Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was more a fashion for design than a style of painting. It was a movement that lived merely from about 1897 to 1905 in many European countries and in North America.
It was called "Jugendstil" in Germany, "The Wiener Secession" in Austria (founded in 1897), the "World of Art" group (founded 1890) in St Petersburg in Russia (called after their journal "Mir Iskusstva"), and could incorporate "Les Nabis" in France (although these artists are usually associated with a movement called "Les Fauves"), as well as "Les Vingt" in Brussels.
Secessionist movements, secessions from established art, were created in Germany and Austria: the Munich Secession dates from 1892 (Stuck, Trübner, Uhde), the Viennese from 1897, and the Berlin Secession from 1899 (Liebermann).

Art Nouveau was characterised by many styles, which varied from country to country. Art Nouveau is sometimes presented as one form of the Symbolist movement but it has also quite distinct characteristics so that we consider it separately.
The name "Art Nouveau" may have come from the name of a shop in Paris held by Siegfried Bing, a French naturalised German who originated from Hamburg. Bing had opened a shop of Japanese art called "Maison Art Nouveau" in 1895, and later a gallery in which he showed the work of the Art Nouveau. Bing’s gallery closed in 1904. Bing died in 1905, and the movement almost disappeared with him.


Jugendstil had precursors. In Germany, the "Worpswede Künstlerkolonie" was founded in 1889 by several painters, among whom F. Mackensen, O. Modersohn, H. am Ende, F. Overbeck, C. Vinnen and H. Vogeler. These painters made pictures of the low countries and of agricultural life in a very colourful way like the impressionists. They later evolved to Jugendstil and other styles.
Jugendstil was called after the Munich magazine "Jugend", a magazine for the decorative arts.

Les Vingt

Les Vingt was a school of Belgian painters and artists, mainly Theo van Rijsselberghe, Henry Van de Velde, Lemmens, Philippe Wolfers, Victor Rousseau, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and even Constantin Meunier. Also the Dutch artists Jan Toorop and Jan Thorn-Prikker can be counted to this movement. The school was formed in 1884 in Brussels and led by a lawyer Octave Maus. Les Vingt was already dissolved in 1894 but then the group changed its name to "La libre Esthétique".

Wiener Secession

Otto Wagner, Hermann Bahr, Gustav Klimt and other artists founded the "Wiener Secession" in 1897 in Vienna. They edited a journal called "Ver Sacrum". A workshop was linked to the movement, in which all kinds of media were treated for decoration. The artists of the Secession provided design for a Vienna workshop in which artisans worked. This was the now famous "Wiener Werkstätte".

Art Nouveau in general

The Art Nouveau knew various styles of use of lines. Lines were always very clear and sharp, but could as well emphasise curved lines of nature (Victor Horta, Antonio Gaudi in architecture) as simple vertical and horizontal, austere lines.

Art Nouveau was mostly figurative, and primarily decorative by objective. The painters used much the female person as subject in fluent attitudes of sensual attraction, sometimes stylised. Rarely more than one subject was shown in the pictures.

Art Nouveau saw colour only as a subsidiary element. Some movements used subdued, pastel colours, other harsher contrasting hues or even just black and white.

Art Nouveau was much a figurative painting. The artists painted the female form, natural objects, birds and flowers for decoration effects. Sometimes they even used images of insects, such as butterflies and fireflies, as decoration themes that recurred. Landscape was entirely stylised, reduced to its surfaces of colour.

Art Nouveau was mostly a style in architecture and design. In painting, it was often a decorative style only in which volume and space were not important.

Artists of this movement were Ferdinand Khnopff, Privat Livemont, Henri Meunier, Adolphe Crespin and Fernand Toussaint in Belgium. Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and others worked in Austria. In France worked Alphonse Mucha, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Eugène Grasset and Paul Berton. In Munich painted Markus Behmer, Thomas Theodor Heine and Peter Behrens. In England Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was much a forerunner of the movement.

Art Nouveau was much more a style of decoration and of interior and exterior design. Art Nouveau was also applied to household objects (jewellery, ceramics, etc.). In its paintings, it can be assimilated with Symbolism. In its decorative motifs, since it emphasised again clear and fluent lines, it might be called a reaction to Impressionism. Colours remained subdued; pastel hues were preferred.
Art Nouveau painters gave less attention to the effects of light. Drawing became the first element of he images. Thus, Art Nouveau was a return to preference for line over colour. It was much characterised by the use of the female figure as central theme, and that was its main difference from previous art styles in painting.

Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer I

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Österreichische Galerie. Vienna. 1907.

A long, sophisticated and sensual face appears amidst small golden ornaments. Gustav Klimt’s portrait is very unconventional. We have never seen a portrait that is more decoration than portrait than this one! Yet, the face and hands of the ingénue appear out of a myriad of background details. The resulting impression the viewer receives is that this is not a portrait but a representation of a woman who exposes herself half-hidden to the views of an audience, and at the same time attracts by a strange sensuality. This is a lady that stood witty, mysteriously, utterly artificial but highly intelligent, at a high-society reception. She is somewhat bored, but ready to draw to her and consume any man with enough daring to approach her.

Adèle Bloch-Bauer wears jewels on her neck and arms, and golden jewels surround her. She has jewels of all styles around her. On the upper left are rectangular forms of the newest trends of abstract art. Lower down on that left, we see rectangles, and in these rectangles half circles of ancient motifs. These motifs already introduce a sensual element. In the left middle we find archaic volutes, and more to the left of that is a golden texture as if of an old weathered wall surface. To Adèle’s right are golden volutes of Celtic origin, lower down again the Greek or Cretan whirls, curls that spiral into each other as intertwined lovers. Adèle was rich. She lived with gold and gold surrounded her.

The lady is clad in a tight robe of eyes. These are Egyptian motifs of life, of vision, of mystical links with the universe. The eyes look at the viewer, as if to enchant him or her as the woman surely would. A man would look at this woman with two eyes, but she dominates those looks from out of a thousand eyes. This woman is not to be dominated; she will be the dominator, even if she seems so naïve and alluringly open as she shows all her golden jewels. The eyes look outwardly and not inwardly, but the eyes could just do that, and then the woman would be exposed to the thousand glances that would fall on her. Yet again, the eyes are directed outwardly so the woman reins in, controls the looks. The eyes do not look at Adèle’s nudity. We know that Gustav Klimt sometimes, if not always, first painted a nude woman for a portrait, and then painted his decorative patterns of mosaic robes on top, to let only the face emerge from out of the decoration.

Adèle Bloch-Bauer wears a tight robe, but the faint contours of a wide ballroom cloak undulate broadly downwards, as if suggesting that the lady were shown during a dance-party or at a high-society dinner. She holds her hands together in a gesture of interest. She might be hearing her elegant partner, telling her of his life exploits, or entertaining her with the latest news at the Courts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even explaining to her the intricacies of economic and industrial revival of Austria. These hands are long with fine, delicate, thin fingers that play while she hears her partner out. She holds a white triangular handkerchief between her thin fingers, and she is well aware that the triangle draws the attention, whereas that pattern repeats on her chest and envelops her.

Adèle’s face emerges above a long neck imprisoned in a silver, broad and tight necklace studded with a few precious stones. These also attract attention and a man could easily imagine his hands around that long neck in a tight caress.
Adèle hangs to the lips of the viewer and looks at the painter, but her own ample, swollen, red lips are half-opened to catch any man without words in wild sexual expectations.
Yet, Adèle is sophisticated. Her whole face is long and narrow, not voluptuous like the large heavy-boned faces of Viennese slave prostitutes. She has large, dark eyes and her hair does not fall down on her face, as a luscious Hungarian gypsy would have had. Her hair is made up high and broad, pushed up and widened to enhance the lines of her long face. She has a delicate nose, and large dark eyes immediately directed at you. She must be intelligent, but she mixes intelligence with red sensuality as she brought some rouge on her cheeks, and her lips stand out alluringly.
The decorative patterns of gold and white mosaic motifs become smaller and more entangled, more complex and chaotic around her face, as if passion heightens the movement around her head. Adèle’s face is where the action is; here she captures all attention, not with her body, which remains hidden between the eye motifs of her robes.

Gustav Klimt painted a very flat picture. Dimensions and feelings of space, depth, and far landscape are all absent. The attention is on the face of the woman only. To enhance this effect, Klimt even brought on the lower left a horizontal black-and-white mosaic checker pattern, which a viewer could suspect to be a frieze that separates two surfaces of a wall. Klimt seemed to indicate that Adèle’s portrait is a fresco. Only her face seems to have volume. Klimt indeed was a fresco painter. He decorated many walls of palaces, museums and private villas. But here, he used merely a painterly technique to draw more attention to the woman’s face. Gold was used in paintings of early Italian icons of the Virgin and Klimt re-applied this colour and metal in an entirely new way, almost as a means also to draw the face of the woman out of time and into our moment.

Adèle Bloch-Bauer was a precious jewel for Gustav Klimt, shining in Imperial Vienna of superficial mundane relations. We suspect violent emotions beneath, emotions of perversity and decadence and of surrender to eroticism. Yet, Adèle Bloch-Bauer does not seem to be a woman who would lose control; she dominates naturally.
The "Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer" is hence much more than a portrait. This picture was not made to show a lady, a portrait to be hung reverently in a dinner-room. This is much more. It is a strange and mysterious ode to the dangerous, alluring women of the high-society of Vienna just before the end of the Empire. It is an eminently Art Nouveau picture in that it emphasises its main theme, women. It contains extremely many decorative elements, which enhance in curved lines and in a passion of intertwined forms the complexity of the character of the figure.

Gustav Klimt was born near Vienna in 1862, from a father who was a chiseller of precious metals, an artisan of art. Klimt went quite early, at fourteen years old, to the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna. Together with his younger brother Ernst he made portraits, and at seventeen already he worked with his brother and their friend Franz Matsch at decorations in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.
After many other works of wall decorations he enjoyed recognition as one of the most promising artists of Vienna. He received the Golden Cross of artistic merit from the very hands of Emperor Franz-Joseph.
In 1892, he lost his father and brother in the same year. But Klimt gained a livelong friend and mistress in Emilie Flöge, a woman who held a textile fashion shop in Vienna. Klimt would design robes for her collection.

Gustav Klimt became more and more, by his talent and daringness to innovate, the leader of a group of Viennese artists that were increasingly dissatisfied with the now sterile Romantic and Nazarene Austrian art tendencies. The group organised their secession from the established art milieu.
They founded in 1896-1897 a new movement that they called the "Wiener Secession". The thinker and initiator of that movement was Hermann Bahr, but Klimt became its first official elected president. Joined to the Vienna Secession would be founded the "Wiener Werkstätte", a workshop of Viennese artisans that could execute the works of the artists and turn their ideas in designs for all kinds of objects, furniture and jewels, as well as architecture.

The Vienna Secession became a widely known group. The artists staged several exhibitions each year, and also drew international artists to exhibit in Vienna. Soon the group had assembled enough funds to build a house for their movement. Gustav Klimt drew up plans; the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich realised it in modern geometric volumes. In the meantime, Klimt became more and more famous. Many of his paintings were considered scandalous, but Vienna society flirted with scandal and with Klimt, and Klimt gave the Viennese back exactly what could be expected as sensual representations. Klimt was extremely popular with the Viennese society of the wealthy and the nobility. The Austrian government refused many of his decorations but the ladies of Vienna continued to want a portrait made by Klimt. Klimt painted in his peculiar Art Nouveau style, and female sensuality was the main theme of his work.

In 1902, for the fourteenth exhibition of the Wiener Secession a statue of Beethoven, made by the Secessionist sculptor Max Klinger, would be placed in the centre of the halls of their house, now considered to be a palace. The interior of the Secession Palace was re-arranged by Joseph Hoffman and even a movement of a symphony of Gustav Mahler was performed, directed by the composer who was then the Director of Vienna’s Opera.
Gustave Klimt surrounded the statue with what was called the "Beethoven Frieze", set high on the walls almost against the ceiling. The Beethoven frieze represented all Klimt’s ideas for his contemporary art. That art was extremely sensual and erotic, and Vienna did no longer accept the clear erotic images of Klimt. He was more and more criticised in Vienna, even though he remained respected and received enough commissions to live in ease. He also saw critics coming from the new Expressionist young painters.

In 1905, after a quarrel, Klimt and his friends the architect Joseph Hoffman, the painters Carl Moll and Koloman Moser, left the Viennese Secession. That was the end of the movement, which stopped effectively around 1908. Gustav Klimt, however, remained popular as Vienna’s main painter, through the years of the awful World War I in which Austria participated. Emperor Franz-Joseph died in 1916, in the middle of that war. Two years later, Gustav Klimt died in 1918. He died together with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which would later be split in many independent states, and which would nevermore have an Emperor. With the end of the Viennese Secession and the death of Klimt, Austrian art declined.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: November 2010
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.