Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is a movement that made a conscious effort to break with the past and to establish a completely new style of its own. It developed in the 1880s and was popular until World War II. Like Arts and Crafts, it focused particularly on the decorative arts and a desire to elevate them from mere craft to a fine art. Unlike Arts and Crafts, however, which focused on simplicity and honesty of form, Art Nouveau was a sophisticated and mannered style, an amalgamation of a variety of influences.

The Romance of Zion Chapel
(John Lane, 1898)

It is somewhat difficult to ascertain a single starting point for the movement. The term "Art Nouveau" itself was first coined in the Review L'Art Modern in 1881, though the writers applied it more generally than its later definition. Different countries grasped on to the "new art" idea and its rejection of historicism and academicism, though they chose their own versions of the label: Jugenstil, Art Joven, Style Liberty, Secession. Because of the differences, some argue that it is easiest to evaluate the style from a nationalistic perspective rather than as a unified movement, though there was certainly a great deal of cross influence.

There were many talented artists who embraced the style. In America, Louis Comfort Tiffany and his studio created elegant Art Nouveau forms in glass, jewelry and interior design. Louis Sullivan embellished his architectural work with extravagant geometrically based organic forms. Will Bradley spread Art Nouveau style in the graphic arts, influenced strongly by British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

The Quest of the Golden Girl
(John Lane, 1898)

Art Nouveau style centered primarily on an exploration of organic form. Its hallmark feature was the elegant curving line. Robert Schmutzler describes it well as "a long, sensitive, sinuous line that reminds us of seaweed or of creeping plants, […] the flick of a whiplash, flowing or flaring up, moderato or furioso, always moving in a sort of narcissistic self-delight" (quoted in Crichton). Geometric developments did occur later, and particularly in the Glasgow School and Vienna Secession. Asymmetry was another strong element of the style. Art Nouveau's influences were wide and varied; artists tended to be eclectic and assimilate whatever other styles might be useful in the finished product. This included Japanese, Greek, Rococo, Dutch, Celtic and Pre-Raphaelite sources, among others.

Doktoren fra Thorshof
(John Anderson Publishing, 1901)

With its emphasis on decorative arts, Art Nouveau played a significant role in book design. Charles Ricketts, a collector, writer and artist founded the Vale Press (1896-1904), creating fine editions in Art Nouveau style. The aforementioned Beardsley gained his reputation through book illustration, such as his work on The Rape of the Lock. Will Bradley, in addition to his commercial work, also created his own private press, the Wayside Press (1896-1898), and designed and published a number of Art Nouveau style books as well as his own self-titled magazine, Bradley: His Book.

The influence of Art Nouveau is complex within book cover production. Many of the bindings of artists like Rickets, Beardsley and Laurence Housman appear more restrained and geometric than their illustrations. Bradley employed a range of Art Nouveau motifs on some of his covers, including some that are reminiscent of other artists (for example, Housman's style in Quest of the Golden Girl, pbw01216).

A Silent Singer
(Brentano's, 1901)

Many binding designers embraced the Art Nouveau whiplash curve as a means of achieving a contemporary feel. Though some experimented with asymmetry, it was more common to integrate the distinct curve in with a more standard symmetrical design. Often covers were not pure Art Nouveau but a blend with other styles like classicism (an example is the fine bindings of René Kieffer). Some covers incorporated the more geometrical elements present in groups like the Glasgow School and the Vienna Secession (see pbw00561). There are also certain typefaces linked to Art Nouveau; one example is the Eckman typeface created by German designer and illustrator Otto Eckman (pbw00868 is similar). Yet, it is the Art Nouveau curve that is the most easily identifiable feature of the style on covers at the turn of the century.

Detail from pbw00868
(ca. 1900)

Search the PBO database for Art Nouveau


Crichton, Laurie W. Book Decoration in America, 1890-1910. A Guide to an Exhibition. Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College, 1979.

Duncan, Alistair and Georges de Bartha. Art Nouveau and Art Deco Bookbindings: French Masterpieces 1880-1940. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Garvey, Eleanor M. The Turn of a Century 1885-1910. Art Nouveau Jugendstil Books. Cambridge: Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Harvard University, 1970.

Johnson, Diane Chalmers. American Art Nouveau. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Lavallée, Michelle. "Art Nouveau." Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. New York: Grove, 1996. (online version is available at some colleges and universities)

Return to PBO home