Victor Horta is best known as the creator of Art Nouveau architecture who first attracted attention in 1893, with his house for Emile Tassel, Professor of Descriptive Geometry at the Université Libre, Brussels. An intensely creative decade followed its conception. Horta produced more than forty Art Nouveau buildings during this short time, each one designed with an obsessive attention to detail. His work was to inspire a generation of architects and designers in Belgium and introduced Art Nouveau as a style which appeared in architecture throughout fin de siècle Europe.
Art Nouveau appeared quite suddenly in Horta’s work - like a rupture In a career which was otherwise surprisingly mainstream: it followed more than a decade of Classical training and unbuilt competition schemes. Only ten years later it had almost vanished, the final part of Horta's career being characterised by years of uncertainty, and a small number of unremarkable urban-scale projects. These three stylistically distinct phases in Horta's work reflected the immense artistic, social and political changes which took place in his lifetime.
The first part of Horta's career encompasses his training, travels and work until 1893. Like the writer and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck and the poet Georges Rodenbach, Horta's early years of education were spent in Ghent.2 The early talent he showed for music went unfulfilled as he was quickly dismissed from the Ghent Conservatory. Instead he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts where he spent three years before leaving for Paris. There he worked for the architect-decorator Jules Debuysson in Montmartre before his father's death in 1880 caused him to return to Belgium. He soon married and moved to Brussels. At the time Belgium, founded only in 1830 in the wake of post-Napoleonic Europe, had established itself as a thriving industrial and colonial state and with the subsequent influx of wealth, Brussels had undergone a rapid transformation under the municipal bourgmestre, Jules Anspach.
Horta enrolled at Brussels’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 881 where he was a contemporary of Paul Hankar.3 Whilst still a student Horta began working for Alphonse Balat? architect to King Leopold II. According to Horta Balat introduced the principles of apparent construction into 'classical purity' with the use of ‘Belgian materials’ and it is perhaps primarily from Balat that Horta, during the ten years of their association, gained the confidence to use exposed structural elements in his Art Nouveau interiors.
Horta was successful in his beaux-arts training and left the academy in 1884 with a gold medal. In the same year, with a Neoclassical design for a parliament building, he won the Prix Godecharle which enabled him to travel.5 He seems to have visited Rome, Paris and Cologne, fulfilling the obligations of the bursary with a study of the Temple of Augustus and Livla in Vienne, France?
Around 1870 Horta detected the signs of a Belgian architecture ‘en révolution’, a revolt against academic Classicism. In the work of architects such as Balat, Beyaert, Poelaert and Van Ysendyck, he identified an emphasis on innovation towards a more personal style. To some extent this is reflected in the austere brick facades of Horta's first project for three houses in Ghent ( 1885). Here he went to some length to design a shield carried by an eagle and two putti, like a renaissance impressa, to carry his signature. Horta referred to this part of his career, so influenced by Neoclassicism, as a search for a ‘personal work in which constructive, architectural and social rationalism [...]
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