During the late 1800s European art was largely defined by an academic and mechanised approach. Art was essentially undergoing a period of depression whereby an elitist group of fusty critics took it upon themselves to dictate the rules of what would constitute a meritorious work of art. The only way for an artist to be taken seriously, it seemed, was for them to attend the ‘right’ art academies and approach their craft with dutiful devotion to the practised strictures of line, shape, form and texture. Art was very much seen as a refined discipline that could only be properly pursued through long and coordinated periods of study. The result was a plethora of meticulous portraits with ornate frames and idealised landscapes of photographic quality. Then another school of thought developed to counteract the methodical approach and redefine art as a pursuit that couldn’t be studied like science or math. Instead they believed that art was a movement; an energy that grew from an inexplicable and amorphous part of the mind that could never be ruled or tamed. These rebel artists were driven by an urge that couldn’t be put to paper or theorised. The style of the work they produced was collected under the designation Art Nouveau, which is popularly thought of as having occurred from 1890-1910. This style was defined by flowing, twisted lines and whiplash curves that evoked unchained thinkers and a freer hand. Soon Art Nouveau absorbed myriad cultural influences, like the delicate, sinuous lines taken from Japanese woodblock prints. Yet all the while certain patterns remained that served to reinforce and further characterise Art Nouveau. Simplicity was key, as well as a palette of muted colours, from carnation pinks to olive greens, that gave the natural imagery a fragile allure. The practitioners of this style of art were often influenced by the expressive paintings of post-impressionists that imbued their subjects with a fleeting flicker of life and thereby conveyed the insubstantiality of appearances. Suddenly new emphasis had been placed on individual artistry and hand craftsmanship that could replace mass-produced classical imitations.
Art Nouveau also pervaded a range of other artistic practices, including jewellery design, which experienced a dramatic shift into this flowing, organic style. The impact of Art Nouveau on jewellery was perhaps most evident in 1900, during the Paris International Exhibition, attended by over fifty million people. The exhibition was undoubtedly a platform for Art Nouveau in general. Some of the most significant pieces were showcased during the event, mostly in a pavilion orchestrated by Siegfried Bing, a renowned art dealer who, in 1895, opened the shop and gallery L’Art Nouveau, which gave the movement its name. Exploring that exhibition in the 1900s you might’ve found yourself wandering through plush interiors where furniture, fabrics and decoration all conformed to a uniformed design, existing as the composite parts of a single work of art. Glancing over your shoulder you might’ve caught a glimpse of the American dancer, Loie Fuller, as she danced across the stage with trailing veils and transformed herself into a flower. Then imagine turning back and being confronted by a plush table top, upon which sat Rene Lalique’s elegant Dragonfly Brooch, waking you to the realisation of a movement enlivened by married themes of nature and metamorphosis.
Pictured above is an example of the heights this radical artistic movement reached to better illustrate our point. This Dragonfly Pendant was designed by Rene Lalique himself, reflecting the marriage of nature and design, with softly-coloured wings with a yellow trim.
Undoubtedly the embers have survived from this explosion of Art Nouveau. Presently the same organic shapes and sinuous lines are still used to enliven jewellery, supplying an undercurrent of eroticism, whilst also expounding the beauty of natural motifs. At the same time Art Nouveau has encouraged a step back from the common usage of precious stones and placed greater emphasis on the subtle merits of mixed materials like glass, horn and enamel. Eventually this led to an array of radical designs that, while they couldn’t be said to have revived such a lively industry, certainly gave it a kick in the right place.