Art Nouveau, known at the time as the "modern style," was a self-consciously "new" decorative style, which originated in the 1890s and reached its height of popularity after its triumphal appearance at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, and expired, an unlamented casualty, during the 1914-18 World War.
The style was characterized by the ubiquitous use of limply swaying, curving lines, by tentacular tendrils and flower and leaf motifs, by deliquescent human figures (usually female with much flowing hair) in shallow relief, and by a tendency towards extreme asymmetry. The feminine curves and organic fantasy of the Art Nouveau esthetic brought the old century to a close and heralded the new.
Art Nouveau not only spread across Europe, it became a global style, one that could be both imperial and nationalist. Art Nouveau was also an incredibly versatile style. Nothing within architecture and the decorative arts escaped its influence, from door handles to chairs, chandeliers to apartment blocks, wallpapers to shop fronts.
In the popular imagination, Art Nouveau brings to mind seductive posters for French musical reviews or the sinuous ironwork of the Paris Metro stations. The style had no respect for the boundaries of class or quality. The finest luxury objects were conceived and handcrafted in the Art Nouveau manner, as was the cheapest jewelry and the most ordinary industrially produced tableware.
In its variety of manifestations Art Nouveau was both elitist and populist, private and public, conservative and radical, opulent and simple, traditional and modern.
The bulk of 19th-century furniture was a hotch-potch of derivative historicism, of looking back -- styles, forms and materials largely echoed Elizabethan, Rococo and earlier times -- and novelty was generally eschewed, although increasingly makers employed new mass-production methods. Radical Art Nouveau designers and craftsmen at the end of the century set out to shatter historicism and create a style appropriate to their time, the age of cinema, the telephone and the automobile.
Art Nouveau was perceived as being much-needed, and in some ways long-awaited. If Art Nouveau saw itself as a reaction against an esthetically corrupt century, it was also a product of it. When it arrived, the style was the product of an extended gestation period and a brilliant, if brief, lifespan.
The term Art Nouveau had emerged in Belgium in the 1880s to describe the work of a group of artists who called themselves "Les Vingt" (The Twenty), and whose aim was the reform of the arts and of society as a whole. In 1884 the editors of the Brussels-based magazine L'Art modern pronounced that they were "votaries of Art Nouveau."
By 1895 Art Nouveau was institutionalized when the German-born dealer and entrepreneur Siegfried Bing opened his influential Paris gallery devoted to new design and called it La Maison de l'Art Nouveau. Purists prefer to apply the term only to the largely nature-inspired, curvilinear French pieces that were made in Paris and Nancy, but furniture of great significance and beauty (and often of impeccable craftsmanship) was originating in other European cities too, including Brussels, Munich, Milan, Barcelona, Vienna and Glasgow.
In France the Art Nouveau period was a highly fertile one. Indeed, "fecund" is an appropriately organic adjective to describe an era whose designers took much of their inspiration from the forms of nature. Sometimes these were faithfully maintained and replicated, as in some of the botanical motifs adorning the furniture and glass of Emile Gallé; at other times stylized and exaggerated, as in the startlingly undulating cabinets of Hector Guimard.
These two hugely talented men, arguably the premier creators of Art Nouveau furniture, represented the two design centers of the time -- first in Paris, which in effect comprised several distinct divisions, Guimard and other individuals going off on their own separate tangents and Bing's designers maintaining a somewhat controlled status quo; and, second, the Ecole de Nancy, whose foremost exponents were Gallé and Louis Majorelle.
The Art Nouveau period was significant, too, for the emphatic use of the ensemblier, who saw to it that all the design aspects of a room, from its furniture and its floor-coverings and wall-coverings to its curtains and its fireplace accessories, were coordinated.
Across the spectrum of activity that was Art Nouveau, nature was the single most unifying factor. Wherever it surfaced in Art Nouveau it signified modernity. From the late Enlightenment onwards, major thinkers, culminating with the work of Charles Darwin, changed the very nature of nature. Darwin provided the scientific framework which allowed for the full development of the theory of evolution. By 1890, the work of evolutionists all over Europe led to a new vision of nature that came to act powerfully on the cultural sphere, and not least upon the decorative arts.
The architect and designer Hector Guimard -- the paragon of Parisian Art Nouveau -- featured in his pieces of furniture wavy, quasi-organic designs in high relief that appeared to give the wood an elastic, almost breathing quality. Interestingly, Guimard based his design repertoire on the lower parts of trees and flowers -- in other words, on the stems, branches and roots rather than the blossoms and leaves.
At the same time that Guimard's whiplash curves were captivating Paris, a design school of great significance was creating perhaps the most exuberant, joyful and nature-ridden Art Nouveau furniture of all. This was the École de Nancy, in the province of Lorraine, which was spearheaded by its founder Émile Gallé, a furniture and glass designer of great repute, and Louis Majorelle, a cabinetmaker by trade.
The Ecole de Nancy, which Gallé founded in 1901, was a decorative arts center profoundly influenced by the Symbolist movement in art and literature and it took much of its inspiration from nature. Most of the basic designs of his furniture echoed traditional Louis XV forms, but the decoration, whether carved or inlaid, was unabashedly and extravagantly organic in style. Despite the traditional shapes and carcasses, Gallé's furniture was dominated by its decoration.
The furniture of Louis Majorelle, on the other hand, although richly ornamented lacks the symbolic elements a unified organic design of Gallé's works, while making much richer use of gilt bronze and wrought iron for its mounts. Majorelle became head of the cabinetmaking workshop owned by his father, which had produced reproduction 18th-century furniture. Around 1890, under the influence of Gallé, Majorelle changed the backward-looking tendency of the family firm and instead strongly embraced the new, nature-inspired style.
He emphasized massive, sculptural mounts, while both domestic and exotic woods, carefully chosen to harmonize with the types of furniture of which they formed a part were expertly inlaid, veneered or carved. The water lily design is perhaps his best-known motif for mounts, with the orchid a close second.
The forms of Majorelle's furniture were, unlike those of Gallé, somewhat fluid and abstract, regular but also almost sculptural. The furniture's lines are gently curving, the gilt-bronze mounts strongly organic and emphatic. Although Majorelle's furniture generally featured less marquetry and inlaid panels than those of Gallé, some pieces are jigsaw puzzle-like tours de force of wood veneers and marquetry -- sometimes carving as well.
Art Nouveau was the first self-conscious attempt to create a modernist style premised on decoration: it was also the last. Art Nouveau was not a stable phenomenon, but was constantly in intellectual and esthetic flux. The style had been attacked from its inception by the forces of esthetic and social conservatism, and it had survived these without undue damage.
But intellectually and ideologically, the forces that largely destroyed Art Nouveau were in fact invented from within the parameters of the style itself. Internal polarizations became a prelude to exodus, so that by the end of the first decade of the new century the style had effectively torn itself apart, the two halves drifting to the left and right. From then, the decline of the style was so marked that it barely made it to the First World War.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.