day. In France Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was designing posters in a new style, while in England artists such as Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Walter Crane were working on the revival of book illustration within the framework of the reform movement. Nor should the refined erotic fantasies of Aubrey Beardsley for example be ignored. New design impulses also came from the pictorial world of the Far East, and decorated the salons and studies of countless contemporaries in the form of floral graphics Colour woodcuts by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hakusai were available as reproductions, and his motifs were to be found in many Art Nouveau works.

Against this background of orientalism and historicism, Ruskin and Morris's reform ideas may be seen as a call to honesty in design. Art Nouveau was therefore hardly able to provide a satisfying response to this challenge in the long term. All too offer it created artificial forms which, although cloaked in the language of mystic-sounding thoughts on artistic unity, were nothing more than decoration. Which is precisely what earned Art Nouveau its popularity.

The fashionable character of Art Nouveau emerges particularly clearly in its French development, its history virtually inseparable from events at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After the crisis in 1863, when Viollet-le-Duc had to abandon his official lectures and teach in a privately-organized circle, discussions between formalists and non-conformists intensified, albeit without bearing particular fruit.

It was not until Hector Guimard used a modified version of a Viollet-le-Duc drawing from the seventies during the new construction of the Ecole de Sacre-Coeur that it become clear to all that the concept of visible ironwork was not alone a success. In his first house in the "new style", the Castel Beranger, Guimard went further: he exchanged the ornaments of the neo-Gothic planning for florally-animated motifs similar to those he had seen on Horta's buildings, ana placed an asymmetrical wrought-iron gateway in the main entrance. As arbitrary as this may seem, it illustrates the proximity of the Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau. This preference for Gothic Revival was one shared by patrons commissioning middle-class homes all over Europe. Its relatively plain facades, natural stone brickwork and expressive details seemed to express the mood of the times as successfully as did Art Nouveau. But the artist-architects of Art Nouveau rose above rigid, conventional plans in the rich fantasies of their open interiors.

At all events, the liberality of Art Nouveau made it excellently suited for commercial purposes, and many large department stores exploited its potential to great effect. The artistic products of this symbiosis, geared towards profit and fame, were palaces such as Frantz Jourdain's "Samaritaine" in Paris. In Berlin, the "Warenhaus", as the Wertheim brothers called their new department store, became a veritable den of temptation. Sales spaces took up entire floors, and the whole street front was made into one large shop window. "Liberation! That's the feeling with which the layman cranes his neck at this magnificent facade, more impressive than a hundred public edifices", as an overwhelmed Alfred Lichtwark described it. The arbitrarily-compiled, mainly neo-Gothic ornamentation had nothing to do with Art Nouveau, but rather with the abandonment of stale design maxims. The awkwardness of its combination of technical structure with flamboyant form became even clearer in its successor, the Tietz department store. While all the elements of a new architecture were present, it was still lacking the masterly fusion of its diverging aspects which would unite technology and form into a single picture.

The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 also saw the official opening of the Metro. Its entrances and cashier's booths are the high point of Hector Guimard's work and masterpieces of Art Nouveau. Many contemporary observers criticized the inadequate integration of its serially-conceived architecture into the traditional cityscape. Typical for the Metro stations was their use of standardized elements of cast iron. Unlike Horta, who rejected the material, these elements were Guimard's speciality. His own foundry distributed As would later become evident, this bold entree into the new century was more the glittering end of an epoch than the birth of a new era. The age of so many imitated styles and forms appeared to have provoked no momentous beginnings.

The future lay not with the pleasing works of such as Jules Lavirotte and Paul Saintenoy, but with the systematic reductions of Hendrik Petrus Berlage and Henry van de Velde. Count Harry Kessler noted in his diary in 1901: "Breakfast at Frau Richter's ... spoke about van de Velde. His style in furniture, everybody agreed that he is not suited to luxury rooms ... Axel Varnbuhlen Why luxury art for aristocrats? That's practically a thing of the past." Fashionable and rational design were also in conflict in the Netherlands. Although many architects here were expressing themselves through curved lines, the works of a group calling itself "Architecture et Amicitia", centred around Berlage and Petrus Cuypers, were closer to the rectilinearity of their English and Austrian colleagues, although they, too, dismissed the Vienna Secessionists as "upholsterers, wallpaperers and furniture makers". Interior design was, in fact, the most important field of activity for the young Viennese.

Perhaps that explains why their architecture is occasionally reminiscent of a giant item of furniture. The Viennese guest house "Die Traube" frequently saw Josef Hoffmann, Max Kurzweil, Theodor Gottlieb Kempf, Karl Moll, Koloman Moser and Joseph Maria Olbrich discussing architecture together. Here, too, Max Fabiani, who had awarded the contract for the celebrated Cafe Museum to the young Adolf Loos, finally ended up calling even Olbrich a "decorativist". Such dismissive attitudes, which long remained widespread, failed to acknowledge the stimulus that Art Nouveau had given the stagnating art world. Even Walter Benjamin saw the confrontation of new artistic will and old ideology as an internal conflict of the age still awaiting resolution: "Van de Velde's houses are an expression of personality. Ornamentation is to these houses what a signature is to a painting. The true significance of Art Nouveau is not revealed in this ideology. It represents the last attempt by art to escape from an ivory tower besieged by technology."



The first architect to explore the full potential of Art Nouveau was Victor Horta
(1861-1947), the founder of the movement in Brussels. The stairwell in Tassel House (fig. 1014), built in 1892-93, has a fluid grace that is truly amazing. Horta has made maximum use of wrought iron, which could be drawn out into almost any shape. The supporting role of the column is frankly acknowledged, although it has been made as slender as possible. But in a charming play on the Corinthian capital (compare fig. 179), it sprouts ribbonlike tendrils that dissolve the conjoining archesan effect amplified by continuing the vegetable motif in the vault above. Similarly the bannister, which is light and supple, uncoils with taut springiness. This extends to the linear patterns on the floor and walls, which serve to integrate the space visually. The entire ensemble has a litheness and airiness that make the grand staircase of Garnier's Opera seem utterly ponderous and vulgar by comparison (see fig. 933).

Victor Horta
Horta Museum in Brussels


1014. VICTOR HORTA. Interior Stairwell, Tassel House, Brussels. 1892-93


Interior of the Horta Museum


Victor Horta Museum


Victor Horta Museum


Victor Horta Museum


Victor Horta
Tassel Residence in Brussels, 1892-1893



Victor Horta

Victor, Baron Horta, (born Jan. 6, 1861, Ghent—died Sept. 8, 1947, Brussels), an outstanding architect of the Art Nouveau style, who ranks with Henry van de Velde and Paul Hankar as a pioneer of modern Belgian architecture.

Trained at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, 1876–81, Horta became a pupil of the Neoclassical architect Alphonse Balat. His first independent building, the four-storied Hôtel Tassel in Brussels (1892–93), was among the first continental examples of Art Nouveau, although it incorporated Neo-Gothic and Neo-Rococo stylistic elements. An important feature was its octagonal hall with a staircase leading to various levels. The curved line, characteristic of the Art Nouveau style, was used on the facade and also in the interior. Other buildings in Brussels in his rich, elegant style are Hôtel Solvay (1895–1900), notable for the plastic treatment of its facade, and Hôtel Winssingers (1895–96), as well as his own house on the rue Américaine (1898). His chief work is the Maison du Peuple, Brussels (1896–99), which was the first structure in Belgium to have a largely iron and glass facade. In its auditorium the iron roof beams are both structural and decorative.

After 1900 Horta simplified his style, using decoration more sparingly and eliminating exposed iron. In 1912 he became the director of the academy and designed the Palais des Beaux-Arts (1922–28) in a simple and severe classical style; his last major undertaking was the central railway station in Brussels, begun just before World War II.

Encyclopædia Britannica



Victor Horta
Van Eetvelde House in Brussels, 1897-1900



Victor Horta
La Maison du Peuple in Brussels, 1896-1899

Victor Horta. Auditorium


The Museum of Musical Instruments, designed by Victor Horta


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