Art Nouveau, from Brussels to Glasgow

22 Jan 2013

By Sharen Custer, 62days expert

People looking to buy and sell antiques often find themselves encountering a host of artistic styles and descriptions of which they may be unfamiliar. One such artistic movement which many people may not know much about is Art Nouveau – so here’s our quick guide to the history of this historically important style.



Art Nouveau movement owes much to William Morris (1834-1896). He fiercely challenged the aesthetic values of the mid-Victorian era, condemning the use of machinery and the wrong-headed division of labour with its resultant loss of humanity. But another source of inspiration was the colonial conquest of the East, which opened the eyes of London, Paris and Brussels to an unfamiliar artistic world.

In London Liberty & Co opened a shop selling oriental imported goods. In Paris Samuel Bing (1838-1905) specialised in oriental prints before setting up his own shop called “Art Nouveau”. Gustave Serrurier-Bovy (1858-1910) opened a decorative goods shop in 1884 in Liege, importing pieces mainly from Japan and some other Eastern countries. This contact with the Far East, which also influenced contemporary painters such as Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), led artists to look at nature in a different way. It is interesting to note that social behaviour also was undergoing a significant change. This was seen in fashion and liberalisation of the society.

One can argue that Art Nouveau was an entire movement with the aim of changing the order of the old art and creating a new school. There is no one single architect, artist or designer that can represent Art Nouveau. Each school had its own way of interpreting the style. For example, in France, Belgium and Germany Art Nouveau was especially exuberant and lavish to an extreme. While in Austria, England and Scotland it was a very restrained and quiet style. But one main feature was common to all parts of the world where Art Nouveau was practiced – there had to be a harmonised design; all elements, down to the very small details in the interior, had to correspond and be linked with each other. This was a concept of a total design.


Belgian Art Nouveau

The long reign of the Belgian king Leopold II (1835-1909) provided a prosperous context for the development of Art Nouveau in the country. Belgium was a very young country then, and it had a very active industrial scene. Research and trade were actively promoted, which created a fairly large and prosperous middle class. Belgium was like a melting pot for the new style and it was the main linking country between England and Europe.

The Aesthetic Movement gave England a head start over the continental Europe in the search for the new style. But it was in Belgium that this new approach brought unexpected results. Brussels was a very important centre for all new ideas in Europe. In the 1884 there was a group formed, called The Twenty, organised by Octave Maus (1856-1919). The aim of the group was to attract young and progressive European artists to the city. The first annual exhibition of avant-garde European works featured Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), and it created an immediate sensation. And in the 1892 exhibition, their decorative works of art were shown on the same level with sculpture and painting. This was a new move on its own, as decorative arts were considered to be inferior to the fine arts. These exhibitions were held every year, until the group was disbanded in 1894.

In 1893 the engineer Emile Tassel asked the architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) to build a private house for him in Brussels – now an iconic early Art Nouveau building. Horta revolutionised the design by using iron and cast iron. He linked the structure of the house and the interior decoration by creating a decorative language based on the arabesque motif. Horta hung a glazed lantern light above the stairwell of the house, enclosing the space itself in flowing ribbons that wind around one another and rise like random flames from the bottom of the stairs. The interior decoration has a remarkable unity indeed, even in the smallest detail, with the architectural line being carried over to the furniture. The pieces of furniture that Horta designed were customised for each client individually and none of the designs were intended to be mass produced. In his architectural structures he used mainly brick, stone, iron and cast iron.

The work of the architect and furniture designer Gustave Serrurier-Bovy helped to forge links between Belgium and England. Early in his career he travelled to England to attend craft courses, returning with ideas for simple and well-constructed furniture influenced by Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement. In his shop in Liege he sold his own furniture as well as furniture he imported from England. He also got a permission to sell furniture made (or rather marketed) by Liberty. In 1894 he was actually a first furniture designer who exhibited at the La Libre Esthetique exhibition. He set up an entire interior that was inspired by the English Gothic Revival style.

In addition to architects, painters and sculptors also started making objects for the home. The painter Willy Finch (1854-1930) started producing ceramics, and Fernand Dubois (1869-1952) took up sculpture. Non-traditional materials were being used in production of decorative objects at the time. For example, dark woods from Congo were mixed with worked metal. The last two main Art Nouveau exhibitions in Belgium were the Turin exhibition in 1902 and the Brussels exhibition of 1905. The floral curves of the style became less pronounced then and objects became more geometric, thus paving the way to Art Deco that would come after the Great War.


French Art Nouveau

For most of the 19th century France was a backward looking country in terms of artistic styles. The introduction to Art Nouveau also came here mainly through architecture and only then affected furniture and decorative objects. One of the greatest successes of Art Nouveau was its ability to integrate furniture into the interior. Before the 1900s, items of furniture were usually designed individually and then fitted into the typical 19th century interior, with total disregard for harmony. While it was possible to find all types of furniture, people had to shop around in order to find the matching style and design to complete the furnishings of a reception room. Therefore, traditional cabinet makers did not look at the Art Nouveau style favourably, as it went against their basic belief that a piece of furniture has first to be functional and well built, and the decoration played secondary role. The new movement gave priority to the decoration, and sometimes this went too far, creating exceptionally extravagant objects, which were not always functional.

The desire to bring together different areas of art to create a modern interior was also reflected in the way galleries and shops were arranged. The official opening of L’Art Nouveau shop in Paris owned by Samuel Bing was one of the most spectacular events in the history of the movement. He displayed together objects produced using a variety of techniques and used spaced that resembled real home interiors, to give ideas and decorative inspirations to the buyers. Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957) designed the spaces, and a string of painters created the decorations. Among the contributors were Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) and others.

In France the Nancy School was pre-eminent in the design and manufacture of Art Nouveau furniture. It brought together a group of very talented designers, such as Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), Emile Galle (1846-1904), Jacques Gruber (1870-1936), Eugene Vallin (1856-1922), Camille Gauthier (1870-1963), Henri Hamm (1871-1961), Louis Hestaux (1858-1919), Justin Ferez (1870-1920) and others. The architect Emile Andre (1871-1933) also designed a range of furniture to fit his buildings interiors. He collaborated extensively with Victor Prouve (1858-1943), Ernest Wittmann (1846-1921), Alfred Finot (1876-1946), Ernest Bussiere (1863-1937), Charles Fridrich (1876-1962), Daum brothers and others. The main characteristic of Art Nouveau in Nancy was its use of nature motifs – realistically portrayed flowers and plant forms. Furniture produced by Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) between 1898 and 1908 is the best example of this style.


The Glasgow School

From 1895 to 1900 the Art Nouveau style spread rapidly across Europe. In Glasgow it moved away from lavish floral designs and exuberance of the Belgian and French styles, and towards a geometrisation of form, creating its own distinctive style. One event in particular had a decisive impact on the style in Glasgow. Francis Henry Newbury (1855-1946) was appointed a director at the Glasgow School of Art in 1885. He actively encouraged his students to adopt a design philosophy that was not based on any earlier styles. This school was regarded as the most progressive European design schools until Bauhaus was established much later.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was the major figure in the Glasgow Art Nouveau. He attended evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. He travelled in Italy and then started a prolific architectural career. He designed such famous buildings as the Glasgow Herald Tribune building, Queen Margaret Medical College and the rebuilding of the Glasgow School of Art, which is considered to be his masterpiece. But above all Mackintosh distinguished himself as a designer of interiors, furniture and decorative objects that always seemed just right, without unnecessary ornaments. Mackintosh’s style incorporates stylised floral motifs and was very much influenced by the strong English Arts and Crafts style. Between 1898 and 1904 his preference was for white painted furniture with touches of silver, mauve and green. During this period he designed more than 400 objects ranging from chairs to cutlery. His art became increasingly abstract and geometric, and it still remained elegant, sophisticated and exceptionally attractive.

Today Art Nouveau furniture is often a sought-after commodity among those looking to buy and sell antique furniture and there is a thriving scene among the collectables market. The movement which had its roots in these late 19th century ideas has become one of the most recognisable artistic styles and have left its progenitors listed among the most important names in the modern antique market.