Artists in the second half of the nineteenth century facing the unprecedented threat of industrialization and elevation of the useful over the beautiful maintained some protective measures. The influence of Romanticism remained strong and was bolstered by the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, both of which were born in Britain, just as the Industrial Revolution had been. In 1856, Léon de Laborde, an archivist and curator at the Louvre, suggested in his book De l’union des arts and de l’industrie that jewelry was well situated to blend beauty with mass production. Such a notion may seem quaint in the twenty-first century, ruled as it is by the graceless smartphone. Today, some old-fashioned artists and artisans, working in quiet corners and sometimes ignored even by their own circles, do continue to strive for beauty. But the artists who tend to become famous and earn fortunes aim for the ugly and perverse, and most mass-produced objects reflect a similar disregard for beauty.
But Art Nouveau, which emerged in the final decades of the nineteenth century, took Laborde’s approach. The current exhibition at Paris’s School of Jewelry Arts, “A New Art: Metamorphoses of Jewelry,” celebrates the jewelry of Art Nouveau from 1880 to 1914. René Lalique was the most famous of Art Nouveau’s jewelry designers, but he had many peers, among them Jules Desbois, Jean Dampt, Henry Nocq, Georges Fouquet, Eugène Grasset, Edvard Colonna, Élisabeth Bonté, and Henri Vever, the last of whom also headed a jewelry company. These artists worked with silver, glass, tin, colored stones, and precious stones, as well as fossils, shells, feathers, coral, reptile skins, seaweed, and locks of hair, to create objects inspired by dreams and the art and poetry of the Symbolists. In our time, their work may be owned by just a lucky few, but the original intent of these artists was to take advantage of mass production to make their work affordable to everyone, including those with only modest incomes.
The exhibition names three principal movements that influenced Art Nouveau: Neoclassicism, the Gothic Revival, and Romanticism, all of which were at least a century old by the time Art Nouveau emerged (the exhibition ignores the influence of Rococo). The movement was also influenced by the orientalism—properly understood as a love for the arts of Eastern cultures—arising from new exchange with Egypt, Greece, India, and North Africa, as well as the openings of China and Japan.
Symbolism too was essential. The exhibition tells us that the Symbolist art and literature of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon inspired Art Nouveau’s jewelers, and in turn these same Symbolists were inspired by the jewelry created. These jewelers were also influenced by more established and traditional authors, such as George Sand, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, and Jules Michelet. English authors such as Poe, Swinburne, Beardsley, and Yeats are also worth mentioning. Legends, allegories, and myths featuring fantastic creatures and the art of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance were key, too. Eugène Grasset’s Apparitions (1900), a brooch made of gold, enamel, ivory, and topaz featuring a faceless blonde woman and a mad-looking, long-haired man, is emblematic of how these many influences converged in Art Nouveau. Viewers may be reminded of the psychedelic art of the 1960s, and in fact the art of the Sixties is heavily borrowed from Art Nouveau, as my father once pointed out to me. For example, had Ernst Haeckel’s Artistic Forms of Nature (1904)—a set of kaleidoscopic depictions of fantastical plants—appeared six decades later than it did, it would have been considered psychedelia. The design could have appeared on a tie made by Liberty of London in the nineteenth century, when the store was founded, and then reappeared seventy years later when the style came back in fashion.
“The proper study of mankind is woman,” as Henry Adams remarked in his Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), which was written and published at the height of Art Nouveau. Fittingly, Art Nouveau’s jewelers often featured women in their work—almost invariably dangerous ones of the femme fatale variety, the type better dreamed about than met. Perilous mermaids, like the kind depicted in Georges Fouquet’s gold, enamel, opal-mosaic, and diamond Sea Nymph pendant (ca. 1900–05), are prominent in the exhibition. I myself once wrote a song titled “Goddess of the Sea,” so I sympathize with those enticed by these sea creatures. But Fouquet’s nymph has a face so harsh even I would stay well ashore, though the seaweed made of dark-green enamel is certainly attractive.
The era was a time of much underwater exploration. Many of Jules Verne’s popular novels are set in or on the sea, and these works also influenced Art Nouveau’s jewelers. Louis Aucoc produced a brooch made of gold, enamel, diamonds, ruby, and pearls, titled Woman and Octopus (ca. 1898–1900), that creates an undersea world all its own. Winged Sea Serpent (1902), a bodice ornament also by Fouquet, again takes on the subject of an underwater monster, though not necessarily a female one this time. Lalique’s Woman’s Profile and Snakes (1903–05), a brooch of gold, enamel, and topaz, shows what might be a sorrowful nun. Winged-fish Women (1897–99), another piece by Lalique, is a necklace in gold, enamel, glass, and platinum, and is yet another instance of an undersea goddesses. Less successful for me is Lalique’s Sylph (1900), a choker plaque in gold, enamel, and diamonds. The sylph, of course, is beautifully rendered—anyone would easily be carried by her winds—but the way she spreads her fan, to my mind, is too Hollywood. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Columbia Pictures logo.
Art Nouveau’s jewelers found many other sources of inspiration, too. Forests and the woods, for example, were a prevalent theme. An untitled brooch made in 1910 by Lucien Hirtz of Maison Boucheron shows an enameled forest, filled with pine branches and cones, framed in green gold. Lalique also made use of such landscapes, as in his Winter Landscape (ca. 1898) of gold, enamel, pearl, and glass. As I mentioned in my Dispatch about the Paris Petit Palais’s recent Sarah Bernhardt exhibition, Sarah Bernhardt and Art Nouveau were made for each other. The red-haired actress inspired several pieces of jewelry, among them Henri Vever and Georges le Turck’s Winged Profile (1900), a pendant of enameled gold and diamond. Gaston Chopard’s comb titled Cicada (ca. 1903) shows two insects climbing a twig in tortoiseshell, enamel, enameled gold, and natural pearls. Another comb, this one untitled but made by Herni Dubret in 1902 of chased gold and horned plique-à-jour enamel, signals the shift toward abstraction that began to appear around this same time. Meanwhile, E. Colin & Cie’s Seaweed (1900) pendant shows that this movement toward abstraction didn’t also mean an abandonment of familiar motifs. But in Lalique’s untitled brooch of pearl, mirror, and metal (ca. 1910–15), we see what looks like a geometric maze that anticipates how Art Nouveau’s designs were resurrected in the Sixties.
This exhibition, discreetly lighted, allows us to realize how much Art Nouveau’s influence has permeated our culture for well over a century. A close look at the gems and their settings will give much pleasure and, perhaps, spark the imagination.