Art Nouveau, which means “new art” in French, arose in the late 1800s in reaction to strict Greek and Roman classical ideals that had overshadowed much of the 19th century. Painting during this period exhibits the decorative elements and the focus on nature typical of the Art Nouveau movement. A number of artists painted in the Art Nouveau style, but some of the most renowned were Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse and Alphonse Maria Mucha. While these artists had their own individual styles, they each used decorative patterns and natural forms often found in Art Nouveau painting. Another primary characteristic of Art Nouveau painting and graphic arts was the use of women as subject matter.
Gustav Klimt was born in 1862 in Vienna and was the son of a goldsmith. He became an artist as a teenager. Klimt’s most famous paintings featured women, sometimes nude or partially nude. These paintings had intricate, ornamental backgrounds of amazing beauty. While some aspects of the paintings were realistic, usually the women’s faces — the major portion of most of Klimt’s paintings — consisted of abstract shapes and the linear patterns that characterized Art Nouveau painting. Klimt painted in a fine, delicate manner and often used gold paint, perhaps due to the influence of his father’s profession.
Henri Matisse was influenced by Art Nouveau but his style varied throughout his lifetime, especially since he lived until 1954 when modernism was well underway. Like Gustav Klimt, Matisse often painted women and used decorative elements in the background, but he was a more heavy-handed painter who favored large areas of bold color. Matisse completed the painting The Dessert: Harmony in Red in 1908. The subject of this painting is a woman serving dessert, and both the tablecloth and the wall behind the woman display ornate flowers and branches that are typical of Art Nouveau painting.
The Czech born artist Alphonse Maria Mucha, who might be viewed as the typical Art Nouveau artist, was both a printmaker and a painter. His lithographs made his work more available to the general public. The 1896 painting Winter is representative of Nouveau style and features a woman outside, surrounded by snow covered branches. The painting was clearly inspired by Asian art, and the heavily outlined tree branches form an elaborate pattern. Although Mucha’s work is viewed as Art Nouveau and was imitated by other Art Nouveau artists, he often disassociated himself from the movement and claimed that his work was a reflection of his Czech background.
The Art Nouveau idealization of nature is perhaps best reflected in the fact that each of these artists chose women as their primary subject matter. In addition to using organic shapes and subjects in their paintings, Art Nouveau artists seemed to view women as a symbol of nature. Not only were women featured in paintings, but they were prevalent on advertising posters as well.