Art and Biology: How Discoveries in Biology Influenced the Development of Art Nouveau

By Katherine Blakeney
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Art Nouveau is the so-called “modern style” developed at the turn of the 19th century. Although it is dated roughly between 1890 and 1910, its first true recognition as an important new movement in art and design occurred at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900. It manifested itself as an international and versatile style that influenced every kind of art and craft from architecture to the decorative arts. Its universal appeal was based on the artists’ effort to explain and express the new era that was ushered in by the incredible scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. The fields of scientific research that most influenced Art Nouveau were microscopy, the development of cell theory, botany, neurology, psychology, and the theory of evolution. Some of the artists were merely amateurs fascinated by the latest scientific discoveries, while some had actual scientific degrees in biology or geology.

The invention of the microscope had an enormous impact on the way artists viewed the world. The first major breakthrough that led to this invention was the realization that lenses could be used to magnify objects that were to small to see clearly with the naked eye. By 1400 both convex and concave lenses were being used in spectacles to improve vision problems. In 1608 a spectacle maker’s apprentice accidentally discovered that placing two lenses, one behind the other could make distant objects appear closer, thus creating the first telescope. Galileo, hearing of this new apparatus immediately proceeded to produce his own version, and in the process, realized that rearranging the lenses would magnify objects that were close by.

Galileo’s discovery prompted other scientists to build their own microscopes, make adjustments and improvements, and explore the possibilities that this new invention opened up. The microscope brought with it a treasure trove of discoveries in a vast variety of fields. An entire parallel universe, which till now had been invisible could now be observed with the aid of a microscope. Microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, previously unknown parts of the body such as cells and capillaries, the anatomy of insects which were big enough to see generally, but too small to be examined in detail with the naked eye, all these and more could now be studied.

The ability to see microorganisms and watch their behavior led to the germ theory of disease. In the 1860’s, the French chemist Louis Pasteur who was asked to study a group of infected silkworms. He discovered microorganisms in the silkworms’ bodies and on their food. He concluded that most infectious diseases were caused by microorganisms.  This meant that these diseases could be cured by destroying the microorganisms involved or preventing their entrance into the organism in the first place. The use of antiseptics could now help slow the spread of certain diseases before they turned into epidemics, and new drugs could be developed which would effectively target and kill the organism responsible for a certain disease. Previously, doctors prescribed rest and healthy food for almost any disease they encountered. Now that the true cause was known it became possible to research more effective tactics for dealing with diseases.

Another influential discovery was made in 1665 by the English scientist Robert Hooke. While studying a piece of cork under a microscope, he noticed that it was it was made up of tiny compartments which he called cells. Several scientists went on to study cells and their structure in more depth. Finally, between 1838 and 1839, German scientists Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann put forward the cell theory. This theory stated that all living things are made up of tiny cells. Although cells may vary depending on their function, all plants, animals, and even microscopic single-celled organisms all are built out of the same basic unit of life. In the 1860’s, Rudolf Virchow stated that cells multiply by dividing, so all cells are created by other cells, and all living organisms arise from a single cell, no matter what they go on to become as the cell multiplies.

Cell theory opened up an entirely new understanding of the world. It brought the realization that all forms of life are closely connected on a deep structural level. Artists interpreted cell theory as proof that all forms of organic life share the same microscopic unit. Therefore, plants, animals, and people differ in general shape rather than inner essence. In their eyes, the concept of Ovid’s Metamorphosis now had scientific justification. The idea of transformation became one of the key themes of the Art Nouveau style. Human bodies transforming into plants, insects, or birds became a popular motif. Artistic fantasies brought to life a large variety of composite images of human and animal bodies. Some pieces of art from architecture to the decorative arts show fascinating attempts at representing the cell itself in the process of mitosis, flowing into various shapes and patterns.

This feeling of humans’ connectedness with the rest of the world, and the fascination with transformation was also spurred on by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. Darwin asserted that organisms did not simply appear in a fixed form and carry on forever, but that they had all evolved from previous forms through the process of natural selection. Certain randomly mutations that occur in an organism may make it somehow superior to other members of its species. This mutation then gives the organism a greater chance to survive and reproduce, possibly passing down the beneficial mutation to its offspring.

They in turn, are given a better chance to survive and reproduce. Over time, as those with the mutation outlive those without it, the mutation may become a trait of the species as a whole, because only those with this trait will survive. In this way, groups of members from a single species, if placed in different conditions may eventually evolve into completely separate species, so different that they will no longer be able to reproduce with one another. Darwin’s theory attracted enormous attention both positive and negative, and generated attempts to either prove, or disprove its validity. Further research in fields such as paleontology soon made it clear that many species, now widely separated had once shared a common ancestor. It was easy to suppose that at some point all living things existing today had evolved from a single species, including humans.

The classification and study of plants and animals also interested the Art Nouveau artists. The nineteenth century brought great improvements in the system of classifying organisms. In the 1820’s, Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle improved the previously used classification system by emphasizing internal structure, not simply outward appearance. This system called for much closer scrutiny of the species being classified and discoveries such as the microscope were very helpful in this process. It also greatly advanced the science of botany and beautifully detailed drawings were made to show the various intricacies and features of a plant.

Artists’ interest in botany is evident on a more factual level than their fantastical interpretations of cells, evolution and microorganisms. Art Nouveau shows a fascination with the natural forms of plants. The famous writer and art critic, John Ruskin in his book The Stones of Venice, proclaimed that: “all beautiful works of art must either intentionally imitate, or accidentally resemble natural forms.”  The influential theoretical work Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones demonstrates a reverence for nature. It starts the quest for “returning to nature for fresh inspiration”, which became the manifesto of the Art Nouveau movement. The work itself was based on scholarly botanical atlases of the 19th century and shows devoted attention to the minor details of every leaf and flower, which was shared by the artists. The work of many Art Nouveau designers reflects a statement well expressed by Augustus Pugin “the god-given natural forms of leaves and flowers must be more perfect and beautiful than any invention of man.” This fascination with natural forms has deep historic roots in Gothic Art.

The revival of Gothic Art became one of the most important stylistic movements at the time of Art Nouveau, based on a common reverence for nature. Some of the artists would collect botanical literature, photographs, and albums of dried plants, and reflect these sources in their art quite literally. This stylistic trend was best characterized in France in the work of Émile Gallé. His glass and furniture often employed very direct references to botanical sources. His every lamp is a rendition of a particular plant with all its scientific characteristics. It is not surprising as Galle studied botany in Germany and did a lot of work as an illustrator for scholarly literature. At the same time natural forms had spiritual meanings for Galle. His cabinet entitled The Fruits of the Spirit is based on symbolic interpretations of natural forms, derived from Gothic Art.

As well as the influence of botany, an interest in the new science of the nerves was reflected in the sinuous appearance of some Art Nouveau works. A glass hand exhibited at the 1900 exposition became a sensation. It is a perfect anatomical model with the surface of the glass crafted into the form of creeping tendons and spreading nerves.

Two French neurologists who influenced Art Nouveau were Jean-Martin Charcot and Hippolyte Bernheim. Their areas of research were mental disorders, dreams, and hypnotism. This research influenced the development of the Art Nouveau interior. Designers realized that certain shapes and colors are beneficial to mental well-being. At the same time there was an attempt to reflect the work of the human mind and emotions in the colors and shapes of glass. The vase Tranquility in Solitude with its rich, swirling color, and shimmering, abstracted, naturalistic decoration was presented by the critics as “a manifestation of dreams and enchantment.”

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