Every year, my husband and I look forward to traveling far away from home to experience a different culture somewhere new in the world. It is always a place where neither one of us have ever been before, so it’s usually quite an exciting adventure.
Several years ago, we decided on the country of Spain as our destination. While visiting, we took a tour of Barcelona, the center of one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe. One of the greatest highlights for me was Park Guëll.
It was filled with beautiful gardens and the most amazing art I have ever seen. I had my photo taken there on a curvy snaked bench constructed by a Spanish architect named Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926).
His work was reflected all throughout the park. Gaudi cleverly used broken tiles to create the bench as perfectly square tiles could not properly fit onto a curved shape. It was also much more cost effective for him to use broken tiles. The result was a spectacular work of art:
I did not know it at the time, but the movement that influenced Gaudi the most in his work was Art Nouveau, inspiring him to experiment with new materials and organic shapes (plants and animals) and to find his own unique style instead of imitating the common historical styles of the past.
Art Nouveau, meaning “New Art,” is a style of art and architecture that started in Europe and was most popular between 1890 and 1910. Its name came from a gallery in Paris, France, established by a German art dealer named Siegfried Bing. It was called Maison de l’Art Nouveau (House of New Art), exclusively featuring modern art. His gallery became well known after the 1900 Exposition Universelle where he presented decorative displays that became strongly associated with this particular style, giving rise to the common term “Art Nouveau.”
The objective of Art Nouveau was to modernize design, getting far away from the historical styles that had previously been favored. Industrial production was increasing which resulted in poorly made decorative art imitating the earlier periods. Art Nouveau artists sought to bring back high-quality workmanship with a modern look. They wanted to do away with the ornamental 19th-century designs which they perceived as frivolous decoration. They believed the object’s function should dictate its form.
The new designs harmonized with nature in an elegant way that flowed through the use of curved lines and organic inspiration from flowers, plants, and animals.
The style of Art Nouveau was often expressed through glass art. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) began creating “Tiffany Style” lamps in New York at the turn of the century using complex shade designs depicting nature with dragonflies, wisteria, and pond lilies:
The famous jewelry firm called Tiffany & Company was founded by Louis’ father, Charles Tiffany. Louis became their first design director in 1902 during the Art Nouveau era. They are still in business today and continue to sell striking pieces of jewelry and other collectibles to the very wealthy.
A New Look for Jewelry
The jewelers of French cities Paris and Brussels defined the style of Art Nouveau in jewelry. For the past two centuries, the emphasis had been on gemstones, especially diamonds. Now, a new style of jewelry emerged emphasizing the artists’ designs and craftsmanship rather than the costly metals or precious gems.
They began to experiment with enameling techniques and using new, modest materials such as horn, molded glass, ivory, shell, and copper without the use of machines. Diamonds were seldom used now. Semi-precious stones such as amethyst, opal, amber, citrine, peridot, moonstone, and freshwater pearls became much more common in Art Nouveau jewelry.
Here is a beautiful Art Nouveau piece I repurposed into a ring. You can see the nature motif and freshwater pearl crafted into the design:
French jewelry designer and glassmaker René Lalique popularized these changes as the most influential jeweler of the Art Nouveau era by introducing aspects of nature such as the dragonfly into his one-of-a-kind works of art:
Calouste Gulbenkian acquired from the artist in 1903
Other prevalent motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry included orchids, ferns, peacocks, snakes, and butterflies. It was also common to see an image of a woman carved into the surface of the jewelry.
Here is a photo I took during my visit to Lisbon, Portugal of a René Lalique pin (1898) made with gold, chrysoprase, and enamel, displayed in the Calouste Gulbenkian museum:
This was an era when women were becoming more independent as they fought for their rights. The Art Nouveau woman was alluringly sexual and sometimes even scandalous as you can see in this advertisement from Paris in 1896 for Job Cigarettes. She has her hair down in whiplash curves, very scandalous for a time when women wore their hair up:
Color Lithograph by Alphonse Mucha
The style peaked in 1900, slowing down its popularity in the years following. Art Nouveau was a luxury style requiring expert artists and highly-paid craftsmen. It could not be mass-produced easily or cheaply so within ten years, Art Nouveau fell out of fashion.
Much has changed in the arts and society since the era of Art Nouveau. Our next travel destination, which will be to a remote beach island, is definitely going to be a place to relax. I am looking forward to letting my hair down (with all of its whiplash curves) and not feeling the least bit scandalous.
*Wisteria Table Lamp photo; 1902 by Tiffany Studios; designed by Clara Driscoll; from the collection of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
*Dragonfly photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparklig/6129761819/
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com
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