Art Nouveau in Belgium


History and Illustrations

In Belgium (the epicenter of this new style) was a tremendous reaction in the 1880's against the imitation of period styles and an intense search for something new, something different. Here, as in France, architecture and the decorative arts were markedly influenced by the Neo-trends; Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo. Finally, in the early 1890's the style emerged from the Neo-Rococo which had exerted a powerful influence in the previous decade.

In contrast to France, the Belgian style with its plastic and noticeably three-dimensional treatment, offers a much more heavy and ponderous impression of the new art than any that appeared in France, the ornament in the hands of the Belgian designers was presented in an abstract manner.

Victor Horta (1861-1947)

Victor Horta portraitSeveral aspects of Art Nouveau were presented in Belgium. First there was Victor Horta, the son of a Belgian cobbler and Belgium's leading architectural figure at the turn of the century. Horta, with his plant-inspired abstractions and his Neo-Baroque idea of form to which were added certain Gothic and Louis XV ingredients, was the first to achieve a fully developed mastery of the new style. It is generally agreed that Horta launched the new style in his now celebrated house designed for Professor Tassel, No. 6, rue Paul-Emile Janson, Brussels, completed in 1893.

Gustave Serrurier-Bovy (1858-1910)

In contrast to Horta's dynamic and plastic forms, the work of Gustave Serrurier-Bovy is strongly committed to the influence of the English Arts and Crafts style, even to its note of rusticity. It seems that during his year's stay in England in 1884, he traveled extensively and fell under the spell of William Morris and his followers.

Refreshingly simple in a "rustic" Arts and Crafts manner, his furniture possessed a feature that was more distinct in his work than in that of the English artists, namely asymmetry, which had been evident in English furniture since the Anglo-Japanese furniture of Godwin. A practical aspect of this asymmetry permitted him to combine several pieces of furniture in the one construction, for example, an open bookcase over a slant-front desk mounted on a chest of drawers flanked on one side by a low cupboard. Another notable feature, also introduced by Serrurier-Bovy, but one that he could not have possibly borrowed from the English, was his use of slightly arched trusses, always placed diagonally and freely where they were or were not needed.

Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957)

Henry Van de Velde portraitThese gently curved trusses, which were less constructive than elegant, were to be adopted and transformed by Van de Velde to become one of his most typical design principles, as well as one of the outstanding features of Belgian Art Nouveau. Both aspects of Belgian Art Nouveau, the dynamic and plastic and the constructive striving, are seen in the work of Henry Van de Velde.

Quite apart from the role he played in the Modern movement he has been considered the creator and theoretical founder of Art Nouveau. Deeply absorbed in the doctrines of Ruskin and Morris, he was perhaps the most prolific writer of Art Nouveau, and the leading theoretician among the men of the 1890's.

After renouncing his career as a painter, Van de Velde made his debut as a decorative designer in 1893. To Van de Velde the line was all important, and as a result of his conscious and continuous struggle to find beauty in the fitness and eloquence of the line, it is felt too much in most of his work. Taken as a whole his furniture designs are marked by eclecticism.

The undecorated slat-like furniture, which he designed for the first house he built at Uccle, near Brussels, in 1896, is reminiscent of English work, while a writing chair made in 1897 with its bent laths is in the Serrurier-Bovy tradition. Often heavy in its form, Van de Velde's furniture never achieves the sophisticated elegance of that by Majorelle or Gaillard.

In Belgium both in architecture and decorative arts (and Belgium is the only country where it is possible to speak of Art Nouveau architecture) the new style was of short duration, being abandoned around 1905. Van de Velde had already left the country in 1899. Two years later, in 1901, he accepted an invitation from the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar to head the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts, the immediate predecessor of the Bauhaus, which was opened under the tutelage of Walter Gropius in 1919, in a building designed by Van de Velde.

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