From the Vault
Art Nouveau ushers in a new style of femininity
Every turn of a century is marked by enormous change, and the period between 1890 and 1910 was no exception. The Art Nouveau movement that took place during this time grew out of a desire to escape the seemingly endless parade of historical revivalism that dominated the decorative arts of the 19th century. This new art was influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, including a profound respect for all aspects of nature and the inexorable cycles of life. In the Art Nouveau idiom, however, these themes often mingled with figures of fantasy and legend while expressing elements of social change, notably the evolving role of women in society.
A Natural Woman
In the jewelry of Europe and the U.S., portrayals of humanity were limited to chaste painted miniatures or cameos of classical mythic figures. After 1897, however, when René Lalique incorporated a partially clothed feminine figure in a jewel, the image of a woman in a diaphanous dress, long hair loose and flowing, proliferated and became one of the most recognizable motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry. At the time, the concept of a woman exposing her body and letting down her hair was highly suggestive. The manifestation of these images implied women were breaking free of social convention.
Many Art Nouveau pieces depict women in a transformed state, as butterflies, birds or winged fairies, as mermaids with tails or, most innocently, as flowers, their lovely faces peeping sweetly from the center of a pansy, rose, iris or orchid.
These images trumpet the idea that women are one with nature, subject to the urges and cycles of life. Like flowers, they should let their beauty blossom. Like mermaids, they should let their sensual natures move them. Like creatures in flight, they should be free from constraint. Nature, however, is cruel as well as kind. As flowers, women should make the most of their youth because beauty fades. Sensuous and seductive, mermaids are also known as sirens with the power to fatally attract men. Winged sprites may be free, but they can be inconstant and unpredictable.
The two pieces pictured clearly demonstrate the ambiguous nature of women in society at this time. One is a lissome golden fairy holding a bright diamond star she has taken from the celestial blue pliqué-à-jour heavens behind her, her clinging draperies twinkling with additional diamond stars, her beautiful wings spread joyfully. Her sister creature shows a more sinister side, transfigured as a bat with pointed ears and sharp-shouldered wings, predatory and potentially dangerous. Both exude an unabashed eroticism inherent in many Art Nouveau jewels.
Nothing so wildly wonderful could last forever. Like the sinuous plant life so many of its motifs portrayed, the Art Nouveau movement sprang to life in the 1890s, blossomed around 1900, faded around 1910 and was dead by 1914 the start of World War I. These two pieces remain as a testament to the ever-changing perception of women in this world.
The star-fairy by Antoine Bricteux and the bat-woman by Lucien Gautrait are both pendants with diamonds, pearls and pliqué-à-jour enamel in gold. Courtesy of a private collection. Photos by Robert Weldon