Art Nouveau

The exuberant fin de siècle style is celebrated in a sweeping exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington

At the Moulin Rouge
At the Moulin Rouge (1895), a painting by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec that captures the vibrant and decadent spirit of society during the fin de siècle. Wikimedia Commons

As the 20th century neared, more than a hundred years ago, artists andintellectuals and merchants throughout Europe and in the United States tried to whip art into new shapes so it could keep pace with the ever-changing modern world. This frenzy to throw off the stultifying past excited artists and craftspeople, dealers and shopkeepers. Since they believed they were creating everything anew, their style is best known today as Art Nouveau, French for "new art."

In April, London's Victoria and Albert Museum opened the largest exhibition of Art Nouveau ever assembled. The show, expanded even more,comes to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on October 8, 2000.

The exhibition examines the number of cities that emerged as busy workshops for the new creativity, and the artists whose names have become synonymous with it: French architect Hector Guimard, Czech-born illustrator Alphonse Mucha, Belgian architect Victor Horta and American glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The whiplash curves and exotic women that often characterized Art Nouveau works eventually fell out of fashion, and by 1914 the style was moribund. All in all, Art Nouveau was simply not modern enough. But no matter where it stands in art history, Art Nouveau a hundred years later strikes us as pleasing, often refreshing, sometimes worthy of awe and always kind of fun.

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