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Who was one of the most versatile artists of the Art Nouveau Movement?

Victor Horta
Vincent Van Gogh
Emile Gallé
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Art Nouveau
by Uta Hasekamp

Art Nouveau was a phenomenon with many faces. Between 1890 and 1910, artists developed a variety of styles from the plant-like forms of the Belgian-French Art Nouveau to the ornamentation of the Viennese Secession. They were all striving to create a new, modern style and pursued a comprehensive renewal of art and, in some countries, a renewed national identity.


                                   
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Forms from the Natural World
by Bob Brooke

 


Clay was the perfect medium for the Art Nouveau aesthetic. Its malleable organic nature let turn-of-the-20th-century potters shape it into the sinewy lines, feminine curves, and scrolling vines so characteristic of this new style. The introduction of new glazing techniques added bright contrasting colors, which stood out from previous traditionally made works.

Art Nouveau was more about discarding rigid design rules and creating beautiful, asymmetrical, and sensual objects, so that utilitarian craft pieces were as gorgeous as works of fine art.

The new movement inspired major china and dinnerware manufacturers around Europe and the United States to open boutique art pottery studios, where gifted potters and chemists were often given free range to experiment, throw pots by hand, and test glazing techniques. For this reason, Art Nouveau was responsible for a variety of innovations, and Art Nouveau ceramics easily identified by which new techniques potters used.

Some studios focused on their glazes and firing techniques, striving to achieve the perfect color, opacity, and texture. In particular, the firing process often led to unpredictable outcomes, such as uneven color, veins, or blisters—such “imperfections” gave each piece a unique character. Often the plainly shaped pots acted as blank canvases artists adorned with beautiful colors, textures, and painted imagery.

Other ceramists put their energy into creating unique shapes for their pots, making fluid-looking vases inspired by Japanese ceramics and shaped like flowers or foliage. Art Nouveau potters achieved three-dimensional relief effects by sculpting damp clay into flower blooms, plant stalks, animals, or maidens. They shaped handles like scrolls, branches, leaves, or even seductively arching women.

Art Nouveau pottery produced by major factories, as opposed to individual artists, tended to emphasize surface decoration over experimental glazes. These pieces were adorned with imagery inspired by Viennese Secessionists and Jugendstil artists as well as Japanese art, including blooming plants, exotic birds like peacocks, and the hugely popular femme-fleur, or flower woman.

Potters used slip, or colored liquid clay, to decorate their pots. The Minton Pottery favored “tube-lining” in which artists squeezed slip onto a vase in thin lines. Tube-lining helped prevent the bright, contrasting paints from bleeding into one another. In the barbotine and impasto techniques, employed by Doulton & Company, decorators employed slips of different colors like oil paints, and in some cases, overlapped them.

French Pottery
In France, the top luxury commercial pottery Sèvres paved the way for new glazing techniques when Joseph-Théodore Deck took the helm in 1883. The firm’s potters took their inspiration from the female body as well as Chinese architecture and ancient Turkish, Persian, and Far Eastern pottery. Artists then painted the pieces in subtle pastel colors.

One distinguishing feature of certain Sèvres Art Nouveau vases is the gilt-bronze mount, also called a plinth, which usually complements the theme of the pot. A vase painted with Monet-esque lily pads, for example, might have golden frogs hugging its base.

Clément Massier, who owned a family pottery, also tinkered with glazes, developing a line of iridescent and luster glazes in earthy, somber tones that gave his earthenware the look of glass. His company collaborated with Symbolist painter Lucien Levy Dhurmer, who decorated Massier vases in Art Nouveau styles. Dhurmer used vibrant colors taken from red flowers, green grass, and turquoise seas.

Dutch, German, and Bohemian Pottery
The Rozenburg factory, based in The Netherlands, contributed major innovations in the shapes of Art Nouveau pottery. There, in 1899, Jurriaan Kok and M.N. Engelden introduced their “eggshell porcelain,” an extremely thin and lightweight earthenware, strengthened by glazing on the inside and out. This fine and delicate pottery featured intricate images of flowers, insects, and birds painted by Samuel Schellink and R. Sterken.

Major German potteries like Meissen and Königliche Prozellan Manufaktur (K.P.M.) Took advantage of Art Nouveau’s popularity and began adopting these decorative painting styles on their vases. Staatlich Porzellan Manufaktur in Meissen even contracted with designers like Herny van de Velde and Peter Behrens to help give their pieces a more up-to-date appearance.

The Reissner, Stellmacher & Kessel (R.S.K.) Company dubbed its most ambitious line of Bohemian Art Nouveau pottery Amphora. This pottery featured exotic and organic shapes, with incised or relief-molded decorations of flowering and fruiting plants, painted in bright surface enamel. Potters shaped handles like branches with extreme curves.

The painted decorations on Amphora pottery, inspired by Jugendstil, often highlighted the daydreaming, pale face of a woman, surrounded by tendrils of long hair and a gilt halo. These Amphora stylings were so popular, R.S.K. applied them to wall masks, sculptural figures, and earthenware pots adorned with glass cabochons.

Another innovative Bohemian company, Zsolnay, made breakthroughs in lustrous and iridescent glazes. Gifted chemist Vincse Wartha helped Zsolnay introduce a wide line of marbled, shaded, and crystalline glazes. The most popular of these was the iridescent glaze known as “eosin.” Zsolnay pottery featured simple nature-inspired reliefs like trees set against lustrous red skies.

English Pottery
In England, ceramist William Moorcroft used the tube-lining technique for his popular line of Florian ware Art Nouveau pottery, outlining his imagery, inspired by Etruscan, classical Roman, and Far-Eastern pottery, with thin pipes of colored slips. Designer Christopher Dresser also employed tube-lining for his work at the Minton Art Pottery studio, where Minton & Company provided artists with blank vases to paint. Company artistic director Leon Solon worked with John Wadsworth on a popular series of “Vienna Secessionist” inspired pieces for Minton.

Doulton & Company., known as Royal Doulton after 1901, opened a studio in south London in 1871 to produce a hand-crafted, hand-decorated Art Nouveau style pottery. The firm used the artists of the Lambeth School of Art, including Frank Butler, Hannah Barlow, George Tinworth, and Emily Edwards. These artists were able to chose the shape and decoration of the vases they produced. Their pots were usually simple in form and adorned with flora or fauna patterns.

American Pottery
Newcomb Pottery, which was part of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans. Student potters at the all-female college hand threw and hand-painted the pieces. Now an adjunct of Tulane, the school produced pots by highly talented instructors and designers like Sadie Irvine, Henrietta Bailey, Harriet Joor, and Anna Frances Simpson. Pieces made between 1898 and 1910 are the most collectible.

Artist George Ohr of Biloxi, Mississippi, was perhaps the most remarkable American Art Nouveau potter. He made shockingly modern and brightly colored pots with paper-thin walls that turn, twist, and ripple in stunning organic shapes. Ohr dug the clay himself, formulated his glazes, and even built his pottery and kiln.

William Grueby also created a distinct American line of Art Nouveau pottery when he opened his Grueby Faience Company in Boston with the goal of pursuing “organic naturalism.” His firm invented fine vegetal matte glazes. When its pottery had been shaped, colored, and fired, it came out looking remarkably like they had been made of broad, living leaves and gourds. While the pots were usually green, Grueby also employed its high-quality matte glazes in a variety of colors to make beautiful ceramic tiles.

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