The Paradoxical Nature of the Status of Women Through the Portrayal of Their Hair in Art Nouveau

Pia Diamandis
6 min readMar 12, 2019


It would be a fact for philistines or even art enthusiasts alike that Art Nouveau as it came to be is characterised by perhaps the most unlikely object of all; the exaggerated illustration of women’s hair.

How the core principles of Art Nouveau: bearing inspirations from both organic and geometric forms, elegantly united flowing designs, and emphasis on linear contours over colour, all seem to have been culminated in the obsessive depiction of women’s whiplashing hair.

This depiction of women’s hair, how it was let down in this loose array of graceful curves at a time where societal norms acquired women to have their hair in a bun and women would only let their hairs down in their private homes amongst their closest associates (often only their husbands), is seen by most to be an extension of the erotic qualities already associated to women at that time, a way to portray women as sexual objects and a last resort measure to anchor women to their traditional places at a time when the suffragettes were chaining themselves in protest and women were finally waking up to the idea of their own individuality and sexuality.

Jan Toorop for Delfsche Slaolie

Take for example the works of Jan Toorop. In his poster for the salad dressing, Delfsche Slaolie, he seemingly expands the scale of the piece by repeating the hair motif and filling up the empty spaces around the two women with the infamous wavy strokes. Toorop continuously exploits the decorative qualities of women’s hair throughout his works, and introduced symbolic significance to them as well, as we see in The Three Brides, where they represent sound waves.

And Gustav Klimt, the leader of the Austrian Sezession, painted a frankly seductive woman in the most unlikely attitudes of their time. His legendary Danae shows a foreshortened angle of a woman drowned in the ecstasy of lovemaking. His signature drapery and gold drift around her foetal positioned figure, all sustained by, again, her rippling hair. The effect one would have if they were to gaze into this painting would reminisce those of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Danae appears to have been frozen in eternal pleasure in the midst of the symbols of Klimt’s artificiality.

Danae by Gustav Klimt
Job Cigarette Poster by Alphonse Mucha

The celebrated works of Alphonse Mucha that define the Art Nouveau period also provides us with a unique look into this phenomenon. The women in his works are astoundingly framed with abstract curls, rendered through an improbable fashion of energetic curves. His Salon des Cent poster started his own original style which would later be used throughout his works (in the Job Cigarette Poster, his portraits of Sarah Bernhardt for La Plume, and his Panneaux Decoratifs, etc.), a style which gave the hair of these women lifelike features, almost as if they were living organisms of their own. Essentially, he portrayed women as charming playthings, dressed in lovely baubles or arranged in alluring poses.

Poster for La Samaritaine by Alphonse Mucha

His own daughter, Jiri Mucha, once wrote “A woman, for him, was not a body, but beauty incorporated in matter and acting through matter. That is why all his female figures, however solid, are not really of this world. They are symbols, unattainable dreams, like Sarah [Bernhardt] when she came on to the stage, or died in the role of La Dame aux Camelias.”

In reality, Sarah Bernhardt (his muse and first admirer of his work), had a mass of short, tight curls which he transformed into a flowing mantle of graceful curves in the poster for “La Samaritaine”, reminiscing how water is painted on Japanese lacquerware and often assuming decorative importance in its isolation. Sarah Bernhardt was, in every way, an influential and liberated woman in her own right, with or without Mucha’s posters. So why did she consciously choose to be painted by Mucha in his distinct style over and over again for 6 years?

Sarah Bernhardt

This I believe is why the portrayal of women, especially through the style in which their hair was depicted has brought forward a paradox of sorts. Many view the depictions of women and how men were excluded out of Art Nouveau as a symptom of the chauvinist attitude of men at the turn of the century, another form of oppression, however, Sarah Bernhardt favoured this portrayal of herself. Not just because it garnered the public’s attention and aided her rise towards fame, but also because she views that these depictions were exactly what society at that time needed to accept the new emerging roles of empowered women, a statement I would earnestly second.

Jane Morris

The twentieth century began with a realisation that the restricting character of how women were depicted and how the norm for women’s appearances is intended to keep them on a short leash rather than to allow free movement. These restrictions can be seen in how the Pre-Raphaelites adorned their women in medieval-inspired costumes. Their ideal female was the tall and thin, endowed with sensuous lips, drooping eyelids, and a profusion of hair, heavily influenced by William Morris’ wife, Jane Morris.

These characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelites women is indeed the source of much of the preoccupation with females during the Art Nouveau period, they had propagated a pensive woman with a deliberately inscrutable expression, appearing otherworldly and therefore not to be concerned of worldly affairs such as politics and economics.

Yet globally, women were finally beginning to lose their corsets and attempted to adopt trousers through Amelia Bloomer’s Bloomerites or Lady Haberton’s Rational Dress Society, and most importantly of all, women were finally letting their hair down and not having them in the tight buns they have been in for centuries. This freedom of the way women dressed and styled themselves, further encouraged by the Art Nouveau’s seemingly “cheap” portrayal of themselves was being paralleled with growing freedom of women behaviour. Women were now battling to gain political and economic independence, taking their place in the male-dominated world and educating themselves for professional careers.

Alphonse Mucha and many other artists of the Art Nouveau may have commercialised their “sex appeal” and capitalised on prevailing attitudes that regard women as lascivious playmates, Yet women were finally able to take these degrading depictions of themselves and turn them into tools to liberate themselves.


Dimensions of the Twentieth Century, Skira, 1965, p. 33

Gustav Klimt; with a catalogue raisonne of his paintings, by Fritz Novotny and Johannes Dobai, New York, Praeger, 1967, p. 83.

Mucha, Jiri, Alphonse Mucha; Master of Art Nouveau, New York, Tudor, 1967, p. 75.

Reade, Brian, Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha, London, 1963, p. 15



Pia Diamandis

Writer/researcher & curator for contemporary art & horror films