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Decorative Periods:
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
General Antiquity
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
The Renaissance
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Jacobean Period
Queen Anne
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
Art Nouveau

The Art Nouveau Style

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Another change in the government of France has to be recorded, one which had its effect, as usual, on matters decorative. This change was the restoration of the monarchy in France after the banishment of Napoleon.

Seeing how closely the personal note was followed in Empire furniture by its direct advertisement of the initial letter of the Emperor, his triumphs and his personal symbols, it is no wonder that with all possible haste it was got out of the way when his big brief day was past.

But alas, no inspiration came to supply the change with grace and beauty. The State ateliers were no more, and no geniuses announced themselves. France had apparently exhausted her resources, had ended her special Renaissance. To alter the existing style was imperative, as that spoke of something altogether undesirable politically to the royalists, so back turned the eye of the designers to the scrolls and shells of Louis XV.

But, not wishing to make a slavish copy, desiring to display originality perhaps, the result was a weakness and coarseness which is a reproach to the time. This feeble and gilded imitation spread to England as its betters had done, and there, if possible, grew worse. It came easily to America, and still shines forth from many a showy mirror frame or gilded plaster composition which shamelessly confuses the unlearned with its cheap assumption of the elegance of the inspired rococo.

Nothing happening in France which might be copied, England had a little revival of the Gothic style, a mention of which is not out of place, for furniture of this time, too, is being offered in the shops of small dealers as antique. It is in general outline Gothic, but so feebly that it could never be regarded seriously as anything more than the cabinet-makers' attempt to supply the never ending cry for something new.

In 1841 new additions were to be made to the magnificent pile of the Houses of Parliament. Much discussion naturally occurred as to what style the new construction should take. Looking back upon the monstrous exteriors and interiors of the nineteenth century, we can only be happily thankful that the decision was to copy the style already standing. The erection of these buildings was then the cause of the feeble revival of Gothic, which produced the vitiated examples standing in old-fashioned houses as hall chairs, and which are familiar to almost all. It had its expression in bookcases and in bedroom furniture, but to our educated eyes has no excuse for being.

Still struggling, art tried its hand in several ways, and at the time of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 produced a laughable effort at elegance, the buncombe papier mache furniture inlaid with mother of pearl in absurd architectural designs, much gilded and lacquered. These, too, the ill-informed farmer antique dealer will offer as of value merely because they have lost chips from their flimsy construction.

If art had gone to sleep, at least mechanics had waked to the cheerful sound of whistling steam. The application of steam to the manufacture of furniture may be responsible for the successive uglinesses that have followed one another in England and America. Whereas everything had hitherto been made by hand, now came a time when nothing was undertaken that could not be executed by machines. Add to this the substitution of black walnut for mahogany, and mankind found itself obliged to keep house with a set of household gods far too ugly to worship. The black walnut period must ever remain a horror to all who remember it. There is balm in the auction records that bedroom sets which cost two hundred and fifty dollars sell for eight, and that occasionally one is knocked down for seventy-five cents. If these prices had prevailed in the first instance, less of this hopeless stuff would have dulled the artistic sense of an energetic people.

In glancing the length of the past century we can find nothing worthy of perpetuation, no decorative expression of art that time has not proved a mistake. It almost seems as though the artists of the world at last agreed among themselves that the century must not go without the inception of some new style that was to be enduring, and that for that end they gathdere themselves for an effort.

The result is what we call L'Art Nouveau, or New Art, if one likes the English better.

For a long time it was not taken seriously, this new expression much given to swirls and curls; it was looked on as an ephemeral fancy, classed with novelties and expected to go the way of all such. But it has not gone, it has stayed, and insists that it is going to develop as great a seriousness as any of the lasting styles.

It had its beginning at least twenty years ago, in the days of London's " aesthetes," when limp dress and posing were the mode; and, if artists did not actually " walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily " in the hand, or breakfast off a prolonged stare at an orchid in a glass of water, they at least adored trailing inertness and pale colours. Vigorous William Morris then appeared, and wrote and designed and put more force into decoration, and others followed him.

But the really great matter that was accomplished was the turning to nature for inspiration instead of copying and re-copying all that had gone before. And this source of inspiration is now agreed upon by all artists of no matter what country. It is the one idea that makes unity between them and tends towards the artistic advancement of all. With the same source of inspiration, the whole world works in unison, and decorative art in its latest expression belongs to one nation no more than another. Each man may watch the progress of his fellows and either admire or condemn, to the improvement of his own similar work. This in itself is a tremendous stimulus, more so as each nation shows differing tendencies, based, as always, on racial differences of temperament. '

The first efforts of the new art were striking, for they were novel. The great public liked the maidens surrounded by the swirl of water or by their own abnormally abundant hair; they liked the long stems that curled about in lithe construction, and the plastic masses that bent to any shape. They liked, too, the furniture of indescribable lines which yet seemed honest and practical. And so it quickly came that commercialism fell upon the new idea, became intoxicated with success, and developed it hotly into the hideous exaggerations that we recognise in any style as signs of decadence.

This was the crucial time. L'Art Nouveau was running its course feverishly as a novelty, and developing traits of monstrosity. If the artists and craftsmen had shown discouragement and had thrown the whole scheme over in disgust at its removal from their hands into that of distorters, the style would have perished in a day.

But the day was saved. The true artists worked with ever more determination to produce something worthy, after seeing their earlier work distorted at once into license and decadence. The way the day was saved was by introducing into the work the same trained craftsmanship that prevailed in the execution of work during the time of "the three Louis."

This perfection of labour is perhaps more noticeable in France, where artists generally hold to the opinion that if the style is executed with the same lavish expenditure of labour and talent as that prevailing when the sun of the Gobelins factory was in its zenith, the new productions will have as much reason for longevity.

We can no longer regard lightly L'Art Nouveau. As it has its national peculiarities these are interesting to note. To France one turns first, from force of habit. To understand the French expression of the new forms we must remember two things clearly, -the first is the return to nature for ideas, the next is the French custom of copying their own time-honoured models.

As soon as France waked from her blood-gorged Revolution, she realised the mistaken vandalism of destroying and banishing all that had gone before in decoration. Therefore all France was ransacked for the dispersed fugitives, and from all hidingplaces were brought forth, piece by piece, the tables, chairs, desks, etc., that had been wrested from Versailles and other palaces, and these were put under government care in the Louvre, the Arsenal, and other museums. From that time forth young artists copied them. They formed the only source of artistic inspiration to designer and craftsman. Every art student of France knows them in all their details as an alphabet of decoration.

Starting, then, with this equipment, it is only logical that L'Art Nouveau in the hands of French artists is deeply reminiscent of the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

This it is that overwhelms the ruminating visitor in the new Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. One entire room is there decorated and furnished in the new style in its latest and most perfected expression. Nature and old French styles unite to create the effect. What is this effect? Subtle in the extreme, but on the whole something which the lover of the old resents. It suggests the old, but is brightly new, with pale bright wood-work, pale clear frescoes, pale rugs. Amidst the mounting rose-vines of carved wood that frame the door, that spread and grow to the height of the wall and creep beneath the ceiling, shines the classic construction of Louis XVI, and by means of this puissant background the designer gains strength. And this is the secret of the French work, its familiar construction beneath the licensed embellishment.

It is the same with the furniture in the room; the shapes are those we have known in the Pompadour's salons and Marie Antoinette's boudoirs, but these are merely the forms on which the fancies of Nature play, on which the detail of L'Art Nouveau is hung.

True to their intuition that no permanency can be accomplished without painstaking execution, the craftsmanship on the French furniture rivals the inspired productions of Roentgen and Riesener, if not of Caffieri and Gouthiere. The marquetry is a marvel. All the processes of inlaying known in the past are added to the knowledge of the moment; all the various woods of a century and a half ago are augmented by those since discovered, so that the craftsman in marquetry is daunted by nothing. Even the brush can accomplish no more than he with his equipment of craft, of secrets, of materials. It is a question in the minds of some if he is not led to overstep his province, which, after a11, is not pictorial painting.

French marquetry designs mean to the most of us the diaper pattern, and the floral sprays of Louis XV and Louis XVI. But in these made now the drawing is entirely in the new style.

As with marquetry, so with mounts. Still following the conviction that the new art must be treated as seriously as the old, and receive as much sacrifice in both money and time, the French worker completes his inlaid furniture with mounts which might compare favourably with those of the old masters if they had but the atmosphere of association that conspires to add subtlety to the artist's productions.

The modelling is of the unconventional, sinuous kind found in nature, not exaggerated, but transplanted. The chiselling and engraving is as fine as the metal worker can make it, and effects which charm and thrill are produced by the use of various shades of gold in one piece. This same manner is used in large ornamental work for interiors with rich and pleasing effect.

It is not supposable that the wood of furniture is left uncarved; it is treated with the same thought, the unconventional detail thrown upon the old familiar shapes.

Do we like it? A question hard to answer. Those who approach it with an open mind free from resentment will be forced to admit that it has strong claims to respect. Those who in wandering about Paris pass from the gallery of the Louvre, where the furniture of the eighteenth century magnificently holds court, to the new salon in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, will shake a dubious head, and fill his home with the old. But even so have the conservative ever done with innovation.

If the French expression of the new movement is like a new dressing of an old friend, wherein do other countries differ in their expression, their interpretation of what might be called the Zeitgeist? staly, so long accustomed to copying her own perfect past, has not yet developed her power; Austria and Germany lean towards designs that are characteristic, fantastic in the way we recognise as belonging to more northern peoples.

England, by starting on broad surfaces, has developed also in a way more stolid than that of France, by the lavish use of wood suggesting an eccentric attempt at nonchalance combined with naturalness, a return to planks and the sawmill as much as to nature.

The same might be urged as a description of the " Mission " styles in our own land. In England this style is called Quaint, and is only one expression of the new movement.

There is a marked contrast between this and a dainty evidence in which construction follows the lines of Sheraton. Seeing what the French were doing, English designers turned also to one of their own most pleasing styles, and are taking that as the stalk onto which the new art is grafted. L'Art Nouveau in England, therefore, is briefly summed in these two styles, - the primitive shapes of early northern people and the dainty forms of Sheraton. This represents furniture only, and relates but to construction. The decorations are entirely in the new style, and are so lavish and obvious that they dominate the older element as exuberant youth dominates age.

What we are doing with L'Art Nouveau in America is characteristic. As in England, it has two expressions. The first is brutally crude, with a simplicity that is one of the best combinations of taste and utility. I refer to the Mission furniture, -the word relating, of course, to the old Spanish missions planted in California before that State was in the Union.

The second expression of the new thought is instinct with the nervous sensitiveness that is a national trait. To judge of it as a curiosity is one matter, to see it in a room where there is no other style is another. Having no traditions to copy, but with the prevailing idea of studying nature, perhaps our artists have followed her more closely than those of Europe. As a result, we have produced in our styles an easy nonchalance, an unlimited display of tortuous, sinuous curves and boldly sweeping lines, - lines given by the waves, the vines, the flowers.

But in doing this an essential element has been lost, it is the all important one of strength. Under the spell of one of our decorative schemes carefully carried out, this is almost painfully apparent. In a room of this style one feels at first a strange wonder, a confused delight. All conventions are smoothly violated, all traditions are swept softly away. The eye wanders to the wavy lines of furniture, of the wood-work of the room, the wainscoting, the mantel, the door-frames, with a doubt as to the stability of it all. Not a familiar line is seen in the scheme. The wood does not stand staunchly to its duty, but bends and curves and swells like a plastic medium, and thereby loses all appearance of honest strength. Thus it seems that our artists are forgetting construction in the search for beauty. It can no more be neglected than bones can be left out of human construction.

This criticism of a room as an entirety does not, however, apply to small individual pieces of furniture which compare well with those made on the Continent. The conditions here are not as favourable for the production of such pieces as those in the Musee in Paris, and the patrons of art are not yet ready to encourage the production of such costly pieces in the new style.

In a thousand ways the American expression of the New Art suggests the art of Japan, and the reason is easily perceived. The Japanese have ever turned to nature for their lines of beauty. But unlike us in our modern expression, they never apply these lines to construction. In that way they avoid a fault which is ours.

On the whole perhaps we look upon L'Art Nouveau as a very pretty little sister enveloped in swirling hair and floral veiling, whom we should lead by the hand tenderly, gayly, with the hope that later she will mature into a woman strong, beautiful, vital, and- long-lived.

We are more than ready to assist her and to wait, for we have an ideal for this new century. It is to combine beauty of outline with honesty of construction, and to ally these with economy of production. It is to the attainment of this ideal that we look to L'Art Nouveau.

Public education in taste is not the least element in producing the desired result, but that is advancing rapidly among a quick thinking people. As its consequence, arts and crafts will be allied to manufacture, with the result that those who are left with bad taste will find no means of indulging it.



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