The New Art

For a relatively short-lived style, art nouveau casts a long shadow. Its sinuous curves and natural motifs—which originally emerged as an artistic response to the industrial age—are eagerly sought by jewelry collectors and enthusiasts. This summer, an extensive appreciation of the decadent style is on view in the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s new exhibit Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry. Drawn from one of the largest and most important private collections of art-nouveau-related items in the United States, the exhibit features approximately 130 pieces of jewelry and decorative art objects—more than half of which have never been exhibited to the public. The exhibit is housed in the museum’s Torf Gallery and runs July 23 through Nov. 9, 2008. It’s curated by Yvonne Markowitz, the museum’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry.

Emergence of a Style

By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had overtaken the world, and more materialistic societies in England, Europe, and the United States were eager to snap up the latest status symbol, often in the form of expensive jewelry. In greatest demand was an all-white palette of diamonds and platinum, but the pricey look came at the expense of creativity, as jewelers based their work on repetitive, historically inspired design patterns.

A revolt against mass mechanization and its lack of individuality soon sprang up in England. John Ruskin (1819–1900), an influential English art critic and social commentator, railed against the loss of creativity in the industrial age, and his teachings were taken to heart by artist and designer William Morris and others, including the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters who advocated a return to pre-Renaissance craftsmanship.

Ruskin and Morris believed that nature should be the basis for art, and Morris became the guiding force behind England’s arts-and-crafts design movement. Markowitz describes the movement as entirely anti-industrialization, advocating individually handcrafted one-of-a-kind pieces. “They wanted to get away from the platinum and diamonds,” she says. “Away from the tyranny of 19th-century styles.”

Arts-and-crafts jewelers selected materials for their intrinsic beauty rather than their value. Silver and enamel featured heavily, while diamonds, as well as faceted stones in general, were largely shunned.

The art-nouveau style, which Markowitz dates from 1890 to World War I, was the French answer to arts and crafts. The two have much in common. Arts and crafts emerged slightly earlier than art nouveau, but both styles were inspired by nature and incorporated enamel and inexpensive materials—as well as extensive use of curves—in their designs.

Christie Romero, in her book Warman’s Jewelry, helps clarify the distinction between the two. “Something changes in the translation from English to French,” she writes, noting that French pieces are more three-dimensional and asymmetrical and often use a female face and body, a motif that’s almost nonexistent in arts and crafts. She also notes that the floral motifs common to both are stylized and controlled in arts and crafts and more fantastical and exaggerated in art nouveau. “It might be oversimplifying to say categorically that if it’s British, it’s arts and crafts; if it’s French, it’s art nouveau,” she says. “It would be fair to say, however, that the British retained too much of their Victorian sensibility to embrace art nouveau wholeheartedly.”

In their time, art-nouveau jewels were purchased by a small, avid group of collectors. Groundbreaking designs were seen by both the public and other designers at International Expositions, which “were enormously important in popularizing new movements,” says Markowitz. “They made the general public aware of what was new and important.”

New pieces also were showcased in some galleries, one of which was opened in Paris by Siegfried Bing, an art and antiquities dealer. Called the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, the gallery is often believed to have given the movement its name, although Imperishable Beauty credits the name to a group of avant-garde Belgian artists who were described in an 1884 magazine as “votaries of Art Nouveau.”

The Master

René Lalique was the most famous practitioner of the art-nouveau style. As a young designer, he was apprenticed to the Parisian jeweler Louis Aucoc (1850–1932), but in 1878 he traveled to England to study art in London. “There he came in contact with the teachings of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites,” says Markowitz.

Lalique spent two years in England, soaking up the arts-and-crafts philosophy. After his return to France, he worked for a number of prestigious jewelry houses—including Aucoc, Cartier, and Boucheron—and experimented with new methods and materials. His elaborate, one-of-a-kind designs embraced the use of enamel as well as other unusual materials such as horn and glass.

Over time, his designs began to exhibit the qualities that would become a hallmark of the art-nouveau style: sinuous, fluid designs with a strong natural element—both in material and inspiration. In an essay on Lalique in the book The Master Jewelers (edited by A. Kenneth Snowman), Vivienne Becker states: “Lalique used his fluid gold work, alive with enamels, to convey the dynamic forces of organic life: crisp and curling autumn leaves, rippling water, trailing branches, budding stems, gnarled and knotty roots of trees.”

Lalique went on to enjoy great success, winning awards and creating a (profitable) stir with his stand at the great Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Imperishable Beauty features more than 40 Lalique pieces as well as designs by his French contemporaries, including George Fouquet (1862–1957), Lucien Gaillard (1861–1933), and Eugène Feuillatre (1870–1916).

Exhibit Standouts

Other characteristics of art-nouveau jewelry include the elaborate use of plique-à-jour (open to the light) enameling, as well as other types of enamel work. Yellow gold, horn, opal, ivory, and occasionally even plastic were used. Asymmetrical shapes and whiplash-curve lines figured heavily, and many pieces featured an element of symbolism.

Three of the four sections of Imperishable Beauty separate art nouveau into its dominant themes: flora, fauna, and the human figure. The two most important pieces in the exhibit are included in the “Flora” and “Fauna” sections.

The first is George Fouquet’s Orchid brooch, which dates from 1898 to 1901. The piece is, according to Markowitz, “a tour de force of technical skill.” Featuring three-dimensional petals of plique-à-jour enameling, the piece has tiny flecks of gold encased in the enamel, which make it shimmer. Tiny diamonds placed on the surface suggest dewdrops. As in nature, the flower is asymmetrical. It also includes a large, iridescent baroque pearl.

The second-most-important item in the exhibit is a dragonfly pendant/brooch by the Belgian artist Philippe Wolfers (1858–1929). This “substantial flying critter,” says Markowitz, is 4.5 inches in diameter and features plique-à-jour wings that are graded in color with shades that shift dramatically from a pale gray to a rosy red. Wolfers complements that rosy tone by embellishing the bottom edges of the upper wings with a narrow line of channel-set rubies.

In art nouveau, materials are key to the depiction of nature. Like a dragonfly, “plique-à-jour has an almost ephemeral transparency,” says Markowitz. “This creature doesn’t live long; it doesn’t last forever—whereas a diamond does last forever.”

America

As art nouveau grew in France, related movements sprang up in other countries. German designers embraced Jugendstil (“youth style”), while Austria featured the Wiener Sezession movement. “The approach of the new century brought with it a desire to find new methods of expression,” says Markowitz. “Each of the movements has their own unique look about them. They’re a little more wearable; art nouveau is very over the top.” Pieces from both movements are included in the exhibit, as are items from Belgium, Spain, and Russia, allowing visitors to compare and contrast.

Art nouveau also existed in America, and this is the theme of the fourth section of the exhibit. “Before art nouveau,” says Markowitz, “American jewelry is smaller, more attenuated, more conservative.”

The most notable among the American practitioners of the style was Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933). His family’s firm, Tiffany and Co., was already established as a mainstream jeweler of note, but it was L.C. who, around 1900, spearheaded the company’s sideline in “art” jewelry. Vivienne Becker notes in her book Art Nouveau that Tiffany and Co. also exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where L.C. was influenced by Lalique’s display. He may have had earlier exposure to Lalique’s work through Siegfried Bing, who served as his agent in Paris.

Utilizing the handcrafted natural motifs of art nouveau, Tiffany created jeweled dragonflies and flowers—but, according to Markowitz, he also “brought with him part of the Tiffany aesthetic: American materials, not as asymmetric, smaller. The look was very much admired.”

American contemporaries of Tiffany were Frank Gardner Hale (1876–1945)—the exhibit showcases his 1910 pendant of sinuous yellow gold with green tourmaline and diamonds—and F. Walter Lawrence (1864–1929).

Newark, N.J., companies also picked up on the style, says Markowitz, with several companies, including Krementz & Co. and Riker Bros., creating “small, lovely jewels.”

American art-nouveau jewelry was meant to be worn, not displayed. Stylistically, “the pieces were slightly imitative of French jewels, just simply more American,” says Markowitz. “Americans have a more pragmatic attitude to jewelry: wearability counts.”

In general, American art nouveau had a small audience—even for Tiffany, Markowitz says. “The pieces were not inexpensive in their day.”

Ultimately, the very basis of art nouveau—one-of-a kind handcraftsmanship—led to its demise, as creation of the pieces became too expensive and labor intensive. The movement began to tail off after 1910, and Christie Romero states that it was completely out of fashion by 1915.

For a long time after, the style was simply forgotten. “The focus was more on modernism, the avant-garde,” says Markowitz. “People wanted to keep the 19th century in the past. In the 1960s, people began to investigate it and become enchanted by it, but the style was forgotten for a period of time.” Exhibits such as Imperishable Beauty will help ensure that the craftsmanship and individuality of art nouveau won’t be forgotten again.

Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry is being shown in the Torf Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Nov. 9, 2008. A catalog is available, featuring essays by Yvonne Markowitz and Elyse Zorn Karlin, and includes contributions by Susan Ward. For additional information, visit www.mfa.org.