Art Deco’s Roots

By Karen Parr-Moody


In the early 1900s, moneyed English aristocrats drifted away from their home island to various parts of the African continent. Many settled in Kenya’s Happy Valley, lured there by Hugh Cholmondeley, England’s 3rd Baron Delamere, who placed Persian rugs and a mahogany table atop the beaten earth floors of his native hut.


Within two decades wandering Europeans were enchanted by Africa. Fomenting that enchantment was the 1922 discovery of the Egyptian tomb of Tutankhamun – King Tut – as the result of an excavation funded by Herbert Carter, England’s 5th Earl of Carnarvon.


While Tut was not buried under a pyramid, his tomb’s discovery increased the visibility of step pyramids and Egyptian antiquities in general. This, in turn, led to an Egyptian influence – particularly of the terraced pyramid design – on the Art Deco art and design movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Central African art, with its bold geometric and abstract patterns, also leapt into the Art Deco lexicon, along with other motifs such as sweeping curves, sunbursts and chevrons.


Today many Art Deco items can be found at GasLamp, including the two-handled vase, above right ($65; Booth B-106). Although the vase still retains the demure naturalism of classical painting, as seen in the depiction of dainty flowers, it also bears the bold geometric patterns that were an Art Deco trademark. (This is a Nippon piece, which essentially means it is stamped “Nippon” on the base due to a practice that began in 1891 and ended around 1921.)


This child’s Art Deco era dress, left, is another example of the patterns derived from African textiles during that time period ($35; Booth B-108). Shields, hatch marks, triangles and circles were all part of Art Deco’s lexicon of motifs (see inset, lower left).


Art Deco had its roots in France, where a collective of French artists known as La Société des Artistes Décorateurs (The Society of the Decorator Artists) organized Paris’ 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art). Terms such as Style Moderne and Art Deco are derivative of the event’s title.


Scholars attribute the exuberance of Art Deco designs, in part, to a reaction to the austerity imposed by World War I. The fleeting decade of the 1920s was known as the Roaring Twenties – and like the youth of that era, it burned the candle at both ends. 


Art Deco was fueled by a period of prosperity, along with geographic and technological discoveries and shifting politics. Monarchies crumbled, flappers boarded ocean liners, jazz bands permeated nightclubs and airplanes took to the sky. It was a time marked by modernity and mobility.


The Art Nouveau style of the early 1900s – with its flowing female forms inspired by nature – gave way to Art Deco’s interpretation of the female form, as seen with this bronze figure in the photo, right ($499; Booth B-200). Cast from a mold originally created by Romanian sculptor Demetre Chiparus (1886-1947), who studied both in Italy and at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, this female figure is typical of the period. Women depicted in Art Deco art and sculpture were tall and slender, as well as stylish … when they were wearing clothes.


Evocative of the Roaring Twenties’s embrace of modernity, Art Deco women in art and sculpture were often poised with bow and arrow in hand, like modern Diana figures, reaching to the sky in exuberance. They might also be performing a daring dance step. Famous examples are seen in Ouillon Carrère’s sculptures “Dancer” and “Awakening” and Marcel André Bouraine’s “Dancer with Discs” and “Archer.”


Art Deco women could also be dreamily depicted in idyllic, classical scenes such as those painted by Robert Atkinson Fox (1860 – 1935) and Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966). The print, below left, is still in its original frame and was created from a painting Parrish created in 1922 entitled “Daybreak” ($245; Booth B-106). Maxfield referred to “Daybreak” in 1922 as “the great painting.” Susan Lewin and Kitty Owens, Parrish's daughter, were the models.  


This detail from a print of a painting by Vladimir Pavlosky, below, is also in its original frame and includes two columns in the foreground with a dramatic mountainous scene in the background – much like “Daybreak” ($110; Booth B-106). Pavlosky was born in the Ukraine in 1884, then moved to the U.S. at the age of 20 to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s Army. He became an active member of Boston’s art community.  


Art Deco sputtered to an end in the World War II years following Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland, but it remains popular today. Many collectors of Mid-Century Modern furniture add Art Deco pieces to their home décor, as the lines of the two styles blend together incredibly well.



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