What is Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau was a short but intense phase in art history around 1900 – in Europe between about 1890 and 1910 and in Germany almost exactly between 1897 and 1907. Art Nouveau marked the beginning of Modernism in architecture and design.

The term Art Nouveau has a good ring to it. Art Nouveau is considered hip, nostalgic, creative and colourful.

There is only one problem: it does not exist!

Well, at least not in the sense of a clearly defined “style” with a definable set of forms, such as Gothic or Baroque.

Art Nouveau – it can be cool, straightforward minimalism as exemplified by the “Secession Style” in Vienna.

Example of Geometrical Art Nouveau
Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), Entrance Hall of the Purkersdorf Sanatorium near Vienna, 1904/05

Art Nouveau – it can also be curved lines and floral elements, as in the French “Art Nouveau” in Paris or in Nancy.

Example of Floral Art Nouveau
Eugène Vallin (1856 - 1922) and Victor Prouvé (1858-1943), Dining room in the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy in Nancy, 1903-1906

Art Nouveau expresses itself differently in every country, in every city, with every artist. In western and southern Europe, curved or fanciful forms were popular; in eastern and northern Europe, it was often more abstract and austere.

There is thus a world of difference between the designs created by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Victor Horta in Brussels or Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow:

Haus Tassel in Brüssel von Victor Horta
Victor Horta (1861 - 1947), Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, 1893
Hill House in Helensburg, Schottland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 - 1928), Hill House in Helensburgh, Scotland, 1902-04
Casa Batlló in Barcelona von Antoni Gaudí
Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926), Casa Batlló in Barcelona, 1904-06

But what do these vastly different expressions of Art Nouveau have in common?

Their motto:

Do it yourself.
Make it new.
Make it beautiful.

That means in each case:


The totally modern notion: “Be your own artist!”


The artists – and female artists – of Art Nouveau wanted to overcome the endless copying of other styles (the “Historicism”) of the 19th century, that is, retro styles, such as Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque, etc. (By the way, if you want to know exactly what these historical styles were like, you just need to look at a 10-, 20-, 50- or 100-euro banknote!)

Gründerzeitfassade in Karlsruhe, Belfortstraße
House façade in Karlsruhe, Belfortstraße in the historicist style. It is precisely these old buildings dating from what is known in Germany as the “Gründerzeit” [founders’ period] that estate agents like to sell as “Art Nouveau” – which they are not.


Art Nouveau means: Art does not only belong to the museum. Art should come to life. Beauty should come into everyday life! The ideal: a fully-styled, “synthesized artwork” („Gesamtkunstwerk”) – from sofa cushions to urban planning, as it was later described. For this reason, painting did not play a very significant role in Art Nouveau – with the exception of the work of two famous artists: Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch.

Gemälde von Edvard Munch, Straße in Aasgaardstrand, 1901
Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944), Street in Aasgaardstrand, 1901

Art Nouveau in Germany

Germany lies at the centre of Europe. Reflecting this, German Art Nouveau („Jugendstil“) also shifts between the characteristic floral, curved forms of Art Nouveau in the Romanesque countries and the geometric, abstract forms, as found, for example, in Glasgow or Vienna.

When the new Art Nouveau movement held what we might call the “first Germany-wide show” at the German Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1899, four “birthplaces” of German Art Nouveau became apparent: Munich, Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dresden.









Atelierhaus der Künstlerkolonie (Ernst-Ludwig-Haus), 1901

Other centres



The magazine Jugend, which later
gave its name to the new style, was published in Munich beginning in 1896. With colourful cover pictures, impudent texts and caricatures, discreet eroticism and a modern layout, it had a bombshell effect.

Titelbild der Zeitschrift „Jugend“ 1897
Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957), cover page for the magazine Jugend, 1897
Fotoatelier Elvira in München (1944 kriegszerstört)
August Endell (1871-1925), Elvira photo studio in Munich, Von-der-Tann-Straße 15, 1898 (destroyed in the war)

The outside wall was originally painted sea green, and the ornamentation in crimson and turquoise! Two women who lived together as a couple and were active in the women's movement, had the house built for use as their photo studio.

In his role as mentor, the visionary Hermann Obrist, who was Swiss, motivated a loose
group of very different types of artists: the "crazy" August Endell, who had actually
studied philosophy; Bernhard Pankok, who
gave his furniture the curliest shapes; Bruno Paul, who in the long run preferred the classically severe style; and Richard Riemerschmid, the most balanced of them all.

Villa Fieser in Baden-Baden, Bernhardstraße 33
Richard Riemerschmid (1868 - 1957), The Fieser Villa in Baden-Baden, Bernhardstrasse 33 (1902-03)

Typical of Riemerschmid: the compact, rather stark and unembellished structural form and the resonance with regional architecture.

Characteristic features of Munich's Art Nouveau architecture, which was largely influenced by Martin Dülfer, are grid-like ornamentation and stencil painting.

Fassade Leopoldstraße 77 in München
Martin Dülfer (1859 - 1942), Munich, Leopoldstraße 77, 1900-02


The city on the River Elbe was the first to show international Art Nouveau in Germany. The interiors designed by the Belgian Henry van de Velde caused a sensation at an exhibition in 1897.

Some major works of Dresden Art Nouveau architecture were destroyed in the war. Their main representative was Julius Graebner from the architecture firm Schilling & Graebner.

Villa Rautendelein in Dresden-Blasewitz
Villa Rautendelein in Dresden-Blasewitz
Julius Graebner (1858 - 1917), Villa Rautendelein in Dresden-Blasewitz for the writer Gerhart Hauptmann, 1899-1900 (destroyed during the war)

A pioneer of the increasingly industrial (“Maschinenmöbel”) and no longer handcrafted production of beautifully shaped furniture – a
kind of forerunner of IKEA – was the furniture factory “Dresdner Werkstätten für Handwerkskunst”,
known today as the “Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau”, which were founded by Karl Schmidt in 1898 and around whose new production facilities outside the gates of the city, the first German garden city – besides the one in Karlsruhe – developed from 1908 onwards.

Richard Riemerschmid (1868 - 1957),
Wardrobe, 1906
Schrank von Richard Riemerschmid


Schwanenteppich von Otto Eckmann
Otto Eckmann (1865 - 1902),
Swan Carpet, around 1897

The “swan carpet” was made in a hand weaving mill in Scherrebek (which has been Danish since 1920), a social economy project.

The design, which draws on Japanese models, was created by Otto Eckmann, then a teacher at the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts. He also developed the most widely used Art Nouveau typeface.

Gustav Kampmann (1859 - 1917), “Mist”, in the Berlin art periodical Pan, 1896
The periodical Pan, which was published in Berlin from 1895 to 1900, can with certainty be described as one of the most exclusive ever published in Germany. It was available in three editions of differing quality, with the “artist's edition” accompanied by original graphics on expensive paper. Pan featured contributions from the fine arts, literature, theatre and music and thrust some Art Nouveau artists to fame, for example, Otto Eckmann, the glass designer Karl Köpping or the mentor of the Munich Art Nouveau movement, Hermann Obrist.

The Karlsruhe Artists' Association was also presented in Pan. This is a lithograph by Gustav Kampmann, who was one of the best German landscape painters of his time.
Zeichnung von Gustav Kampmann (1859 – 1917), „Nebel“, in der Berliner Kunstzeitschrift PAN, 1896

Henry van de Velde, one of the most important representatives of Belgian Art Nouveau, went to Berlin in 1900, where he became known for his shop interiors.

In 1902 he moved to Weimar, where he founded the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts), the nucleus of the later Bauhaus movement.

Ladenräume der Continental Havana-Compagnie, Berlin, Mohrenstraße 11/12
Henry van de Velde (1863 - 1957), Store interior of the Continental Havana Company, Berlin, Mohrenstraße 11/12, 1899

In 1917, van de Velde went to Switzerland. He concluded his life's work by writing his memoirs and acting as a consultant for the second Art Nouveau exhibition worldwide in Zurich in 1952 (after New York in 1949). The editor of this book, the project manager of the exhibition and, last but not least, a close friend of van de Velde was the Karlsruhe-born Hans Curjel (1896 - 1974), the son of the architect Robert Curjel (1859-1925) of the Karlsruhe architectural firm Curjel & Moser. Hans Curjel worked as an art historian, conductor and theatre director before emigrating to Switzerland in 1933, where he worked with Bertold Brecht, among others.
Fassaden der Hackeschen Höfe in Berlin

However, Art Nouveau is rare in the cityscape of the German capital.

Swedish-born architect Alfred Grenander (1863 - 1931) designed almost all of Berlin's early subway stations, as well as elegant interiors.

And of course: the famous ceramic facades of the Hackesche Höfe by August Endell.

August Endell (1871 - 1925), Facades of the Hackesche Höfe courtyard complex in Berlin, 1906


Max Laeuger (1864 - 1952), Vase, c. 1898

The renowned Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School) laid the foundations. Max Laeuger, who founded modern German ceramics with his earthenware with floral slip painting, was one of the teachers there and at the Technical University.

Among the most progressive German Art Nouveau architects were the Karlsruhe
architects Hermann Billing (the Baischstrasse development, among others) and Karl Moser (Villa Junker, Ludwig-Marum-Strasse 10,
among others).

Hermann Billing (1867 – 1946),
Karlsruhe, Baischstraße 5
Haus in Karlsruhe, Baischstraße 5

Emmy Schoch was one of the avant-garde of German fashion design. At the age of just 24,
she founded her studio, which had around 50 employees by 1911.

Through her lectures and a magazine that was published in Karlsruhe, she promoted the advantages of the comfortable, corset-free "reform dress".

Kleid von Emmy Schoch
Emmy Schoch (1881 - 1968), dress, 1911

Other centres

The ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (synthesized artwork) was most fully implemented in Germany by the “Mathildenhöhe” Artists' Colony in Darmstadt, which was founded in 1899. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse financed it, as an art-loving patron, but also wished to strengthen the cultural and creative industries in Hesse. The exhibition "A Document of German Art" in the summer of 1901 showed nothing less than a comprehensively designed settlement with a large, communal studio building and eight fully furnished model houses, some of them owned by participating artists.

Further exhibitions followed in 1904, 1908 and 1914, at which houses and interior furnishings for lower-income groups were also presented.

Atelierhaus der Künstlerkolonie (Ernst-Ludwig-Haus)
Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867 - 1908), Darmstadt, Studio Building of the Artists' Colony (Ernst Ludwig House), 1901
Haus Behrens in Darmstadt
Peter Behrens (1868 - 1940), Behrens House in Darmstadt, Mathildenhöhe, Alexandraweg 19, 1901

Joseph Maria Olbrich from Vienna (“Secession Building”) was engaged as the artistic mastermind. His Darmstadt villas strike a balance between cubic and playful forms.

Peter Behrens' house is quite different, with its powerful lines traced in clinker. Behrens became chief designer of the company AEG in Berlin in 1907.

Haus Deiters, Darmstadt
Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867 - 1908), Darmstadt, The Deiters House, Mathildenhöheweg 2, 1901
Franz Lütke (1860-1929) and Heinrich Backes (1866-1931), Strasbourg, Rue du Général-de-Castelnau 22, 1901 - 1903

In Strasbourg, which at the time belonged to the German Empire as part of Alsace-Lorraine, the opulent French Art Nouveau style was predominant.

Art-loving patrons and factory owners in smaller cities such as Chemnitz, Weimar or Hagen commissioned Henry van de Velde to build their villas.

The theatre in Cottbus designed by Bernhard Sehring echoes the forms of the Viennese Art Nouveau style.

Theater in Cottbus
Bernhard Sehring (1855 - 1941), Theatre in Cottbus, 1907/08