Oud Holland

Review of: 'Goddesses of Art Nouveau' (2021)

June 2023 


Review of: W. Hupperetz, A. Klein, G. Kuper, L. Petersen and D. van der Wal (eds.), Goddesses of art nouveau, WBooks [Zwolle] 2021

In 2021 the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam organised a thought-provoking exhibition on the female figure in art nouveau: ‘Goddesses of art nouveau’. Although short-lived as a historical art movement, art nouveau has remained popular since its rediscovery and reassessment by art historians in the 1960s and has proven particularly appealing for exhibitions since. In 2010 and 2018 respectively, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Kunstmuseum in The Hague displayed their rich art nouveau collections in visually stunning presentations. The recent exhibition in the Allard Pierson similarly impressed with an abundance of objects in a dynamic and atmospheric display (fig. 1), ranging from paintings, prints, books and magazines, to ceramics, glassware and textiles. With its lavish use of precious materials, sinuous lines and attractive representations of female figures, the topic of women in art nouveau speaks both to the art scholar and the general audience alike.

In her 1971 essay ,‘The role of woman in the iconography of art nouveau’,  Jan Thompson remarked that: “[t]he art nouveau style seems to have been adapted specifically for the woman as representative of the age.”1 One could even argue that the movement’s prime artistic icons were women, most famously Alphonse Mucha’s (1860-1939) poster girls.2 However, the catalogue rightly questions these images, and asks: “what are we looking at? In what way are women instrumentalised in this fresh visual culture? What does it mean in the exciting and effervescent period around 1900, with its many societal developments?”In other words, are these women mere decorative tools? What was and is, the relationship between these representations of women and their real-life counterparts? And finally, do the exhibition and its catalogue answer these piercing questions successfully?

The topic of women in the arts has gained momentum (once again) in the past few years, both in academia and the museum world.4 The power dynamics involved in the representation of the female form, including the ‘male gaze’, has been the subject of extensive research, taking its cue from the second feminist wave in art historical scholarship from the 1970s.5 The exhibition at the Allard Pierson proposes to analyse and understand imagery of women through the socio-historical context in which they were made. Interestingly, this is a relatively new way to study art nouveau. Traditional historiography on art nouveau has been object-focussed, celebrating their makers' ingenuity, imagination and skills. Jan de Bruijn, curator of the aforementioned exhibition, ‘Art nouveau in Nederland ‘, at the Kunstmuseum, argued that a more thematic and historical approach brings to light new views on the nature of art nouveau as a cultural and artistic phenomenon.6 The curators of the exhibition at the Allard Pierson recognised that the time seemed ripe to directly address the issue of women’s representation in art nouveau – as a triparty of muses, models and makers. It seems that the study of art nouveau has stepped out of its comfort zone of scholarly, stylistic appreciation and into modern-day art history, in which socio-historical context, power relations and cultural values are included in the analysis of art.

Cover of: Goddesses of art nouveau

Left: fig. 1. Installation view of the theme ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the exhibition ‘Goddesses of art nouveau’, Allard Pierson, University of Amsterdam, 2021

Middle left: fig. 2. Jan Atché, Papier à cigarettes JOB, 1889, lithography, 150 x 120 cm., Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, inv. FRBNF40270531

Middle: fig. 3 Alphonse Mucha, Tragique Histoire d’Hamlet, Prince de Danemark. Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, 1899, lithography, 196,5 x 67,5 cm., Allard Pierson, University of Amsterdam, inv. T1899-002

Right: fig. 4 Jan Toorop, Arbeid voor de vrouw, 1898, lithography, 116 x 66,5 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, inv. RP-P-1912-2398

The exhibition and catalogue are a collaboration between three museums: the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam, Badische Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe and the Braunschweigische Landesmuseum in Braunschweig. Their collections form the basis of the selection of works on display, with an emphasis on works on paper, particularly magazines and books.7 The richly illustrated catalogue consists of accessibly written essays that provide more width and depth to the topic and complement the exhibition. 18 authors contributed to the book, with expertise including the graphic arts to jewellery, fashion and the women’s movement. The publication is conveniently sized and beautifully designed, with a letter type reminiscent of original art nouveau design principles but with a modern twist. Moreover, its accessibility combined with the wealth of information, makes the book of interest to a broad audience.

The socio-historical perspective has allowed for a much wider range of historical developments not commonly associated with art nouveau to be included. Women’s suffrage, the rise of nationalism, commerce and contemporary dance are but a few of these. This broadness of scope is an attempt to bring art nouveau into a more complex historical narrative. Rightly so, considering that the times in which art nouveau rose to international acclaim – 1890-1914 – was multifaceted and turbulent, to say the least. Two developments central to this exhibition culminate then: an explosion of printing culture and the first feminist wave. The former democratised visual culture; the latter, revolutionised the political landscape. The ‘New Woman’ emerged, who crystallised into a politically active citizen.8 In order to improve their social, political and economic position in society, many women demanded the right to vote, access to education and equal treatment on the job market. Although this was still at an early stage, these women did exercise a never-before-seen control over their own destinies. This included the ways in which they presented themselves to the outside world. Wearing trousers (the ‘culotte’), riding bicycles, smoking in public, talking politics – in essence, transgressing a multitude of moral boundaries and behaving defiantly towards the establishment. Posters and magazines at the time either embraced these women’s independence, ridiculed them or neutralised their emancipatory appeal by turning them into animate mannequins.9

In contrast to the progressive orientation of an increasing number of women (and men) around 1900, we read in the catalogue that, “[m]any art-nouveau images represented women in stylised, sinuous lines identifying them with nature, depicted them as highly decorative objects, or placed them in a variety of male-centred phantasies.”10 Characteristic of art nouveau is its depiction of women merged with nature – confirming the idea of women’s closer proximity to nature.11 Mucha is paradigmatic for this archetype and arguably gave this face to art nouveau. His print series The flowers (1897) and sculpture Nature from 1899-1900 – the central campaign image for the exhibition (see cover) – shows female figures in a dream-like haze, integrated into their natural surroundings on a two-dimensional plane. In his art, Mucha transforms these women into muses, Madonna’s or seductresses.12

Although seemingly clear-cut at first glance, Ruth E. Iskin, emeritus professor at the Ben Gurion University in Negev, Israel, argues that there were different, contradicting notions of womanhood within art nouveau.13 In her essay for the catalogue, ‘Art nouveau and the new woman. Style, ambiguity, and politics’, she discusses the example of Jane Atché’s poster design for the rolling paper brand JOB from 1896 (fig. 2). It shows a self-confident, upper-middle-class woman smoking a cigarette, visibly musing in self-satisfaction. Iskin directly compares this image to a poster by Mucha for the same company from around the same time, illustrating a scarcely clad young girl with voluptuous hair, blissfully enjoying her own cigarette in turn. Unfortunately not included in the exhibition itself, these prints perfectly illustrate two opposing views on women, both present in art nouveau: that of the ephemeral, young beauty – an object of aesthetic pleasure – and the modern, New Woman – with her own desires, needs and agency.14 A lithograph by Georges de Feure (18680-1943) illustrates the tension between these two in a single image: We see a fashionable female art connoisseur studying a print from the album Lithographies originales (1896). As Iskin notes, she is both depicted as an active agent, looking at an artwork, and an artistic object in her own right – her elaborately designed hat and pristine white skin seamlessly blending her into the prints’ surface.15

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) – or the ‘Divine Sarah’ – is perhaps the most celebrated and intriguing example of women’s own agency in art nouveau artistic circles. Bernhardt was an acclaimed French actress and sculptor active in late nineteenth-century Paris. Her role as a patron and promotor of art nouveau cannot be understated. In fact, she commissioned some of the most famous art nouveau artists. Mucha was under contract with her to design not just posters for her stage performances, but also props and costumes.16 One iconic piece is a snake bracelet from 1899, which she wore as Medea in the play by Catulle Mendes. Jewellery designer René Lalique (1860-1945) also made several pieces for her to wear both privately and on stage. They include a diadem made of metal lilies and imitation pearls, which she wore in La princesse lointaine in 1895. In his essay on art nouveau jewellery in the catalogue, ‘Jewellery: Style Guirlande versus art nouveau’, Martijn Akkerman rightly calls Bernhardt, “a walking advert for the art-nouveau artists.”17

Although not elaborated upon in the exhibition and catalogue, it would be tremendously interesting to see to what extent Bernhardt herself had control over the ways in which she was depicted, and if we can speak of an artistic collaboration. As Thompson notes, Bernhardt’s rather short and curly hair is transformed in most of Mucha’s images into the decorative whiplash style: “[e]xaggeration and illustration of women’s hair was repeatedly used as a dominating motif by art nouveau artists, almost to the point of obsession, thereby extending the erotic qualities already associated with woman.”18 In the exhibition, we see one of the most spectacular posters by Mucha, in which Bernhardt certainly is playing with notions of sexuality: it depicts the actress as Hamlet in the eponymous play, which premiered in 1899 in Paris (fig. 3).19 It was considered shocking and bizarre that she took on the male lead herself. Even though cross-dressing itself was historically a common practice in theatre, it generally only allowed men to play female parts; not the other way around.

Another case of a historical figure that inspired the formal language of art nouveau is the pioneer of modern dance Loïe Fuller (1862-1928). A whole room in the exhibition was dedicated to her ground-breaking dance performances from the 1890s. Educated as an actress, Fuller combined her knowledge of acting, dance and theatrical lighting to create an entirely new form of expressionistic dance: dancing with meters of silk fabric in free, improvised movements, she invented the sweeping lines of art nouveau before they even appeared in the fine arts. The work by her titled Serpentine dance, from 1891, made her a sensation in the cabaret music hall Folies Bergère in Paris. A table lamp by Raoul François Larche (1860-1912) displayed in the exhibition, was inspired by the waves created by Fuller’s handling of the fabric during her performances.20 Unlike most renditions of women, the female body is here swallowed up by the extraordinary amount of fabric and the rapid, circling motions of the arms, almost transforming Fuller into a butterfly. However, this new visual experience of the female body within the ideology of art nouveau without resorting to nudity, and being sensuous at the same time, was radical and striking – to say the least.

Due to their increasing access to art education and work opportunities during this period, more and more female artists were also able to practice the arts professionally. Agathe Wegerif-Gravestein (1867-1944) is one such example: she was a prolific designer of batik and bookbinding, but also a painter and businesswoman. Most remarkably, she was the director of the batik atelier of the Dutch company ‘Arts & Crafts’, leading a group of several women in her studio in Apeldoorn. Despite the bankruptcy of the shop itself, Wegerif-Gravestein continued her own business successfully, proving her artistic and managerial abilities.21

What sets Bernhardt, Fuller and Wegerif-Gravestein apart is the agency they were able to exercise, employing their own creative abilities and entrepreneurship. They were exceptional women involved in the world of art nouveau. But most female figures on display in this exhibition were, “not women of flesh and blood”, as Wim Hupperetz remarks in the introductory essay of the catalogue.22 They are personifications of ideals, virtues and vices – or simply tools used to sell a product, or two. According to Thompson, “[f]ew artists represented women as they really were, and of that few, most cannot be included within the art nouveau movement, which may be generally defined as an escapist sort of style.”23 This escapism inherent to art nouveau’s ideology created a challenge for the curators’ of the exhibition.

The room devoted to women’s emancipation – ‘Figureheads’ – illustrates this most clearly.  Although Jan Toorop’s (1858-1928) design for the national exhibition of women’s labour (Arbeid voor de vrouw) from 1898 (fig. 4) captures the independent attitude of the ‘New Woman’ in an art nouveau aesthetic, none of the other objects on display do. Iskin explains in her essay that, ‘the typical art-nouveau style favouring ornamentation and a blending of women and nature did not easily lend itself to progressive political propaganda.’24 Indeed, there seems to be a discrepancy between the message that political prints needed to convey and what the visual repertoire of art nouveau was able to provide. If anything, political propaganda was about real women, and not meant to be ‘just’ decorative or entice consumption. Showing beautifully beaded handbags next to (hardly art nouveau) suffragette memorabilia, such as a brooch and portrait drawings by Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, without addressing the tension between art nouveau’s escapism and political contextualization missed the mark and resulted in a rather incoherent theme in the exhibition.

Writing about the famous Munchener magazine Die Jugend (1896-1940) for the exhibition catalogue, Lawrence Danguy also identifies a profound friction between the feminist sympathies of its founder and editor-in-chief, Georg Hirth (1841-1916), a fervent supporter of women’s rights, and the ways women were portrayed in his magazine. Although Hirth promoted the suffragette cause in text, the image of women as muse, Madonna or seductress highlights almost all the visual materials.25 How indeed can, “the nude [be] part of women’s emancipation”, as Hirth believed, if these images were not made after real women?26 Particularly, the celebration of female youth for its innocence and beauty does not square easily with an emancipatory programme – it reduces female figures to aesthetic symbols and marginalizes the ‘New Woman’, at least visually.

The aesthetic objectification of women in art and life is by no means a uniquely fin-de-siècle phenomenon. In the publication The trouble with beauty (2001), Wendy Steiner assesses the relationship between women and ornament as follows, which is worth quoting in full:

“Throughout aesthetic history, women and ornament have functioned as analogues. Women wear ornaments (more consistently than men), and have been considered for better or for worse, ornaments to society and the home. Ornaments epitomize the aesthetic; their primary function is to be beautiful in themselves and so to add beauty to the larger wholes in which they figure. Thus the aesthetic symbolism or ornament involves a gesture of ‘pleasing’, an openness of appeal that is conventionally gendered feminine.”27

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this book and exhibition review: we are looking at highly decorative images of women, which, more often than not, are based on ideals, fantasies and dreams of their (mostly male) makers – rather than real women. The female figure in art nouveau is almost without exception subordinate to the visual effect of the whole; she is an aesthetic instrument in the toolbox of the artist, on par with the flowers that surround her, rather than a subject in her own right. Consequently, the title ‘Goddesses of art nouveau’ captures the main tenet of her iconography in art nouveau: as an object of adoration and fear.

However, the exhibition at the Allard Pierson could have addressed the historical implications of the escapist ideology of art nouveau more explicitly. Although the catalogue takes a few steps in this direction, the socio-historical approach chosen by the curators is not fully endorsed because the complex relationship between ideal/image presented in these artworks and their historical reality is underexplored.28 Questions remain as to the functioning of these images in fin-de-siecle society: how were they used, consumed and received at the time? What forms of projection and identification were at play? How did contemporary women relate to them? To what extent did they empower or demean women? For Sarah Bernhardt, it was surely the former: she commissioned and inspired two of the great masters of art nouveau to make jewellery and posters for and of her, embedding her own image and personae deeply within art nouveau. But what about the anonymous hordes of (half-)nude girls that adorned menus, bookmarks and candelabras? How did the contemporary women relate to them? What forms of projection and identification were at play here? Surely, we cannot treat these images as innocent celebrations of female beauty anymore, however tempting that might be in an exhibition. The gendered power dynamics in their production and consumption is unmistakeable. But perhaps the exhibition at the Allard Pierson has precisely revealed that art nouveau’s ideology resists critical, historicising questions of this kind – all the more pressing to ask them.

Mariëlle Ekkelenkamp
PhD Candidate
University of Amsterdam


1 J. Thompson, ‘The role of woman in the Iconography of art nouveau’, Art Journal 31, no. 2 (1971), p. 160.

2 W. Hupperetz, A. Klein, G. Kuper, L. Petersen and D. van der Wal (eds.), Goddesses of art nouveau, Zwolle 2021, p. 7.

3 W. Hupperetz, ‘Goddesses of art nouveau: Woman as an instrument of seduction in the changing visual culture around 1900’, in Hupperetz, Klein, Kuper, Petersen and van der Wal 2021 (note 2), p. 21.

4 Limiting the list to exhibitions organised in 2019-2022 in the Netherlands: on individual artists: ‘Under the skin. Claude Cahun’, Cobra Museum, 15 October 2020-9 May 2021; ‘Meret Oppenheim: für dich – wider dich’, Design Museum, 5 June-5 September 2021; ‘Artemisia. Vrouw & macht,’ Rijksmuseum Twente, 26 September 2021-23 January 2022; ‘Viva la Frida!’, Drents Museum, 8 October 2021-18 April 2022; ‘Fré Cohen: form and ideals of the Amsterdam School’, Museum het Schip, 2 November 2021-30 October 2022; ‘Therese Schwartze. Her client was king’, Museum Paul Tetar van Elven, 7 November 2021-8 May 2022; ‘Johanna van Eijbergen. Striking metal artist’, Drents Museum, 16 April-18 September 2022; ‘Christa Ehrlich. Pioneer of Design’, Museum De Lakenhal, 13 May-28 August 2022; group shows: ‘Masterly Women’, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, 15 June-8 September 2019; ‘New nuances. Women in and around Cobra’, Cobra Museum, 12 July-2 December 2019; ‘Here we are! Women in design 1900-today’, Kunsthal Rotterdam, 18 June- 30 October 2022; ‘Women’s palet. Her art, her story’, Museum Dr8888 & Museum de Wieger, 9 July-20 November 2022; and new collection presentations in the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and Amsterdam Museum, to name but a few.

5 The male gaze was first discussed in-depth in: L. Mulvey, ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), pp. 6-18.

6 J. de Bruijn (ed.), Art nouveau in Nederland, Amsterdam 2018, p. 12.

7 Perhaps at the expense of furniture and fashion – which are quite underrepresented in the exhibition and catalogue.

8 R. E. Iskin, ‘Art nouveau and the new woman: Style, ambiguity, and politics’, in Hupperetz, Klein, Kuper, Petersen and van der Wal 2021, p. 33.

9 Hupperetz 2021 (note 3), p. 26.

10  Iskin 2021 (note 8), p. 33.

11 Iskin 2021, pp. 46-47.

12 L. Danguy, ‘The graphic revolution: Images of the Jugendstil woman’, in W. Hupperetz, A. Klein, G. Kuper, L. Petersen and D. van der Wal 2021, p. 63.

13 Iskin 2021, pp. 47-49.

14 Iskin 2021, pp. 37, 40.

15 Iskin 2021, p. 40.

16 W. Hupperetz, H. van Keulen and M. van Roon, ‘Art nouveau in the Allard Pierson collections’, in Hupperetz, Klein, Kuper, Petersen and van der Wal 2021, pp. 134-5.

17 M. Akkerman, ‘Jewellery: Style guirlande versus art nouveau’, in Hupperetz, Klein, Kuper, Petersen and van der Wal 2021, p. 107.

18 Thompson 1971 (note 1), pp. 161-162.

19 Hupperetz, Van Keulen and Van Roon 2021 (note 16), p. 135.

20 J. F. Figiel, ‘Women in Karlsruhe around 1900: Social renewal in a liberal capital’, in Hupperetz, Klein, Kuper, Petersen and van der Wal 2021, p. 152.

21 M. Groot, Vrouwen in de vormgeving, Rotterdam 2007, pp. 65-66.

22 Hupperetz 2021, p. 24.

23 Thompson 1971, p. 158.

24 Iskin 2021, p. 47.

25 Iskin 2021, pp. 54-55.

26 Iskin 2021, p. 55.

27 W. Steiner, The trouble with beauty, New York 2001, p. 57.

28 Iskin 2021, pp. 43-45. 

Mariëlle Ekkelenkamp, 'Review of: Goddesses of Art Nouveau', Oud Holland Reviews, June 2023.