Art Nouveau literally means new art, a complex and innovative European artistic and design style of the last two decades of the 1800s and the first decade of the 1900s. It found expression in a wide range of art forms, from painting to architecture to pottery and jewelry. The unusual artistic movement swept through Europe and America startling the late Victorian art establishment with its new philosophy of freedom and uninhibited form.
In general, the Art Nouveau style was less popular in the United Kingdom than France or the United States. In fact, the style got its start in Paris, when a German born art dealer named Siegfried Bing opened Maison de l’Art Nouveau, giving the genre its name. In addition to paintings and fine jewelry, Bing showcased the work of Frenchman Rene Lalique and American Louis Comfort Tiffany, who helped popularize the style on the other side of the Atlantic. In Germany the movement was called Jugendstijl.
French Art Nouveau plique a jour and diamond leaf brooch, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Plique a jour and diamond dragonfly brooch, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Henri Teterger pansy brooch with opals, plique a jour, diamonds and a pearl, circa 1900.
Art Nouveau jewelry encompassed many distinct features including a focus on the female form, nature, mythological creatures and the use of color. This was all brought to life through the use of enameling techniques including basse-taille, champleve, cloisonne and plique a jour. Art Nouveau jewelers also distanced themselves from conventional precious stones and put greater emphasis on the subtle effects of materials such as glass, horn and enamel.
Two of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau were Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique. Both names still represent quality and beauty. In Denmark Georg Jensen was also busy creating his lasting legacy.
Georg Jensen lapis pin/pendant, circa 1908. Photo courtesy of Past Era.
George Jensen Moonlight Brooch (also known as #159) with moonstones and orange chalcedony, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Into Temptation. The brooch is a combination of Scandinavian folk jewelry and the Art Nouveau influence.
In 1889 Tiffany & Co. received the Gold Medal for Jewelry at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 in large part due to the success of twenty four enamel and jeweled orchids designed by Paulding Farnham for the Exposition. They were praised by French and American jewelers and critics alike. The New York Times wrote on March 13, 1889, “Tiffany & Co. (has) been studying for two years to bring about a satisfactory result in this direction (enameling) and the outcome thoroughly justifies the labor”. The orchids were also praised in a Jeweler’s Weekly article of June, 1889, “so perfectly copied after nature as in inspire unqualified admiration…such fidelity is manifested as temporary to deceive the observer into a belief that real flowers have been placed in the showcases with the jewelry”.
The orchids were so popular that by April 1890 Tiffany increased the number of varieties from twenty four to forty one. Paulding Farnham, born in 1859 to a prominent New York family, is first recorded as working for Tiffany’s around 1885. Although the orchids were not the first of his designs, they were the first objects that could be safely attributed to him. Farnham was made artistic director of Tiffany’s entire display of gems in Paris in 1889. Despite the exotic nature of the orchids, he made a special effort to keep Tiffany’s exhibition American in character by using materials and workmen from the United States whenever possible.
The orchid below is of the variety Oncidium Varicosum Rogersii. The photo and information above were provided by Sotheby’s.
A Paulding Farnham Emerald and diamond with pink enamel “Calanthe Veitchii” orchid brooch, circa 1890. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Henri Vever “La Bretonne” pendant, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Lang Antiques.
Rene Lalique Art Nouveau peridot and glass brooch, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Rene Lalique Art Nouveau Japanese inspired enamel and diamond dog collar necklace piece, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
A Georges Fouquet gold, tortoiseshell opal and enamel haircomb from the early 1900s and a Rene Lalique brooch and clasp set with amethyst, enamel and glasswork, early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Though highly influential, the Art Nouveau period was relatively short lived, overtaken by the Arts and Crafts style that preceded it and the Art Deco look that would follow. Both emphasized graphic impact over the more illustrative details of Art Nouveau while Art Deco in particular would usher in an aesthetic that seemed perfect for the Jazz Age.