In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art Nouveau

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Dissemination: Articles
  • Analyses: Articles
  • Art Nouveau in the 1920s: Surrealism, Salvador Dali, and Walter Benjamin
  • Art Nouveau and Postmodernism in the 1970s and’80

Architecture Planning and Preservation Art Nouveau
Meredith L. Clausen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0008


Though circumscribed in time, art nouveau was a sprawling, diverse movement affecting all the arts, both ideologically and formally. The essay here focuses on its theoretical foundations as they were originally articulated and realized in architecture in France and Belgium at the end of the 19th century. Art nouveau architecture was first and foremost a revolutionary design approach demanding an unequivocal rejection of historicism in the quest for a new architecture suitable to the modern age. At a time when eclecticism was the norm throughout Europe, proponents of art nouveau defied the academic system, demanding the abandonment of historical prototypes as a model for contemporary design, a system that had prevailed since the Renaissance; it thus broke through the barrier, paving the way for modernism. As with any artistic trend, there were considerable differences among practitioners, reflecting national and regional identities as well as individual skills and tastes, but generally their work can be characterized by forms inspired not by those of history or tradition, but by the natural world. The conviction, as architect and theorist Frantz Jourdain stated it in 1889 on the occasion of the Paris Exposition Universelle, was “à des besoins nouveaux, les formes nouvelles”—new forms for new needs. Instead of derived forms, especially those in the classical language based on a monarchial or aristocratic past, one should use forms inspired by the beauty of nature that everyone, regardless of class or education, can understand. Consistent with this democratic ideal and the embrace of un art pour tous was the acceptance of the realities of a modern industrial society: industrial materials and processes, mass production, and standardization. While revolutionary in its spirit, art nouveau had roots in a wide range of 19th century artistic trends: Viollet-le-Duc’s structural rationalism; the innovative architectural use of iron and glass; new modern building types such as exhibition halls and department stores; William Morris and the arts & crafts movement with its aim of an aesthetically harmonious total work of art; Japanese art with its asymmetry, long sinuous lines, flat planes of color, and non-Western sense of space; the poster with its energetic, writhing lines and flat fields of bold clashing color; its targeted audience of people of all classes especially the working class; and an aim to bring art to the people—not just in the private home but in the public street. Catalyzing the movement in architecture in the early 1890s, surely, was the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, marking the triumph of the engineer with the unprecedented use of glass, iron, and steel, and jolting traditionally trained architects, such as Victor Horta in Brussels, out of their stymied state into exploring a wholly new sense of space, light, and color. From Belgium and France, art nouveau spread quickly throughout Europe and other parts of the world, changing its aims and priorities as it did so to adjust to different economic and political situations, and acquiring different names. Infused initially with the spirit and energy of the Belle Époque and marked by its joie de vivre, optimism, and progressive outlook, the movement waned as the decade progressed, done in as much as anything by conservative forces both political and artistic that gained momentum as national tensions mounted. With war clouds gathering, sensibilities retreated to traditional historical certainties and to the security and safety of the past in the face of increasingly unsettled times.

General Overviews

Most publications on art nouveau consider it a broad artistic movement including painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts, as well as architecture. Studies specifically focused on art nouveau architecture are rare, but provide an exceptionally good picture of the radical changes in architectural history over the course of the century. Viewed historiographically, they project a clear view of the shifting aesthetic values in architectural discourse as well as public taste. Largely rejected within a decade or so of its appearance, the movement was framed in architectural history by the limited perspectives of influential modernist historians such as Pevsner and Giedion, who basically cast it aside (denigrated by Pevsner as merely a decorative style; dismissed by Giedion as only transitional, an “intermezzo” between 19th century historicism and 20th century modernism). Their teleological perspectives, based on selected buildings and projects they saw as anticipating or contributing to the modern movement, meant other simultaneously existing artistic trends, such as the art nouveau, were all but ignored. Faced with all but universal disregard, its legacy began disappearing as early as the mid-1920s. In the early 1950s, exhibitions and publications on art nouveau began documenting it. These initially were formalistic in nature, identifying the style largely in terms of its sinuous ‘whiplash line,’ and focusing on its sources and origins in Belgium and France. In time methodological approaches changed, expanding to trace the spread of the movement geographically throughout Europe and North America and to include the analysis of radically differing cultural contexts. In the early 1960s, Reyner Banham, a student of Pevsner’s, challenged his former mentor on his narrow, elitist view, opening doors for a more inclusive approach. As modernist moral strictures eased, the movement increasingly was assessed on its own terms rather than measured against the sober, efficient, functional Bauhausian design approach. Another surge of interest appeared in the 1970s, aroused in part by the growing strength of the preservation movement but perhaps more importantly by the emergence of postmodernism, with its acceptance, even celebration, of ornamentation. Freed from the ideological baggage of modernism, in which aesthetic tastes as well as historical perspectives had been constricted by modernist sensibilities, the movement was seen through fresh eyes. Still more recently, in a new era of globalization and as disciplinary as well as geographical boundaries dissolve in academia, there has been yet another wave of publications on art nouveau as an international phenomenon, seen less as a purely artistic movement and more as a broad cultural phenomenon, and bearing the influence of new interdisciplinary approaches such as postcolonialism, women studies, psychoanalysis, and experiential design. The selection of citations below is aimed at providing a sense of the movement in architecture as it developed over time.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.