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The Role of Woman in the Iconography of Art Nouveau

Author(s): Jan Thompson

Source: Art Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Winter, 1971-1972), pp. 158-167
Published by: College Art Association
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The Role of Woman in the
Iconography of Art Nouveau
Jan Thompson

Woman, as a subject for admiration, representation

and decoration, assumed a prominent position in the art
of the fin-de-siecle period; an art which takes on a decid-
edly feminine character. Strangely enough, it is the
woman who is featured, almost to the total exclusion of
the male. Men are cast in roles subordinate to women or
to delicate youths, who are all seemingly removed from
the pressures of everyday reality.
This curious phenomenon may be explained, in
part, by what may be considered the essentially male
chauvinist attitude of turn-of-the-century men. It was an
era in which women were kept as virtual pets, set up on
marble pedestals and made to feel helpless and therefore
desirable. The Symbolists and fellow Art Nouveau artists
depicted women, and occasionally androgynous males, in
a highly idealized state, as they would have liked them to
appear. A woman perched on a pedestal makes for an at-
tractive decoration and her supposedly precarious posi-
tion poses very little threat to anyone's virility.
Essentially, the Art Nouveau woman was a charming
plaything, to be dressed up in lovely baubles or arranged
in alluring poses as is the provocative lady who advertises
Mucha's pattern book, Documents Decoratifs (Fig. 1).
Few artists represented women as they really were, and of
that few, most cannot be included within the Art Nou-
veau movement, which may be generally defined as an es-
capist sort of style. Steinlen's posters deal with Woman in
her every-day manifestations, while Toulouse-Lautrec's
prostitutes are solidly planted in reality. These artists lie
just outside the mainstream of Art Nouveau proper.
The restricting character of women's dress was in-
tended to constrict their action rather than to allow free
movement. At the close of the nineteenth century, the
1. Alphonse Mucha, Documents Decoratifs, c1902, poster,
English Aesthetic Movement contributed a liberating fac- color lithograph.
tor by promoting loose, flowing costumes in place of the
usual layers of heavily-corseted fabric fashionable at the itarian mode. Women's wider participation in sports also
time. The easing of restricting clothing became necessary called for simpler, less cumbersome clothing, and lady cy-
with increased freedom for women in terms of employ- clists were known to have adopted a scandalous attire
ment outside of the home. Work demanded the replacing known as the divided skirt, radically shortened to avoid
of show-piece dresses in favor of a more functionally util- tangling in the chain and pedals.
The Pre-Raphaelites, naturally, advocated medieval-
JAN THOMPSONis Curator of Exhibits at the Buffalo and inspired costuming: their women frequently wore dresses
Erie County Historical Museum. She became interested reminiscent of Arthurian legends and significantly differ-
in this period while doing her undergraduate and ent from contemporary fashion. William Morris sug-
graduate work and as a clerk/cataloguer in the library of gested the year 1250 as the most ideal period for emula-
the Fogg Art Museum. Currently she is completing a tion, while Rossetti and Burne-Jones dressed their mod-
comprehensive bibliography of Art Nouveau. a els in less specific but nevertheless basically medieval

3. Henri van de Velde, Dress, c1896, from Selz, Peter,
ed., Art Nouveau, New York, Museum of Modern Art,
c1959, p. 9.

2. Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on as a fragile, helpless object, used in a decorative and lit-
canvas, 109 X 46" Tate Gallery, London, from Schmutz- eral sense to adorn the household: a man's wealth and
ler, Dobert, Art Nouveau, Abrams, 1964, p. 106.
position were judged by the style in which he kept his
robes (Fig. 2). Other artistically inclined ladies patterned wife. In the established fashion world, women were still
themselves on the ancient Greek adaptations popularized costumed as if they were animate mannequins meant to
by Albert Moore and Frederic Leighton. "Draperies" display dressmaking virtuosity and used as perambulat-
were devised which demanded Junoesque figures and ing showcases for the latest decorative ideas. The Belgian
more than the average measure of grace. designer, Henri van de Velde, designed a dress for his
Corsets were abandoned and several ladies' groups wife which incorporates the linear, abstract characteris-
attempted to inspire widespread adoption of trousers, ei- tics also found in his architecture and applied art (Fig.
ther in the American manner of Mrs. Amelia Bloomer 3). Woman was merely an extension of the furnishings,
and her zealous Bloomerites, or the English Lady Haber- intended to blend harmoniously with the decor of salons.
ton, who founded the Rational Dress Society and affected In commercial spheres, Woman was the focal point
a type of costume suggesting baggy Turkish pants. of advertising campaigns which capitalized on prevailing
Freedom in matters of dress paralleled a growing attitudes regarding her as a lascivious playmate.' Nine-
freedom of female behaviour: women battled to gain po- teenth century "sex appeal" added another dimension to
litical and economic independence, taking jobs in the the fin-de-siecle woman. The particular type of attrac-
male-dominated world and being educated for profes- tive female who graces Art Nouveau advertising rein-
sional careers. forces the general conception of Woman held by the men
In spite of, or perhaps because of, Woman's increas- who created her: of two distinct types, as a rule, this early
ing public role, she was even more zealously patronized pin-up girl was either bubbly, carefree and gay, as in
5. Alphonse Mucha, Job Cigarettes, 1897, poster, color lithograph.

4. Jules Cheret, Vin Mariani, 1890s, poster, color lithograph.

males originated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Their ideal
Jules Cheret's light-hearted, light-headed posters (Fig. required a specific type, generally tall and thin, endowed
4), or terribly seductive in the manner of Mucha's ciga- with sensuous lips, drooping eyelids and a profusion of
rette-smoking ladies (Fig. 5). In his 1897 poster for Le hair, approximated in life by William Morris's wife, Jane
Journal des Ventes, (Fig. 6) Georges de Feure depicts a (Fig. 7). The characteristic feature of the Pre-Raphaelite
mysteriously swathed woman examining a vase in which woman was a pensive or deliberately inscrutable expres-
a diminutive knight is trapped, evoking a malevolent sion: often she appears to be wrapped in an other-
mood of sexual control. Whirling lines describe overlaid worldly aura, detached from the mundane world.
flowers and the woman's highly decorative clothing, cre- The "Beardsley Woman," hallmark of Aubrey
ating an overall web which binds the figures together. Beardsley's distinctive black-and-white style (Fig. 8), is a
The Art Nouveau style seems to have been adapted direct descendent of the languid, linear Pre-Raphaelite
specifically for the woman as representative of the age. lady, brought more up-to-date with an infusion of a certain
Graceful architectural settings were created for the turn- perverse naughtiness. She appears consistently throughout
of-the-century dream-girl, incorporating delicate, flower- Beardsley's delicate illustrations, distorted as a thin, fash-
ing forms executed in muted pastel shades borrowed from ionable figure or as the aggressively voluptuous Messalina
the fundamentally feminine rococo style. Smaller, decora- and the women in the "Lysistrata" series.
tive objects such as jewelry, fans, tea sets and assorted ce- Beardsley seemed to relish the shock-value of his
ramics appear to have been designed to grace the frail fe- strangely hermaphroditic figures, which scandalized his
male hand and person. Georges de Feure, as a versatile Victorian public. Many of Beardsley's women appear in
Parisian designer, produced particularly light, refined male attire, affecting male attitudes: his illustrations of
furniture intended to harmonize with Woman's sophisti- men illustrate fragile, slim bodies with angelic faces and
cated nature as well as her boudoir. De Feure's sofa, made abundant hair, or wide-hipped dandies in delicate slippers
for S. Bing's Maison de l'Art Nouveau in 1900, displays and mounds of ruffles. Speculations on the origins of
abstracted floral motifs in gilt wood framing pale uphol- Beardsley's unisex creatures note the artist's unusual at-
stery and suggesting an innately feminine atmosphere.2 tachment to his mother and sister which persisted through-
The source of much of this preoccupation with fe- out his short life.

8. Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1893, pen and ink.

Gustav Klimt, leader of the Austrian Sezession, cre-

ated another kind of woman typical of the Art Nouveau.
6. Georges de Feure, Le Journal des Ventes, 1897, poster, color lithograph. In his portraits of Viennese society women he displays an
exciting contrast between faithful representation of the
sitters' features and the elaborate piling up of ornament
encompassing clothing: often the background is a dense
arrangement of mosaic-like forms.
Klimt obliterates the three-dimensionality, and thus
the living reality, of his females by weighing them down
under an excess of two-dimensional, geometric ornament.
The hands and faces are carefully rendered, then
smothered by a massing of decorative detail. The effect
tends to place the seemingly shallow nature of his typical
sitter in high relief juxtaposed as it is by multi-faceted,
multi-colored areas of decoration (Fig. 9).
Klimt's portrait of Frau Bloch-Bauer, painted in
1907, placed the woman's china-doll head at the apex of
an intricately devised triangle made up of a variety of
flat, rectilinear forms. One comes across the model almost
by accident, so enveloped is she in the thick geometric
scheme. The rich gold coloring, recalling Byzantine
sources, further removes the woman from life, paralleling
the spiritual abstractions of iconic forms.
The exaggeration and illustration of women's hair
was repeatedly used as a dominating motif by Art Nou-
7. Anonymous photographer, Jane Morris, c1860, Victoria and Albert Museum,
London, from Schmutzler, supra, p. 72. veau artists, almost to the point of obsession, thereby ex-

tending the erotic qualities already associated with
Woman. The depiction of masses of hair adapted readily
to the highly linear treatment of form characteristic of
the style: hair was frequently invested with an undulat-
ing, whiplash movement immediately identifiable as Art
Jan Toorop's poster for Delfsche Slaolie, a brand of
salad dressing, expands the linear rhythm by repeating
the hair motif and filling up the empty spaces around the
two women with wildly waving lines (Fig. 10). These
lines contribute to the distinct flatness of the figures-a
flatness typical of the Japanese influence so popular at
the end of the nineteenth century. Toorop consistently
exploited the decorative qualities of women's hair, often
lending symbolic significance to the lines, as in The
Three Brides, (Fig. 11) where sound waves are treated in
a similar manner.
Mucha offers the most characteristic examples of the
hair fetish and of Woman as sexual object. The women
in his posters are amazingly coiffed with extremely ab-
stracted curls, rendered in energetic curves and in im-
probable fashion. His poster for an exhibition of the Salon
des Cent (Fig. 12), shows a manner of stylization used
ische Galerie des XIX und XX Jahrhunderts, Vienna, from Schmutzler, supra, p. 258.
ische Galerie des XIX und XX Jahrhunderts, Vienna, from Schmutzler, supra, p. 258. again in his posters for Job cigarette papers (Fig. 5) and
in his portrait of Sarah Bernhardt for La Plume. The
hair assumes a decorative importance, the intertwining
tendrils stretching into fantastic shapes almost on their
own initiative. Regarding his father's attitude toward
Woman as a decorative object, Jiri Mucha writes: "A
woman, for him, was not a body, but beauty incorporated
in matter and acting through matter. That is why all his
female figures, however solid, are not really of this world.
They are symbols, unattainable dreams, like Sarah when
she came on to the stage, or died in the role of La Dame
aux Camelias."3
In the poster for "La Samaritaine" (Fig. 13), Bern-
hardt's hair, which was in reality a mass of short, tight
curls, was transformed into a flowing mantle of graceful
curves. The hair motif was treated with much the same
stylization found in the entire composition of Mucha's il-
lustrations, the play of curls interacting with the remain-
der of the decorative scheme, as in his poster for Docu-
ments Decoratifs (Fig. 1). In a recent exhibition cata-
logue, Brian Reade attributes the wavy forms to reminis-
cences of water representations on Japanese lacquerware
and often assuming decorative importance in isolation.4
Specific women seemed to typify the Art Nouveau
style, lending inspiration to artists of the period. Sarah
Bernhardt is the woman most remembered today for her
contribution to the arts at the turn of the century. A veri-
table cult of the "Divine Sarah" developed into a legend
augmented by the popularity of the posters which Mucha
created for her.
Bernhardt seems to have "discovered" Mucha almost
accidentally, and his first poster, "Gismonda," conveyed
10. Jan Toorop, Delftsche Slaolie, before 1897, poster for salad oil, color lithograph,
39 X 28", Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, Germany, from S:hmutz'er, supra, p. 149.
the essence of the actress with greater authenticity than

any previous attempt. Surrounded by a wealth of exotic
detail derived from Mucha's Slavic heritage, the figure
appears in a majestic setting, swathed in heavily bro-
caded and embroidered ornament. Bernhardt's slight fig-
ure is elongated and placed within a tall, narrow format,
which aesthetically enriches the composition. The actress
was thoroughly satisfied with the "Gismonda" poster and
contracted Mucha to design costumes, props and future
posters for her productions for the next six years.
Loie Fuller, a popular veil dancer of the period, ar-
rived in Paris from America in the 1890s. She instituted a
forerunner to psychedelic lights in her dance program,
projecting colored lights on to a dark stage while she

11. Jan Toorop, The Three Brides, 1893, Black chalk and pencil, 303/4 X 381/2", Rijks-
museum, Kroller-Muller, Otterlo, from Selz, supra, p. 73.

13. Alphonse Mucha, La Samaritaine, 1897, poster, color

12. Alphonse Mucha, Salon des Cent, 1896, poster, color lithograph. lithograph.

15. Francois Rupert Carabin, Library table and chair, c1900, from Battersby, supra,
p. 81.

thetic intentions.
14. Raoul Larche, Loie Fuller, c1900, gilt bronze lamp- The ultimate use of the female as decorative object
New York, Museum of Modern Art, from Battersby, Martin, occurs in the amazing furniture of Francois Rupert Cara-
The World of Art Nouveau, New York, Funk & Wagnalls,
c1968, p. 131. bin (Fig. 15). Preceding Allen Jones by more than half a
century, Carabin incorporated lasciviously posed women
danced and manipulated her long, flowing, transparent in the supports and construction of his furniture: ladies
veils. The ephemeral qualities of her dance and the hold tables over their heads or wrap themselves around
erotic suggestiveness of the veils in place of long hair, in- the backs of chairs. Although idealized Mannerist and
spired numerous painters and sculptors. A small bronze Baroque precedents exist for this kind of treatment of
statue by Raoul Larche (Fig. 14) attempts to capture the the human form, here the figures are almost embarras-
undulating movement of the dancer and to accommodate ingly flesh-and-blood women engaged in realistic activity,
an electric light bulb, concealed in the flying drapery, as blatantly flaunting their sensuality. Exploiting the fetish-
well. Loie Fuller named her dances according to contem- istic qualities of his work, Carabin's decorative pieces
porary Art Nouveau imagery: the Lily Dance, the Fire gained a certain notoriety eagerly reported in contempo-
Dance and the Butterfly Dance all invoked the appropri- rary periodicals.
ate mood through changing colors and characteristic mo- Several of Klimt's portrayals of women are highly
tions. erotic, usually depicting frankly seductive females in
The high Art Nouveau style is notorious for a pre- most unlikely attitudes. His painting of the legendary
dominating tendency toward the erotic expressed in the lady, Danai (Fig. 16), shows an extremely foreshortened
visual arts. Situated as it is, at the end of a long century view of a woman involved in the ecstasy of lovemaking.
of Victorian repression, Art Nouveau reveals some of the Drapery and gold coins drift around the figure, which
hidden neuroses of a highly self-conscious age. Woman seems to float in a foetal position; the woman's rippling
was, of course, exploited as the central motif, displayed hair sustains the impression. The effect parallels, to a de-
with all of :the sinful attributes of her sex. Frequently gree, Bernini's controversial Ecstasy of St. Theresa on a
linked allegorically with serpents, harking back to the more down-to-earth level. Danae appears to have been
traditional story of Eve, or presented as an agent of Satan frozen in eternal pleasure in the midst of the symbols of
on any pretense as a subject of titillating temptation, Klimt's special artificiality.5
Woman was depicted as an evil seductress, the polar op- The Art Nouveau woman was essentially two-faced,
posite of the pristine image created for the Pre-Raphael- embracing a duality of nature representing the dichot-
ite heroine, and often involved in all manner of decadent omy between Good and Evil, interpreted by Art Nou-
depravity. veau artists as goddess, witch, virgin or temptress. Fre-
The stylistic qualities of the Art Nouveau style- quently, as in Toorop's The Three Brides, (Fig. 11) this
long, tapeworm lines and flickering, caressing forms- symbolism was dealt with collectively, contrasting aspects
seem to create an all-pervading erotic atmosphere in of good and evil within a single composition.
which the female was placed with sensual as well as aes- The Pre-Raphaelite ladies were invariably of the

formal means. A zigzagging orange fence creates an effec-
tive barrier between the realities of the everyday world
and a place where picking flowers is an important pas-
Women as handmaidens of the Devil appeared in
the biblical-mythological guise of Judith, Salome, Me-
dusa, and Medea. Gustave Moreau's characterization of
Salome had a profound effect on both the visual and ver-
bal Symbolist productions. In J.-K. Huysman's A Re-
bours Des Esseintes is captivated by a painting of Salome
by Moreau, allowing the author a device for elaborately
detailed descriptions of lust, necromania and exotic arti-
facts such as jewels, luxurious fabrics and heady fra-
grances. As the Decadent's heroine, Salome became the
archetypal destroyer of man, ruled by uncontrollable pas-
sion: ". .. she was no longer just the dancing-girl who
extorts a cry of lust and lechery from an old man by the
lascivious movements of her loins; who saps the morale
and breaks the will of a king with the heaving of her
breasts, the twitching of her belly, the quivering of her
16. Gustav Klimt, Danae, 1907, Fritz Bock Collection, Graz from Barilli, Renato, Art thighs. She had become, as it were, the symbolic incarna-
Nouveau, London, Paul Hamlyn, 1970. tion of undying Lust, the Goddess of immortal Hysteria,
the accursed Beauty exalted above all other beauties by
goddess variety. Rossetti's women, The Beloved and the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her mus-
Monna Vanna (both in the Tate Gallery, London) for ex-
cles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, in-
ample, regard the viewer vaguely, detached from the sensible, poisoning like the Helen of ancient myth, every-
world by a quiet passivity. Mucha's representation of fe-
males is similar: Sarah Bernhardt, in the poster for La thing that approaches her, everything that sees her, every-
Dame aux Camelias and the lady advertising "La Trap- thing that she touches."6
Numerous turn-of-the-century artists approaches the
pistine" wear chaste white dresses, keep their eyes de- theme of Salome with a similar desire to picture rich
murely lowered and surround themselves with flowers.
But demonization of Woman was also an attractive trappings and an essentially sado-masochistic supbject.
Gustav Klimt's Salome of 1909 is portrayed wearing a de-
Art Nouveau pursuit, most avidly enjoyed by the Symbol-
termined, fierce expression, her nervously clenched hands
ists. Seductresses,synonymous with evil, represented Wom-
an's destructive power over man. Sado-masochistic themes gripping a garment composed of the usual intricate web
of ornamentation typical of Klimt. In a lower corner is
were predominant, although usually veiled in abstract al-
placed the saint's head, a grizzly reminder of Salome's un-
legory or an encyclopedia of abstruse symbols. common power over man.
The "Beardsley Woman" often appeared particu-
Jan Toorop combines the Good and Evil woman-
larly diabolical to a prudish bourgeoisie. Ordinarily a symbols in his Three Brides. (Fig. 11) In a mystical set-
rather robust female, she is represented as an erotically
ting, Toorop contrasts the nun, as bride of Christ and
aggressive, often malevolent figure. In Beardsley's Japa- representative of Good, displaying lilies as attributes of
nesque illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, both
Salome and Herodias display essentially sinister attitudes
while the "Toilette of Salome" includes the Marquis de
Sade in the dancer's reading material. The frontispiece to
A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of
Earl Lavender gives Beardsley the opportunity to illus-
trate a typical Decadent's lady preparing for a delicate
Symbolist artists, active during the Art Nouveau pe-
riod, also identified two distinct types of females, gener-
ally classified as femme fatales or dream princesses. The
paintings of Maurice Denis reveal the nature of virginal,
tranquil women, engaged in placid activity in predomi-
nantly pastoral scenes. His colors further underline the
artist's gentle intentions. In April (Fig. 17), Denis ar- 17. Maurice Denis, April, 1892, oil on canvas, 143/4 X 24", Rijksmuseum Kroller.
ranges white-clad damsels in a meadow using the simplest Muller, Otterlo, from Selz, supra, p. 54.

surrounded by the perfume of roses, stands the young
woman in a halo, shy and stubborn, puzzling in the glory
of her young ripeness: herself a perfumed, hardly blos-
somed flower which hides under its veil both things: the
pure aroma of tenderness and the burning gift of sensual
pleasure-the starving obstinacy of the suffering soul and
the consuming softness of sensuality-they stand next
to her; personified in two female figures to the left and
right of the bride-woman: the nun and the whore."7
Beneath the brides, their emaciated attendants float
unnaturally over a stylized pattern of thorns. The back-
ground figures form a rhythmic freize of faces and hair,
18. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Preliminary design for mural decoration of Miss Crans-
ton's Buchanan Street Tearooms, Glasgow, 1897. Watercolor on tracing paper, 14 X
291/4", Univ. of Glasgow, Dept. of Fine Arts, from Selz, supra, p. 69. creating a dark, linear backdrop for the action. Strangely,
thick masses of hair, interpreted as sound waves, flow
from the bells on either side of the drawing and inter-
twine, in parallel rows, around the figures. Art Nouveau
characteristics are recognizable in the mystical atmo-
sphere symmetrically built up into a dynamic pattern by
the series of curves and abstraction of the figurative ele-
Published in The Studio's first issue, Toorop's draw-
ing influenced the figure style of the Glasgow Four. Marga-
ret Macdonald's decorative work features a particular
type of woman whose elongated body and expressive fea-
tures combine with a heavily symbolic content. Charles
Rennie Mackintosh stencilled tall willowy females-de-
picted standing amid intertwining rose bushes-onto the
walls on Miss Cranston's Buchanan Street Tea Rooms in
Glasgow. (Fig. 18)
Edvard Munch was influenced by Symbolist circles
in Paris and Munich. His painting, The Sphinx, displays
an attempt to portray the changing psychological states
of Woman. Munch shows her first as a virgin, as an invit-
ing temptress and finally as a sorrowing widow. The
Sphinx represents something of an abbreviated catalogue
of Munch's conception of females and his ambivalent at-
titude toward them: Woman is sometimes viewed as a be-
nevolent, innocent creature and at other times as an un-
pleasant bitch.
Munch's unusual lithograph of a Madonna (Fig. 19)
shows a strange adaptation of the subject. The Madonna
is nude, her eyes closed as if in a trance and ringed by
dark circles. The border consists of decoratively con-
ceived, flowing spermatozoa and an embryo, alluding to
fertility symbols and the artist's own private associations.
Art Nouveau, as a style, showed a particular fond-
19. Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895, color lithograph, 24 X 161/2" Oslo-Kumunes
Kunstsamlinger, Oslo from Schmutzler, supra, p. 268
ness for phytomorphic forms, adopting a voluminous rep-
ertoire based on the life energy of plant form and linear
her purity, with the bride of the Devil, who wears a sinis- interpretation. Flowers, their stems and leaves, were fea-
ter mask, a necklace of small skulls and a headdress tured almost exclusively.
crowned with two snakes. In the center of this allegory A favorite analogy was created by associating women
stands the human bride, virginal under her pale veil. with flowers, emphasizing shared attributes of natural
The bride-of-man's potential sensuality is suggested by freshness resulting in numerous representations of
her veiled nudity. Reinhold Heller quotes a contempo- dreamy Art Nouveau girls invested with nymph-like
rary description of this woman: ". . . there, in the middle, qualities.

cation of gems as female figures. In his "Jewel" series, he
contrasts sultry females with ornate Byzantine-like orna-
mentation fashioned as decorative haloes, titled Topaz,
Amethyst and Emerald. Japanese plants intrude on the
foreground, indicating familiarity with a common Far
Eastern compositional device.
Mucha also depicted women as personifications of the
arts: Poetry sits pensively gazing into distant space, her
hair strewn with laurel leaves; Music appears to be lis-
tening to some inner sound; and Dance whirls invitingly
in a tangle of gauzy drapery a la Loie Fuller. Mucha dis-
guised the stars and moon as women treated in a tene-
20. Rene Lalique, Brooch, c1900. Collection Wildenberg, Paris, from Rheims, Maurice,
L'Object 1900, Paris, Arts et Metiers Graphiques 1965.
brous manner in layered nocturnal colors.
Woman has never ceased to occupy a prominent po-
sition in the visual arts. The Art Nouveau period seems
to have gone overboard in one last hedonistic fling at the
Alphonse Mucha saw flowers as the natural accompa-
niment to feminine beauty as well as symbols of Woman same time that suffragettes were chaining themselves to
as goddess of nature. His panneaux decoratifs consis- public buildings and an increasing number of women
were awaking to the idea of their own individuality.
tently celebrate women and flowers, seeming to compare
the symbolic character of the flower with Woman's own The Art Nouveau preoccupation with the female as deco-
delicate nature. His series of personifications of the sea- rative object appears as a last-ditch anxiety-ridden at-
sons and of the months of the year juxtapose appropriate tempt to keep women in their traditional places: in a
flowers with blossoming women in order to create a sense, it has succeeded down to the present day, as
mood. Summer, posing coyly at the edge of a stream, women continue to be featured as cunning advertising at-
wears poppies in her hair, symbol of sleep and dreams, tractions and as objects of designers' whims.
1Robert Delevoy remarks: "It is, above all, the image of a period in which
recalling associations with opium. The entire effect de- woman (though her active role in society was more limited than ever) was
scribes the heady atmosphere of a hot summer day. In the an object of adulation, lodestar of every gaze. The fact that publicity found
same series, Autumn is crowned with chrysanthemums of in the eternal feminine its most potent ally bears this out. Whether it was
a matter of advertising a brand of cigarette paper, a literary magazine, or
a warm autumnal color and is caressed by a grape-vine an exhibition, woman was always given a prominent place. This obsession
was of a stylistic rather than of an erotic or psychological order." (Dimensions
alluding to the harvest. of the Twentieth Century, Skira, 1965, p. 33.) I can't agree with Mr. Dele-
The series of panneaux decoratifs illustrating per- voy's last point. Considering the sexual and mental repressions for which
sonifications of flowers as women presents a direct illu- the nineteenth century are notorious, it would seem that both erotic and
psychological characteristics were particularly in evidence and particularly
sion to the spiritual affinities between Woman and flow- relevant.
2 Octave Uzanne, in his article, "Georges de Feure," Art et Decoration, v. 9,
ers. The chosen plants, the rose, lily, carnation and iris,
1901, p. 77, notes: "En bon psychologue et en amoureux de la beaute. M. de
are each represented growing around a woman whose ap- Feure estime que la femme possede une influence preponderante sur le mode
general de decoration. Les appartements, les thedtres, les salons, les ex-
pearance harmonizes with the virtues of each flower. The positions sont, pour ainsi dire, decores selon le meme mode qui preside au
lilies are clustered around a tall, fair woman standing port des toilettes, des manteaux, des chapeaux de luxe."
3 Mucha, Jiri, Alphonse Mucha; Master of Art Nouveau, New York, Tudor,
stiffly facing the sky, her very paleness suggesting purity. 1967, p. 75.
The iris, a new flower imported from Japan at the height Reade, Brian, Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha, London, 1963, p. 15.
5 Fritz Novotny offers a penetrating analysis of Klimt's representation: "In
of the "Japanese mania" and therefore very popular, is
the case of the symbolic figurative paintings, this wealth of incessantly flow-
enlarged, forming a backdrop for a remote, demure ing life reaches and crosses the boundary of the realm of broader and more
woman dressed in transparent draperies. elevated unliversal visual concepts. The eroticism that permeates the phi-
losophy of the thematic content determines this philosophy, adding to it a
Several Art Nouveau jewellers worked Woman's face further element of passive contemplation .... In all Klimt's representations
of humans there is hardly a case in which he transcends eroticism and be-
together with flowers in a decorative arrangement. Innu- comes either ironic or fantastic. This is in marked contrast with the art of
merable brooches, bracelets and pendants combined these Beardsley whose extremely linear type of stylization had an effect on Klimt."
two ubiquitous motifs which ultimately became over- (Gustav Klimt; with a catalogue raisonne of his paintings, by Fritz Novotny
and Johannes Dobai, New York, Praeger, 1967, p. 83.)
worked and endlessly repeated. Mucha again emerges as 6 Huysmans, J.-K., Against Nature; a new translation of A Rebours by Robert
the master of this genre, as his designs for jewelry execu- Baldick, Baltimore, Penguin, 1959, p. 65-66.
7 Heller, Reinhold A., "The iconography of Edward Munch's Sphinx," Art-
ted by Georges Fouquet for his shop indicate. An enam- forum, v. 9, n. 2, Oct. 1970, p. 79; quoted and translated from the periodical
elled pendant by Mucha shows Sarah Bernhardt's ideal- Kunst fur Alle (1 Nov. 1893): Heller himself interprets the role of the female
along early Christian lines. He sees Toorop ". . . deeply rooted in old
ized features surrounded by overgrown lilies. Rene La- Christian views of woman's nature and the fate of her soul; she is composed
of two antagonistic forces, the divine and the diabolic, which are in constant
lique combines the woman's face, swirling tendrils of hair battle with each other, seeking domination of her earthly life so that after
and typically Art Nouveau flowers in a brooch character- death she enters either into union with Christ or is sent to eternal dam-
istic of the imagery of the period. (Fig. 20) nation with Satan . . . Toorop's drawing thus becomes almost a cliche at-
tached to anti-feminine aesceticism inherent to Christianity since the times
Mucha derived a particular style from the personifi- of St. Paul, St. Augustine, and the Church fathers."