Recently I posted on Brussels being the Capital of Art Nouveau, with a large programme of activities being put on throughout 2023. The person who is largely identified as the catalyst behind Art Nouveau is Victor Horta, who was born in Ghent on 6 January 1861. His father was a master shoemaker who instilled in his son that craftsmanship was a high form of art. The young Horta first studied music at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent but was expelled for bad behaviour. He decided to try his hand at art and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. At the age of 17 he left for Paris, where he entered the studio of the interior designer Jules Debuysson.
“My stay in Paris, walking the city streets, visiting the monuments and museums threw wide open the windows of my artistic soul. No school could have done more to tire me with an enthusiasm for architecture than viewing and deciphering those monuments – an enthusiasm that has never left me.”Victor Horta
In 1880 Horta’s father died and Horta returned to Belgium where he married and moved to Brussels. He began to study architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. Horta did well in his studies and was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, the architect to King Leopold II. Horta worked with Balat on the construction of the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken.
In 1884 Horta won his first major prize: the Godecharle prize for architecture, with his plans for a new building for the Belgian Parliament. In 1892 he was named head of the Department of Graphic Design for Architecture at the Free University of Brussels, and promoted to professor in 1893. He became very interested in developments in book design, textiles and wallpaper, all of which influenced his work.
In 1893, Horta built a town house in Schaerbeek, Brussels, for his friend Eugène Autrique. The façade of this house was the first appearance of elements that he later developed into the full Art Nouveau style, including iron columns, and ceramic floral designs. The Autrique Maison, located at Chaussée de Haecht 266, Schaerbeek thus provides a good understanding of the birth of Art Nouveau.
The major breakthrough for Horta came the same year when he was commissioned to design a home for the scientist and professor Émile Tassel. Inside, Horta used glass and iron to create light and space, and featured curling lines resembling flowers and vines in the ironwork railings of the open stairway, in the floor tiles, in the glass of the doors and skylights, and painted on the walls. Hotel Tassel is located at Rue Paul-Emile Janson 6, 1000 Brussels.
By now Horta was up and running and in great demand. In 1894, Armand Solvay, the chemistry magnate, engaged his services. Solvay granted Horta unlimited freedom of creation and unrestricted funding to design a home fit for his bride. The result is the Solvay House which you can find and visit at Avenue Louise/Louizalaan 224, Brussels.
Van Eetvelde House
The following year Horta started on the Van Eetvelde House, designed for a Belgian diplomat and the general secretary of the then Congo Free State. Van Eetvelde wanted an impressive family home to entertain his distinguished international guests, and Horta was his first choice. The mansion incorporates a splendid stained-glass dome and winter garden. In 2000 it was added to the UNESCO world heritage list. Van Eetvelde House can be found at Avenue Palmerston 4, 1040 Brussels.
Built between 1898 and 1901, Horta’s own workshop and home at 23-25, rue Américaine in Saint-Gilles, Brussels is now the Horta Museum. The two buildings are typical of Art Nouveau at its height. The interior decoration has largely been retained, the mosaics, stained glass, and wall decorations forming a harmonious and elegant whole, down to the last detail.
In the early 20th century Victor Horta continued to design and build buildings in the Art Nouveau style. When Belgium was occupied during the First World War he moved to London and then the United States, returning to Brussels in 1919. Post-war austerity meant that Art Nouveau was no longer affordable or fashionable. Horta simplified his style, using more geometrical than organic designs, such as for the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels.
In 1927, Horta became the Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, a post he held for four years until 1931. In recognition of his work, Horta was awarded the title of Baron by King Albert I in 1932.
In 1937, Horta completed the design of his final work, Brussels Central Station. He died on 8 September 1947 and was interred in Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels.