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Singel 99, Dordrecht - Detail Sgraffito

In my search for the characteristics of Art Nouveau, I regularly stumble upon big ‘facade-paintings’ like the one above which I photographed in my hometown Dordrecht. What are they? How are they called and how are they produced? Are they a typical Art Nouveau thing? Somewhere, I read they are called Sgraffiti. But what are sgraffiti? I have never heard of them… Time to find out the answers!

The Wikipedia says this about the subject:

Sgraffito (plural: sgraffiti; sometimes spelled scraffito) is a technique either of wall decor, produced by applying layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colors to a moistened surface, or in ceramics, by applying to an unfired ceramic body two successive layers of contrasting slip, and then in either case scratching so as to produce an outline drawing. Sgraffito comes from the Italian word graffiare (“to scratch”), ultimately from the Greek γράφειν (gráphein) “to write”.

Sgraffito on walls has been used in Europe since classical times, it was common in Italy in the 16th century, and can also be found in African art. In combination with ornamental decoration these techniques formed an alternative to the prevailing painting of walls. The technical procedure is relatively simple, and similar to the painting of frescoes.

Examples of graphic work on facades saw a resurgence circa 1890 through 1915, in the context of the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Vienna Secession, and particularly the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium and France.

Heywood SumnerThe English artist Heywood Sumner has been identified as this era’s pioneer of the technique, for example his work at the 1892 St Mary’s Church, Sunbury, Surrey. Sumner’s work is sgraffito per se, scratched plaster, but the term has come to encompass a variety of techniques for producing exterior graphic decoration.

Sgraffito explained step-by-step

Sgraffito explained step-by-step (photographed @CIVA, Brussels)

Paul CauchiePaul Cauchi Sgraffito, Brussels
Probably the most popular sgraffito artist in Belgium was grafic-designer, architect and painter Paul Cauchie (1875-1952). Between 1894 and 1914, he applied more than 400 sgraffiti to facades. Paul married in 1905, and in that same year he decided to build a house on the six metre wide plot of land which he had bought at the upper end of the Rue des Francs. He designed the front of the house like a giant advertising billboard. It drew the attention of passers-by and demonstrated his abilities. This was done with the intention of advertising and selling his work. The Cauchie-house at Frankenstraat 5 in Brussels has been completely restored between 1980 and 1994, and is open for visitors every first weekend of the month.

Besides Paul Cauchie, there were many more artists that made beautiful sgraffiti in Art Nouveau style, most of them in Brussels. But does that make the sgraffito a typical Art Nouveau feature? After all, the use of sgraffiti on facades dates back to the 16th century. (The oldest sgraffito-ware known actually dates back to the 10th century!) So, what happened in the Art Nouveau period? Where did this ‘sgraffito-boom’ come from?

The industrial revolution more or less changed manufacturing methods. Little by little the work of craftsmen was replaced by mass production. Prices dropped, goods became more accessible and the number of consumers rose sharply. At the time the concept of the department store was also born, along with the first moves towards modern advertising. In addition there was the development of credit to tempt buyers to make multiple purchases. With the growth of the European population – which in 1900 made up a quarter of the world population – the birth of the consumer society was complete.

Old England - Department Store Brussels

Old England Department Store built in 1899 in the Art Nouveau style

The structure of society was also affected by the industrial revolution. In this new industrial and urban world, the  rural classes gave up their place in society and an immense working class emerged, along with a more prominent bourgeoisie and middle class. At the time society was dominated by a bourgeoisie that had rapidly become wealthy. As powerful owners of the steel industry (known as the Masters of the Forge), railway or textile tycoons and pioneers of the car industry, their monopoly on power and influence allowed them to indulge their wealth. Completely new neighborhoods were built for the members of this bourgeoisie who were able to give particular attention to the maintenance and the decoration of their homes. Meanwhile the middle classes that sought to distinguish themselves from the working class, looked to imitate the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. Such moves in society also contributed to the development of decorative arts across Europe. Architects and decorators, encouraged by competitions for façades organised by the local authorities, rivalled in originality, and were mixing ornamental styles and techniques. The streets became a succession of completely different façades.


And here comes the clue: Even if there was no money for a complete house in the new style, small decorative details were processed in the design: a door handle, a boot scraper, a sgraffito… After all, a sgraffito was – compared to a stone facade – relatively cheap and therefore affordable for the not-so-extremely-rich…

So, I think it is safe to conclude that the sgraffito is not a particular Art Nouveau feature but an existing technique that experienced a revival  thanks to the urge of middle class people to keep up with the Joneses.

Sgraffito Sgraffito

Continue Reading:
Een levensschets van Paul Cauchie, art-nouveaukunstenaar en kunstschilder (Dutch with 2 page English summary) PDF