Art Deco was an art movement that lasted from the 1920s until around 1940. It began in France with a group of French decorators, designers, and artists at an event called Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes—the name Art Deco was later coined from that title.
Art Deco was a very “modern” movement, celebrating the beauty of technology in the early 20th century. Art Deco contains many references to trains, planes, cars, and skyscrapers, mixing art with scientific advancement.
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When human figures are seen in Art Deco, they’re often very stylized, like in this painting by Tamara de Lempicka entitled Sleeping Woman.
Every part of this painting is a geometric solid—the figure’s head looks like it was carved out of a single sphere, and her neck, arms, and fingers are all cylindrical.
Notice her metallic curls as well. Stainless steel and other metals figure prominently in Art Deco, and when actual metals couldn’t be used (in paintings for instance) gradients were substituted to look like metal.
In a society where technology and machines were being increasingly idolized, it’s no wonder that artists began portraying perfected humans, with matte skin, sculpted features and precious metal for hair.
Bold colors, rays, and other strong geometric patterns were a trademark of Art Deco too. Charles Delmuth’s I Saw the Figure Five in Gold is a great example of Art Deco movement, geometry, and color.
As the story goes, Charles Delmuth painted it after hearing this poem by his friend, William Carlos Williams:
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
Delmuth used that imagery to create a vivid, moving, clanging number five—in gold—which was a perfect subject for an Art Deco painting.
Although the movement ended in the 40s, Art Deco is still used today, often as a design element that references the optimism of the 1920s and 30s when it seemed as though nothing could stand in the way of human progress.