Art nouveau

Background

A new style in architecture and applied arts arose in Europe after 1890, internationally labelled with the French term Art Nouveau. The style is also known under the German name Jugendstil. In Austria, the term Wiener Sezession (‘The Vienna Secession’) is used; in Spain Modernismo, in Italy Stile Liberty, and in Russia Still Modern.

Each of these terms demonstrates that the practitioners of Art Nouveau wished to distinguish themselves from other, existing styles. In spite of the local differences in nomenclature and appearance, there were strong similarities which arose from the desire of a number of artists and architects to allow crafts to play a more significant role in industrial art and architecture. The Englishman William Morris (1834-1896) was a key figure. He was of the opinion that industrially produced goods were commonly lifeless and much too uniform. He was primarily concerned with art for the people; often in the form of decorative art. He also believed that everything in one’s living surroundings should be well designed, and considered the interior and the exterior of a house as a single whole. Morris was one of the founders of the English Arts and Crafts movement which helped to introduce lucid forms to applied arts and architecture, originally inspired by nature. This movement came to exert great influence on modern applied arts in the whole of Europe, as well as on Art Nouveau.

The principal source of inspiration is nature. The patterns and decorations are often long-stalked, graciously stylised and distorted plants and flowers (lilies, calyces, irises, poppies, rosebuds), birds (swans, peacocks), dragonflies, egg shapes, water surfaces, cloud and rock formations, and are often accompanied by slim female forms.

Art Nouveau from the Hermitage

The Art Nouveau collection from the State Hermitage Museum is an exceptional collection. It consists, broadly speaking, of two sections: the Art Nouveau objects from the estates of the last Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, and the objects that were added to the collection at a later date during the Soviet period. The first collection in particular contains some very interesting pieces. Most of the objects were bestowed to the Tsars as diplomatic gifts and are of the very highest quality. Many of these presents proceeded from France, and were politically motivated. As a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which was lost by France, a large part of Lorraine was returned into German hands, much to the chagrin of the local inhabitants and the French people in general. France needed a strong ally and saw powerful Russia as a potential candidate. In the ensuing years, France attempted to woo the Tsars by showering them with valuable diplomatic gifts that were produced by the best artists that France had to offer, and mostly in the ultra-modern Art Nouveau style.

Alexander III (1845-1894, tsar between 1881 and 1894)

The Flore de Lorraine (‘Flora of Lorraine’) is one of the most striking diplomatic gifts. This was given to Tsar Alexander II during a visit by Russian marines to Toulon in 1893 (Illustration nr.01). This visit was intended to pave the way for an alliance between Russia and France against Prussia. Lorraine, whose fate depended on the success of this union, had a keen interest in encouraging Russia to become involved. This is presumably why Lorraine was granted the honour of producing a gift for the Russian court. The result was a stylised and artful table designed by Émile Gallé (1846-1904) together with a number of artists at the École de Nancy. The Flore de Lorraine tells an allegorical tale of the tragic fate of the region that was attempting to free itself from Prussian influence. The table was accompanied by an expensive, leather-bound booked called the Livre d’Or de la Lorraine, containing work of more than 80 artists from Lorraine (Illustration no. 8). The binding was produced by artists from Nancy such as René Wiener Victor Prouvé. There is an illustration of the Virgin of Lorraine on the title page, reaching her hand out to Russia. Above her is the text: ‘La Lorraine à la Russie, 1893’. The pact was finally agreed upon in 1894.

Nicolas II (1868-1918, tsar between 1894 and 1917)

The state visit of Tsar Nicolas II in October 1896 to Paris has entered history as the ‘Russian week’. The first stone of the Pont Alexandre III was laid in the presence of the tsar and the French president Félix Faure. This bridge, named after the previous tsar, was a present to the French capital from Russia. As a result of this visit to Paris in 1896, many official gifts found their way to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Most of these had been produced by the best masters of their art in France. A silver figurine depicting the personification of Peace was the work of Lucien Falize. During another visit to Paris by Nicholas II in 1901 the French Government presented him with a table decoration called La danse de l’écharpe, designed by Agathon Léonard van Weydeveldt (Illustration no. 07) and produced by the renowned Sèvres Porcelain Factory. This table decoration, which consisted of fifteen biscuit porcelain pieces, was originally produced for the World Exhition of 1900 in Paris. These figures are Art Nouveau of the very finest quality. The dancers are a portrayal of Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), a popular veil dancer of the time. She was a muse for many artists around 1900, among others Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1914, Nicholas II received four Art Nouveau Gobelins from the series The Four Seasons from the French president Raymond Poincaré (Illustration No. 09) during his visit to St Petersburg. The designs were by Jules Chéret. This gift was probably precipitated by the pending outbreak of the First World War. Russia was fighting alongside the French against the German emperor.

The examples of the work of Émile Gallé were the most impressive pieces amongst the diplomatic gifts. The newspaper Illustration portrayed on 22 May 1902 twelve of his glass objects which had been presented to Russia during the visit of the French president Émile Loubert. These included the tall vase Passiflora (Illustrations no. 03 and 04).

The tsars were highly impressed with the gifts that they received. Art Nouveau was not destined to become a palatial style, as it did not combine happily with the prevailing neo-classical and neo-baroque interior designs. However, the tsars did collect Art Nouveau for their private quarters and residences. This included the Russian variant Still Modern which they ordered from the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the Imperial Glass Factory in St Petersburg. Art Nouveau became a feature of the imperial residences in the vicinity of St Petersburg, such as the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoje Selo, or the Cottage in Peterhof, from where a number of objects were removed and added to the Hermitage collection after the October Revolution in 1917. The Danish born widow of Alexander III, Tsarina Maria Fjodorovna (1847-1928) bought Art Nouveau from the Royal Porcelain Factory in Copenhagen; Tsarina Alexandra (1872-1918), the wife of Nicholas II personally bought vases from Gallé and placed them in her private sleeping quarters (Illustration no. 11)

After the tsars

In addition to these gifts, there are a number of objects that found their way to the Hermitage after the revolution. These had originally been the property of individuals or private collectors and had been confiscated by the Soviet regime. In this fashion, a cupboard by the French trading company Escalier de Crystal arrived from the palace of Grand Duke Vladimir. This cupboard is a fine example of proto-Art Nouveau and illustrates the importance of Japanese art to the development of Art Nouveau during the last twenty five years of the nineteenth century. Also to be found in the Hermitage is a table decorated with dragonfly legs which originally belonged to the private collection of Gortsjakov, (a famous collector from St Petersburg). Another source of decorative Art Nouveau was the Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts, a former private museum in St Petersburg. Much of this collection was eventually donated to the Hermitage. Even a Gallé vase from the 1920s that had been the property of Stalin ended up in the Hermitage.

The Hermitage Art Nouveau collection is still growing. The acquisition committee has bought extensively during recent decades. During the 1950s and the 1960s there were regularly pieces of European applied arts from the Art Nouveau period for sale on the Russian antiques market, originating from the houses in St Petersburg. Many glassworks by Gallé and the Daum brothers were acquired during this period.

The French creators of Art Nouveau in the Hermitage

Nancy, the capital of Alsace-Lorraine, was an important centre for Art Nouveau, alongside Paris. The glass artists from Nancy were the great innovators and founders of Art Nouveau glass. Lorraine had long been famous for its glass art. Nancy became the temporary capital of the French province of Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and the ensuing annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine. Many talented artists from the occupied areas relocated to this region.

Émile Gallé (1846-1904)

It was from Nancy that the artist emerged who was to exert the most potent influence on the development of Art Nouveau glass: Émile Gallé. His was a family of glass artists. He was a good draughtsman and was interested in botany, literature, philosophy and politics. These interests were reflected in his work. During the 1880s, Gallé was in search of a personal style. Apart from assimilating the experiences of the Venetian glass artists and the experiments of François-Eugène Rousseau, he also let English double-layered glass and Chinese and Japanese art inspire his work. His greatest success was his work with multi-layered glass with immensely subtle colour transitions. He produced this glass by means of a chemical process that allowed for relief on the surface of the glass. Gallé’s vases reveal his knowledge of botany. His portrayal of plants is often imbued with symbolic meaning: the thistle represents Nancy; the fern stands for peace and quiet and the rose is a symbol for the beauty of life.

The virtuosic glass artist Gallé has proved to be of great significance for European glasswork. His work has been imitated on innumerable occasions, including both his technical processes and his decorative patterns. The first large-scale presentation of his multi-layered glass vases was at the World Exhibition of 1889, and resulted in immediate recognition and the status of maître of French glass art. Sadly, his artistic development was brought to a halt by his untimely death in 1904.

The Daum brothers

Gallé’s immediate successors were the brothers Auguste (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1930) Daum. Initially, they produced vases and table glass in an historical style, often decorated with symbols from Lorraine heraldry. However, Gallé’s success at the World Exhibition in 1889 encouraged the Daum brothers to blow multi-layered glass objects, decorated with representations of flowers and landscapes, utilising engraving across the various surfaces. Initially, Gallé and Daum were each other’s rivals, but in 1899 they entered a form of collaboration, while maintaining their distinctive styles. The Daum brothers’ work is generally more decorative, but it lacks the philosophical and symbolic overtones of Gallé. The factory of the Daum brothers continued production successfully in the twentieth century thanks to their ability to innovate: the decorative Art Nouveau made way for geometric Art Deco. The work of the Daum brothers was imitated all across Europe.

Other glass artists from Europe and the United States

The exhibition also features several other Art Nouveau glass artists: Tiffany, Lalique and Fabergé. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) owed his success largely to his innovative opalescent glass vases. Tiffany exhibited his furniture, rugs and stained glass at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Tiffany was granted an American patent in 1894 for his celebrated opalescent glass. He experimented incessantly with the medium. His objects are asymmetric; their fluent surfaces create a strong decorative effect which is reinforced by the use of brown, green, white, light blue and gold-coloured shades. Many European factories adopted his style at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another Art Nouveau artist who emerged and who was to exert a strong influence on the further development of glass art was René Lalique (1860-1945). His work reveals the influence of his predecessors, such as Rousseau, Gallé and Henri Cros. Lalique was one of the most famous and renowned of the Parisian goldsmiths in the period leading up to the fin de siècle. (Illustration no. 19). He also became fascinated by glass (Illustration no. 05). His first glass object was a perfume bottle, dated 1893. He employed the ‘lost-wax’ technique, a technique used in the casting of bronze. In 1902, Lalique opened an experimental glass factory in the Paris suburb of Clairfontaine. The factory was involved with mass production, but of high artistic quality. A successful collaboration between Lalique and the Parisian perfume firm Coty commenced in 1906, and continued into the 1930s. During this period, Lalique produced 16 perfume bottle designs for, amongst others: Nina Ricci (Caprice and L’Air du Temps) and D’Orsay (Élégance). The glass artworks that Lalique produced between 1910 and 1920 are characterised by the synthesis of two styles: Art Nouveau and the ensuing important art movement: Art Deco.

Russian Art Nouveau: Still Modern

Art Nouveau was christened Still Modern in Russia. The references to Russian folk art formed a subtle distinction between Still Modern and the international Art Nouveau movement. This manifested itself most clearly in the two art colonies that were set up at the end of the nineteenth century; Ambramtsevo near Moscow and Talasjkino near Smolensk. In these colonies innovative decorative art was produced that was inspired by mediaeval Russian architecture, fine art and folk art. Production relied heavily on the craftsmanship of the rural population. At the World Exhibition of 1900 in Paris where European countries exhibited Art Nouveau objects for the first time, the Russian contribution consisted of work from Abramtsevo and Talasjkino. The pavilions were built in a style reminiscent of old Russian rural houses (“Teremoks”), decorated with wood carvings and appointed with furniture and objects produced in the two art colonies. These objects attracted considerable attention, especially from visitors from countries in which the Arts and Crafts movement had begun to take hold.

Another school of Still Modern combined the Russian elements more subtly with international Art Nouveau. Examples of this were exhibited at the Exhibition of Art and Architecture of New Style in Moscow in 1902-1903. This exhibition was followed by another in St Petersburg entitled Contemporary Art. The rooms and furniture that were displayed at these exhibitions were predominantly inspired by foreign designers. So Still Modern has two facets, one that looks towards international Art Nouveau and one that is partly inspired by native, traditional themes. St Petersburg was more internationally oriented, in accordance with its tradition. A good example of this is the architect Roman Meltzer, who received many commissions to build imperial villas and apartments for the upper classes.

Still Modern was also stimulated by commissions from the tsars. This is especially true for the Imperial Glass and Porcelain Factory. The Imperial Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg entered service in 1744 and was the personal property of the tsar, and produced exclusively for the court. The Royal Porcelain Factory in Copenhagen entered the picture as a result of the wedding between Alexander III and Princess Dagmar of Denmark. The imperial couple was especially enamoured of the glazed decors based on Japanese art prints. These decors were also used by the Imperial Factory in St Petersburg from 1892 onwards. The factory changed its name to Imperial Glass and Porcelain Factory following the merger in 1890 with the Imperial Glass Factory that had been in operation since the eighteenth century. As of 1893 the glass division of the factory also began to produce vases in the style of Gallé, although this was limited to the multi-layered glass technique. This technique was held in high esteem by the factory. Initially, the factory limited itself to glass carving, one of the trademarks of this St Petersburg institution. Chemical etching was only introduced after 1900. The chemicals were applied by brush in several stages, so that the colours could flow into each other. This is not only reminiscent of Gallé’s work, but also of that of the Daum brothers. There are very few examples from the Imperial Glass and Porcelain Factory to be found in the West, and as a result, this glass is relatively unknown.

Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) was the son of a jeweller of French descent named Gustav Fabergé, who had opened a business in St Petersburg in 1842. Carl joined the business in 1872 with the ambition of distinguishing himself from the other jewellers in the city. It should no longer be the case that only the materials were of value, but that craftsmanship and the time invested in the product should also be fully appreciated. Towards the end of the Century, Carl began to produce ornaments in Art Nouveau style (Illustration no. 13 and others). He and his work represented Russia at the World Exhibition of 1900 in Paris. Nicolas II and his wife Alexandra were great admirers of Fabergé. Alexandra, especially, bought many pieces with which to decorate her private accommodations. Carl Fabergé also decorated several Gallé vases with a silver lining (Illustration no. 20). These pieces represent a unique combination of Gallé and Fabergé that cannot be found in the West.

The team that has prepared the exhibition consists of: Tamara Rappe (Head of Western European Decorative and Applied Arts at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg); Jelena Anisimova (curator Western European glass at the State Hermitage Museum), Vincent Boele (curator at the Hermitage Amsterdam) and Frans Leidelmeijer (external advisor to the Hermitage Amsterdam).

Frans Leidelmeijer is a specialist in the field of twentieth-century Dutch applied arts. He has run a gallery dedicated to this subject for more than 25 years. Additionally, he is one of the specialists who feature in the popular antiques television programme ‘Tussen Kunst & Kitsch’ (Between Art and Kitsch). He is advisor to the exhibition ‘Art Nouveau during the reign of the last tsars’ and he has written an introduction to the catalogue.

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The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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