Art Nouveau is an artistic style characterized by free form, sinuous line, and organic motifs.
The Salon de l’Art Nouveau, opened in 1895 by art dealer Siegfried (aka Samuel) Bing (1838–1905) in Paris, was the first showcase for the “new” art style sweeping both Europe and the United States from 1890 onward. Before Art Nouveau, the late nineteenth century had been characterized by a balancing act between the strict order and historicism of the Neoclassicists and the emotional and visual chaos of the Romantics.
Looking to the natural world but moving beyond it for free-flowing, organic form allowed the practitioners of the “new art” to create graceful works that built on traditional styles but also transformed them. Some critics trace the visual style back to Celtic manuscript illumination with its interlacing knot patterns, others to the Rococo love of the curvilinear and extreme elaboration. Precursors include the works of English Aesthetic movement illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1862–98), Arts and Crafts designer William Morris (1834–96), and ukiyo-e Japanese printmakers, such as Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1760–1849).
In his book Pioneers of Modem Design (1936), Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–83) wrote, “… the curve undulating, flowing, and interplaying with others … .” He suggests that Art Nouveau was the transitional style to the modern era. It certainly incorporated many of the philosophical and societal trends of the period from 1890 to 1910. Whether it was a reflection of artists wanting to break free of societal norms or a quest for aesthetic purity removed from moral judgments, the explorations of Art Nouveau touched everything from graphic design to furniture and began the modern era, foreshadowing later modern trends such as abstraction and Surrealism.