If I were to name one person who made Art Nouveau big in Europe, it would be Siegfried Bing (1838-1905). During his entire life, Bing gathered young artists with new ideas around him, he inspired them with Japanese art and eventually he gave them a platform to show and sell their work at the most central place in Europe, Paris!
At age 17, Bing had moved from Hamburg (Germany) to Paris (France) to run the French branch of his family’s import-export business. And in 1863, together with Jean-Babtiste Ernest Leullier, Bing founded another company called ‘Leullier fils et Bing’ which produced high quality ceramics. The French government recognised the high quality of the ceramics as the company won a gold medal at the Paris World’s Exhibition of 1867. This gave Bing the opportunity to prove that high quality decorative art, developed together with artisans and craftsmen, could very well be produced in larger volumes.
Back in the ’90s I studied Modern Japanese Studies at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, and since then, Japan remained one of my favourite subjects to read or write about. Therefore, please allow me to indulge myself in a little history lesson about Japan…
In 1854, Commodore Perry forced the Japanese Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi to sign the Convention of Kanagawa, a US-Japan trade treaty, marking the end of Japan’s 200 year policy of seclusion. During those years, no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death. The only European influence permitted was the Dutch factory at Dejima in Nagasaki. The Kanagawa treaty became a significant causative factor leading to serious internal conflicts within Japan – an upheaval which was only resolved in 1867 with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
Now, the story goes that shortly after Japan opened it’s doors to foreign trade, a certain shipment of porcelain products arrived from Japan, wrapped in sheets of paper. And those sheets were not just plain paper. Apparently the goods were wrapped in pages of a copy of the Hokusai Manga, a collection of sketches of various subjects by the Japanese artist Hokusai. Subjects of the sketches included landscapes, flora and fauna, everyday life and the supernatural.
The French artist Félix Bracquemond who discovered the sketches, shared them with his artist friends in Paris. Bing was fascinated with Japanese artefacts, as well as with the design of the Hokusai prints, and soon he started collecting all Japanese objects he could put his hands on. In 1876, Bing organised his first auction sale, and at the time of the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris he opened his first gallery at 19. Rue Chauchat. Japan was well represented at the Exposition Universelle and people were crazy about Japanese art. Bing however, got intrigued by real Japanese art and left for Japan in 1880, to see for himself. He traveled through Japan for a year, buying everything he considered worth carrying. Once he returned home, he committed himself to promote Japonism in France and in the rest of the world.
Being convinced that the quality of art objects industrially produced in France was deteriorating, Bing pleaded to breathe new life into the French applied arts by embracing modern technologies, aggressive marketing and the preparedness to adopt artistic ideas from non-French cultures, and in particular from Japan. By connecting the Japanese imagination to the French tradition, Bing would realise his dream… the creation of a ‘new’ decorative style L’Art Nouveau.
In order to spread the knowledge about Japanese art as widely as possible, Bing decided to publish a magazine called “Le Japon Artistique” in French, English and German. And Bing really succeeded! Many well-known artists like Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, became fascinated with Japan, as well as famous architects like, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Stanford White.
Vincent van Gogh, 1887 – Claude Monet, 1876
Bing’s activities were important, perhaps crucial, to the Japanese influence on Art Nouveau. Above all, Japanese art was inspired by nature. Other characteristics of Japanese art, like asymmetry and irregularity, influenced all the above and more European painters and architects. Japanese style elements such as off-centered arrangements without perspective, light without shadows, and vibrant colors on plain surfaces were also adopted by the applied arts, from furniture, textiles and jewellery to graphic design.
Emile Gallé glass objects at the Kitazawa Museum in Suwa, Japan
Looking for more area’s were he could promote his Japanese art, Bing traveled to the USA in 1894 where he met Louis Comfort Tiffany. He also traveled to Brussels where he met Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta. These young artists told Bing about their new ideas to unify home interiors and Bing took their ideas for decorative arts back to Paris. He was so convinced of this new concept of a ‘total style’ that he decided to transform his gallery at 22 rue de Provence into a new gallery called Maison L’Art Nouveau (House of New Art). The new gallery was opened on 26 december 1895 and gave many young artists who were at the beginning of their career a platform. Henry van de Velde designed most of the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass windows and screens. Bing’s gallery featured entire rooms designed in the Art Nouveau style, including fabrics designed by William Morris and furniture by Georges de Feure.
At first, Bing’s Maison L’Art Nouveau was ridiculed in the French press. They raised questions as to why Bing did not exhibit more French artists and they judged the artists whom Bing díd exhibit as being not French enough. They wrote that Art Nouveau was hideous, incoherent and boring. But Bing would never give up and continued to organise exhibitions. At the same time, he started his own ateliers in order to produce a unified Art Nouveau as he no longer wanted to be ‘just’ an agent to promote the works of others. He asked Edward Colonna and George de Feure to design for his atelier, and he commissioned firms like GDA (Royal Limoges) to produce his porcelain. Bings son Marcel was in charge of the jewellery atelier.
Thanks to Georges de Feure the pavilion known as ‘Art Nouveau Bing’ at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle was an international success. The rooms were designed by Georges de Feure, Edward Colonna, and Eugène Gaillard, and De Feure also designed most of the fabrics and decorative objects. It remains a mystery however, how many of the prototypes were ever replicated in the ateliers in which Bing had invested a considerable amount of his fortune. Some even say the Exposition was the beginning of the end. With over fifty million people attending the Exposition, the movement’s artists gained a wide audience. One needn’t possess a crystal ball to see the effect: increased demand for the pieces lowered manufacturing and design standards, resulting in a faltering of the originality and artistic care which was so important to the movement.
Bing died on 6 september 1905, and in a way this was not only the end of his gallery L’Art Nouveau, it was also the end of Art Nouveau in an absolute sense…
I recommend this documentary about Siegfried Bing (The complete video is available here, but it’s only in French):
I also recommend the book called “The Origins of L’Art Nouveau: The Bing Empire” by G. Weisberg, E. Becker, É. Possémé a.o.
Art Nouveau at the 1900 Paris Exposition
Bing et l’Art Nouveau (French)
Blog about Siegfried Bing
Japonism on Pinterest
The Origins of L’Art Nouveau: The Bing Empire
Wikipage about Japonism
Wikipage about Siegfried Bing