The origins of what we now know as the Art Nouveau style stem principally from mainland Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the French are highly associated with the style, other continental countries were also quick to embrace it. Designers and producers in Austria, Spain, the UK, and also America all provide strong contributions to the various mediums of the decorative arts. But for sheer iconic imagery, nothing can compete with the Parisian designs of the late 19th century. Nothing symbolises the movement quite like an advertising poster by the great Alphonse Mucha who was a Czech national but working in Paris. His imagery has become some of the most reproduced works of all time, with the Art Nouveau style having various revivals since its birth, most notably during the 1960s and '70s. We look at a few key areas that you may find in your own homes, and that are offered in our 20th Century Decorative Arts auctions.
Arguably the one artist who defined the Art Nouveau style was Alphonse Mucha. His commissions by leading brands such as Moet & Chandon, and numerous associations with theatre companies, saw his imagery shooting up all over Paris and European cities in the form of lithographic posters. So strong are his designs of sinuous borders often framing a beautiful maiden with flowing hair, that they have become iconic in modern culture. The allegorical series of posters he would produce - such as The Seasons, or The Flowers - have become highly sought after. Given their popularity, and potential value, they are images that have been reproduced heavily ever since the 1900s when they were first being printed. For serious collectors today, condition of the paper, the boldness of the colours, if they have been trimmed, and overall scarcity value are key factors in determining likely auction value.
Often Mucha would model his studies on the infamous French starlet Sarah Bernhardt. Indeed, her beauty was often the subject of Parisian artists of the day, and she has become strongly linked with the Art Nouveau decorative art style because of it.
A great number of objects from this movement have survived made from the various metalwares of the day, and these can remain very popular to collectors. A very popular finish was that of polished pewter, or plated nickel ware. Perhaps the most iconic items come from the great German firm Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik, or simply WMF. Their retail catalogues from the late 19th century are a lasting chronicle to the Art Nouveau style, and show the company’s vast output, making anything in their plated wares. The female form and sinuous flowing lines continue throughout their products, from mirrors to dressing table sets; jewellery caskets to visiting card stands; mantel clocks to epergne stands. Some of their strongest designs have the female maiden morphed as a butterfly or nymph – a highly emblematic symbol of the movement. Similar wares were produced in other Western countries. The Liberty & Co ‘Tudric’ pewter range in the UK and the American Tiffany Studios were fine proponents of metalware in this style.
Sculpture is just an important an area of the Art Nouveau style, and in particular lighting. We take it for granted now, but electricity in the late 19th century was the “in-thing”! It transformed the home interior and consequentially revolutionised the decorative art elements throughout. Designers and sculptors influenced by the style truly celebrated this new phenomenon. You commonly see figural lighting, either cast bronze or other art metals, of a maiden holding flowerheads that would conceal a small light bulb, or peering down into a bowl mesmerised by the radiating light.
Continuing the theme of light and the Art Nouveau, glass is another medium that celebrates the qualities of light to its full potential. The great French glass region of Lorraine housed some of the more significant factories and designers, such as Daum, and Émile Gallé. Their glass wares were similar in the use of the techniques of acid-etching, wheel carving, and heightening with enamel, of cameo glass. Cameo techniques were not new to glass, but certainly were heavily used in the late 19th century. Cameo glass is where you have multiple layers of differing colours of glass, and the surface is worked to expose the under layers, and therefore exposing the different colours. Floral themes or scrolling landscapes are frequently seen in Art Nouveau designs. More can be read on our 20th Century Glass pages.
Another significant contributor in Art Nouveau glass designs are those of Louis Comfort Tiffany in America. The Tiffany Studios were world leaders in the production of iridescent glass ware, but even more so for stained glass. Tiffany stained glass windows have been celebrated ever since; often copied, but never matched in their quality and depth of colours. The Tiffany Studios also had prominent metal works, so designers could cast elaborate bases to support wonderful stained glass shades. Originals are now serious investment works of art.
British designers were heavily influenced by their continental contemporaries and so we do see elements of the Art Nouveau style incorporated into British products and manufacturing. There are very clear areas of overlap with what we might classify as the British Arts and Crafts movement, and its emblems and motifs. You can see some designers were certainly heavily influenced by the Continental Art Nouveau style. The architect and designer Charles Robert Ashbee produced designs in silver through his Guild of Handicraft that have very elongated whiplash lines. The glass designers working in Stourbridge firms, such as Stevens and Williams, competed well with their European contemporaries. The Celtic motifs that you see heavily employed by designers associated with Liberty & Co, such as Archibald Knox, also draw comparisons to the European movement. Arguably the area that displays the British Art Nouveau style the best is that of the decorative ceramic tile. Many tile producers of the late 19th and early 20th century employed designers that produced very strong designs in the style, usually with floral motifs. Originally incorporated into fireplaces or storm porches, many tiles have survived either in situ or rehoused into furniture, or simply framed in their own right as square 6-inch or 8-inch displays. Some furniture makers incorporated such tiles into their designs, or embellished their furniture with colourful scrolling inlays and metal strapwork. Shapland & Petter of Barnstaple are another strong example of the British Art Nouveau style, and their work remains very desirable at auction today.
If you have an item that you feel falls under this movement that you would like valued for auction it couldn’t be easier. You can submit an enquiry via our Valuations Form where you can upload images and details of your items.
From these images our Specialist will be able to give an initial guide into likely auction value. You can share multiple files by emailing our Specialist directly, or alternatively book an appointment to see us in person.
As with any valuation, certain factors will be crucial in determining a more accurate and realistic auction estimate. The condition of an item is especially important to dedicated collectors in this field. Not until our Specialist has seen an item in person would the final auction advice be agreed.