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Victor Horta

Belgian Architect and Designer

Movements and Styles: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modern Architecture

Born: January 6, 1861 - Ghent, Belgium

Died: September 8, 1947 - Brussels, Belgium

Victor Horta Timeline

Quotes

"If it correct that logic is the basis of the creator's slightest reasoning, I believe it must not be allowed to interfere with one's dream's of 'charm,' that delicate, superfluous entity that often adds to harsh necessity."
Victor Horta
"I alone awaited future clients who would offer the means to show the 'true options' that were incipient in the work I had already done and my hopes for an architecture still to be created through the renunciation of styles and the general use of visible materials. This was not a mad idea to create an architecture from scratch, not even to make it progress one step as an art proper, but a need to express this art through the greatness within architecture itself, in my own idiom rather than in the conventional idiom of styles."
Victor Horta
"There are no straight lines in its design; all the lines are curving."
[On his aedicule in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, 1889]
"I wanted to create a personal work, the building, architectural, and social rationalism of which made me fashionable, because this work suited the rhythm of contemporary architecture and life."
Victor Horta
"Whatever the scope of the building, an artistic effect brings out results and I bravely set to work."
Victor Horta
"An architect can only achieve a status when he receives official commissions, for which he must be in his own country."
Victor Horta
"This was the time when I summarized my theories by claiming that a house must reflect its dweller's life and be his portrait."
[On the Winssinger House]

"I'm telling you, the materials are the same, you know as well as I do. Anyways, while in the past they were used in an empirical manner, a way which did not allow them to work to the limits of their safety due to the fear of the unforeseen, on the other hand, our era, thanks to the experiences and mathematical formulas that it has deduced, is capable of unknown and daring constructions."

Victor Horta Signature

Synopsis

Many creative minds have been said to be undisciplined in their youth. Belgian architect Victor Horta's biographers have even gone further, describing him as "lazy" and a "dunce" as a teenager. Apparently, Horta's father eventually had enough, and as punishment, at age 16 Horta was sent to work on a construction site. There, as he later recalled, he had an epiphany, and saw the rest of his life laid out before him. Indeed, Horta would go on to become one of his country's most accomplished and innovative architects, and one of the first following Belgian independence to achieve international renown, as one of the founders of Art Nouveau in the 1890s. Horta turned to Art Deco as his professional fortunes declined in the aftermath of World War I, and though he was later to receive numerous honors late in life, he had faded largely into obscurity by the time of his death, and several of his key works have been lost. In the last fifty years Horta's reputation has dramatically recovered and he is now recognized for being one of the world's key designers at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Key Ideas

Horta is famous for his pioneering work in Art Nouveau and the translation of the style from the decorative arts into architecture in the early 1890s. Horta's inventiveness with Art Nouveau helped to make it something of a national style in Belgium by 1900 before its swift demise in advance of World War I.
Horta's work in Art Nouveau is marked by a keen understanding of the capabilities of industrial advances with iron and glass as structure and infill. Horta's buildings disclose an honest handling of their materials' properties, particularly the ability of iron to be twisted and bent into hairpin forms that extend seamlessly into the accompanying décor, inside and out, making the buildings "total works of art."
Horta was an adaptable architect who transitioned from Art Nouveau to other styles such as Art Deco as public tastes dictated. Though Horta was respected during his lifetime for his brilliance with Art Nouveau, he himself predicted the style's own demise and that many of his works would be demolished eventually.

Most Important Art

Victor Horta Famous Art

Hôtel Tassel, Brussels (1893)

The Tassel House, often cited as the first Art Nouveau building. In this townhouse for one of his typical professional clients from the 1890s - in this case, one of his colleagues at the Université Libre de Bruxelles - Horta fuses the twin themes of nature and industry almost seamlessly.

As with many of Horta's famed Art Nouveau residences, the heart of the building is the central stair hall, almost a foregone conclusion given the narrow urban lots that Horta was dealt for these commissions. Here, the emphasis is on structure, which Horta makes frankly clear in the dull green iron columns that anchor the space. The thin posts blossom into a tangle of tendrils and vine-like twists at their crown, which then blend with the vines evident in the mosaic floor and the stenciled whiplash curves of the plants on the wall surfaces. They are further echoed in the forms of the chandeliers that descend from the ceiling with flower-petal-shaped shades. The effect is that the exterior natural world (largely excluded from the tight-knit urban fabric of Brussels) is now permanently brought inside, with the soothing hues of green, orange, and yellow providing a respite from the bustling noise of the street.

The stair hall is plainly visible on the exterior, with a riveted green iron I-beam serving as its foundation above the recessed main entrance before blossoming into a luminous set of stained glass windows containing the blues of water and pinks of flowering plants. In this way Horta creates a subtle play between nature and industry, with each complementing each other as essential components of the building.
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Victor Horta Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Training

Victor Horta was born in Ghent on 6 January 1861 into a large family. His father, Pierre Horta, was a luxury shoemaker, who, according to Victor, "ran his studio with such an air of superiority that for him it became an art." Victor was attracted to music at a young age, learning to play the violin. It appeared to be one of the very few things he was passionate about; nonetheless, at age 12 he was first attracted to architecture when he helped his uncle on a building site.

Horta matriculated to the local Académie des Beaux-Arts in Ghent, then left for Paris in 1878 to work in the atelier of the architect and interior decorator Jules Dubuysson in Montmartre, returning to Ghent two years later upon the death of his father. There in 1881 he married Pauline Heyse, and then moved to Brussels, where he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, the national art school. He also met the aspiring architect Paul Hankar, who during the 1890s would become one of his better-known colleagues in Belgium to work in Art Nouveau.

View of part of the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, designed by Alphonse Balat, assisted by Horta
View of part of the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, designed by Alphonse Balat, assisted by Horta

Horta did well at the Académie; in 1884 he won the inaugural Godecharle Prize for architecture, which still exists to promote the careers of young Belgian sculptors, painters, and architects, specifically to further their education and training. Around the same time he was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, who was the architect to the Belgian king Léopold II. Horta was thrilled by this opportunity, as he had aspired to work with Balat for a long time. Balat was then in the midst of designing for Léopold the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, a commodious expanse of iron-and-glass domed structures on the grounds of the royal palace (to which Balat had earlier made additions and renovations). Though not particularly inventive in terms of technology or form, the structure of the greenhouses nonetheless discloses the almost-purely-functional use of industrial materials that Horta would develop extensively thereafter.

Early Career

Balat's mentoring paid off for Horta. By 1885, he had joined the Société Centrale de l'Architecture Belge (Central Society of Belgian Architecture), established his own independent practice, and built three houses at 45-47 Twwaalfkameren Street in Ghent, his only structures in his native city. Through his mentor's influence he was awarded the commission for a small pavilion in 1889 to house a sculpture by Jef Lambeux in the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, which still stands. In 1890, his only daughter, Sophie was born, to whom Horta grew so strongly attached that he received custody of her when he divorced his first wife in 1906.

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Victor Horta Biography Continues

Horta socialized widely, and in 1888 he joined the Masonic lodge Les Amis Philanthropes of the Grand Orient of Belgium in Brussels, which brought him into contact with a large number of potential future clients. He was also appointed Head of Graphic Design for Architecture at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1892, then a professor of Architecture the following year.

Art Nouveau and the Development of a Personal Style

The Tassel House, on the rue Paul-Emile Janson, Brussels, 1893, often considered the first Art Nouveau building
The Tassel House, on the rue Paul-Emile Janson, Brussels, 1893, often considered the first Art Nouveau building

Horta's fellow masons Eugene Autrique and Emile Tassel (who was also a professor like Horta at the Université Libre de Bruxelles) soon commissioned him to design residences for them. These two houses, finished in 1893, represent Horta's first works in Art Nouveau - the Tassel House is often cited as the first Art Nouveau building. Horta later recalled that his goal in these two buildings was "to create a personal style, in which could be found a constructive, architectural, and social rationalism. In the Tassel House one sees for the first time the flowering of the style in full force, where Horta fuses seamlessly the structure of iron and twists it into decoration, making it resemble the shapes of vines and tendrils. This is mirrored by the decoration of the mosaic floors, the curves of the chandeliers and balustrades, and the snaking stenciled plant forms of the home's great stair hall.

Main entrance to the Solvay House, 224 Avenue Louise, Brussels
Main entrance to the Solvay House, 224 Avenue Louise, Brussels

It was also through Tassel that Horta met the engineer Charles Lefebure, who happened to be the secretary to Ernest Solvay, the chemist and king of industrial soda, used in various applications, including the production of glass, metallurgy, and detergents. Solvay's son Armand confided to Horta the commission for a lavish town house on the Avenue Louise in the Ixelles section of Brussels, giving the architect virtually carte blanche, and Horta obliged. He designed every facet of the house, down to the knobs, carpets, and doorbells, using expensive onyx, marble, bronze, and exotic woods, and collaborated with the painter Theo van Rysselberghe on the design of the grand staircase. The result is the Hotel Solvay, built from 1894-98, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Tassel House, the van Eetvelde House, and Horta's own house and studio. The Tassel House's use of audacious, 'whiplash' natural forms that became the hallmark of Horta's strain of Art Nouveau brought the architect instant renown, and he received a bevy of commissions in the last half of the 1890s, from various clients.

1895 was a banner year for Horta's practice. That year the city of Brussels commissioned him to build a kindergarten on the rue Saint-Ghislain. The same year, he was approached by the leaders of the Belgian Workers' Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge) to build them their new headquarters not far away. Though in his memoirs Horta insisted on his distance from politics, he had nonetheless taught an art class at the Party's old headquarters and was good friends with its intellectual leaders, including Max Hallet, Leon Furnemont and Emile Vandervelde. Horta accepted the challenge.

The result was his masterwork, the Maison du Peuple, a multifunctional structure of iron, glass, and brick that combined the Party's offices, stores, a cafe, recreational spaces, a library, and a large auditorium, all fitted into a highly irregular site on a circular plaza and on a slope. Horta supposedly made 8,500 square meters of drawings and fifteen craftsman worked for eighteen months on the ironwork. The building was finally inaugurated on Easter, in 1899, in the presence of the great French socialist leader Jean Jaurès. Brussels newspapers presented the event with great fanfare, even printing Horta's portrait among their coverage. After World War II the Belgian Workers' Party merged with other leftist organizations to form the Belgian Socialist Party, and vacated the Maison du Peuple. Amidst massive international outcry, the building was demolished in 1965, though a few remnants have been saved, and can be seen in a Brussels subway station and the Horta Museum. Its destruction and replacement by a soulless concrete skyscraper have since been described by some critics as the "greatest architectural crime" of the twentieth century.

Facade of the Van Eetvelde House, Brussels (1895-1901)
Facade of the Van Eetvelde House, Brussels (1895-1901)

Also in 1895, Léopold II's secretary for the affairs of the Congo, Edmond van Eetvelde, commissioned Horta to build him a new residence in the fashionable district of the Avenue Palmerston. The house, which was built in two stages (the second from 1899-1901, after van Eetvelde was made a baron by Léopold), is often called Horta's most daring residential design, with the interior organized around a central octagonal stair-hall resting on iron pillars and topped by a stained glass skylight. Van Eetvelde also got Horta the job to design a pavilion of the Congo at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, though the contracts for this project were cancelled and only the drawings survive.

Horta's own house and studio on the Rue Américaine, Brussels, 1895-98
Horta's own house and studio on the Rue Américaine, Brussels, 1895-98

With this burst of success, between 1895-98 Horta purchased a couple of lots in the Saint-Gilles district of Brussels, not far from where he had built many of his residences in the 1890s and erected his own house and studio, which, thanks to the efforts of his student Jean Delhaye, now functions as the Horta Museum.

In 1897, Horta exhibited several of his designs for furniture and decor at the salon of the avant-garde artists' group La Libre Esthetique, thereby introducing his skill as an interior designer to an even wider public. That same year he was also commissioned by the Solvay family to build them a country chateau in Chambley, in northeastern France near Nancy, a kind of combination of Gothic revival and Art Nouveau design; unfortunately, the house's location near the front during World War I exposed it to bombardment and it was demolished soon after.

The New Century

Grand Bazar in Frankfurt, Germany (1903), by Horta
Grand Bazar in Frankfurt, Germany (1903), by Horta

Horta's career continued to flourish as the twentieth century was born. While continuing to receive residential commissions in Brussels, such as the Aubecq House (1899), the Roger and Dubois Houses (1901), and a house for socialist leader Max Hallet (1902), Horta also was asked to design several department stores, such as the Grand Bazar d'Anspach in Brussels and Frankfurt, Germany (1903), the Waucquez department store in Brussels (1906), and three branches of L'Innovation in Brussels and Antwerp (1901, 1903, and 1906). In one of the two Brussels stores, Horta reached the apogee of his Art Nouveau work, employing a steel framework filled only by glass panels, thus creating a fully transparent, modern facade that functioned as a giant shop window. His work also was one of the prime attractions at the First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, Italy, in 1902, a fair which represented the apex of Art Nouveau's popularity in Europe.

Brugmann University Hospital, Brussels (1906-23): former pavilion for children's surgery, now used for dental medicine
Brugmann University Hospital, Brussels (1906-23): former pavilion for children's surgery, now used for dental medicine

In 1906, Horta divorced his first wife (he would remarry, to Julia Carlsson, two years later). That same year he began work on a large complex of structures for the Brugmann University Hospital in Laeken, not far from the Royal Palace, which spread out over a large number of low-rise pavilions, separated by function. The campus buildings, which cover 44 acres, use a striking combination of red and white brick. They show the stiffening and simplification of Horta's Art Nouveau, and appear much more workmanlike and sober than the exuberant, energetic designs for his more famous earlier buildings. Construction on the large project started only in 1911, was interrupted by World War I, and was only finished in 1923. It is still in use as a hospital today, and its design was positively received among the European medical community. In 1907, he designed a new Museum of Fine Arts in Tournai, Belgium, although it did not open until 1928. In 1910, Horta also received the commission for the planned new Brussels-Central Railway Station, though the work would not be completed until 1952, five years after Horta's death.

Horta resigned from his professorship at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1911 when the university administration did not offer him the contract to design extensions to the school's buildings. But the following year he accepted an appointment at his alma mater, the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, and in 1913 began a three-year term as director. He planned on revising significantly the teaching of architecture at the school, which earned him the enmity of his colleagues.

World War I and Aftermath

Horta left for London in 1915 to attend the Town Planning Conference on the Reconstruction of Belgium, organized by the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association. Belgium had already been devastated by World War I, with the German armies committing a great cultural crime by wantonly burning a large portion of the city of Louvain, including its university library, whose collection had held many priceless medieval manuscripts. However, Horta was unable to return to Belgium, so he left Britain for the United States, where he remained for the rest of the war, giving lectures at several American universities, including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Smith College, and Wellesley College. In 1917, he accepted an appointment as Professor of Architecture at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In the United States, Horta also encountered the skyscraper for the first time and realized definitively that the wave of building in the future would not use Art Nouveau, and he resolved once the war concluded that he would need to adjust his designs to current tastes.

Turn to Art Deco and Later Works

The war left Horta in a difficult situation. Upon his return to Belgium in 1919 he sold his house and studio. That year, however, he was commissioned to design the new Palais des Beaux-Arts (Center for Fine Arts) in Brussels, a multipurpose facility that includes a concert hall, recital hall, chamber music room, a large exhibition space, a movie theater, and lecture rooms. The building took nearly ten years to complete, and was finally inaugurated in 1928; its aesthetic demonstrates that Horta had abandoned Art Nouveau fully and instead turned to a highly geometricized, rectilinear, classicized aesthetic that reflected the development of what we now call Art Deco.

Belgian Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris, 1925
Belgian Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris, 1925

In 1925, Horta was called upon to design the Belgian pavilion at the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts; the 1925 World's Fair). He produced a modest, symmetrical structure of wood, plaster, and other low-cost materials, whose straightforward rectilinearity was somewhat reminiscent of a small Greek temple or aedicule. It was crowned by six statues representing the historical development of the decorative arts by Marcel Wolfers, whose family had commissioned Horta to design a jewelry shop for them in Brussels in 1909.

Though late in life Horta was occupied with very few commissions, save for the ongoing work with the Brussels-Central Railway Station, he was given several honors both at home and abroad. In 1919, he was made a member of the Order of the Crown and the following year inducted into the Order of Léopold, the two highest classes of honors awarded by the Belgian state. In 1926, he served on the jury for the competition of the new buildings for the League of Nations in Geneva, and was named a member of the French Legion of Honor. In 1932, he was named a Baron by Albert I, the Belgian king.

Victor Horta's funeral, September 1947
Victor Horta's funeral, September 1947

In 1939, Horta began work on his Mémoires, which were only published posthumously in 1985. During the Second World War, he burned most of his papers and designs, regretting that he had never made the effort to actually publish his works. Perhaps because he had never done so, Horta was mostly forgotten at the time of his death in 1947. His student Maxine Brunfaut completed his unfinished Brussels-Central Railway Station in 1952, according to Horta's own plans. Horta was interred at Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels.


Legacy

During the height of his career at the turn of the twentieth century, Horta achieved international renown as an innovator. He was an especially strong influence on the French Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, whom Horta met once in 1894 and advised to "banish the flower" in favor of the stalk in Guimard's own explorations of style. Horta also inspired a large number of minor architects in Belgium and especially around Brussels, thereby making Art Nouveau a kind of "national style" around 1900. His 'whiplash' curves, nearly a trademark aesthetic, are often termed "the Belgian line" in architectural discourse.

Horta did not represent the complete trajectory of Art Nouveau in Belgium, however; on the other pole was Henry van de Velde, with whom Horta did not have a good relationship. Though he sometimes borrowed from Horta's curvilinear aesthetic, van de Velde was known much more to favor the Arts and Crafts, and eventually left Belgium in 1899 to become director of the Arts and Crafts school in Weimar, Germany, before being forced out at the start of World War I. Unlike Horta, van de Velde had come to architecture through painting and the decorative arts (with Horta it was the other way around, and Horta never painted, anyways). While van de Velde was a gifted and polemical writer, Horta was laconic and published very little, preferring to let his built work and designs speak for him.

Horta died during an era when Art Nouveau began to enter one of the darkest chapters of its history. He had foreseen that many of his works would likely be destroyed because of the nature of the style in many places as a passing fad. Most of his department stores have been demolished; his great branch of L'Innovation in Brussels of 1903 was remodeled and then destroyed in a fire in 1967, and most famously, the Maison du Peuple was dismantled in 1965 amid a public outcry.

Such is not the case with Horta's residential works. His students Jean Delhaye and Maxine Brunfaut did much to ensure the survival of several of Horta's key works, as did many private owners of the houses that he built in Brussels, and a great number of them still remain; some are even open to the public occasionally. Even the Waucquez Department Store in Brussels still stands, and is in large part preserved, having now been transformed into the Museum of the Comic Strip.

Horta and his signature curved designs as featured on a 2000-Belgian franc note
Horta and his signature curved designs as featured on a 2000-Belgian franc note

With the revival of scholarly attention on Art Nouveau between the 1950s and 1970s, Horta's image began to be rehabilitated. At first, much of Art Nouveau was considered to be a critical forerunner or embryonic form of the modern movement, part of the search for a style for the "machine age" as epitomized by the International Style of architecture at midcentury. But more recently, Art Nouveau has begun to be treated as a style worthy of its own scholarly treatment and Horta's image as one of the great Belgian architects has been restored. At the end of the twentieth century, Horta's portrait and whiplash designs were featured on the 2000 Belgian franc note.

Railings from Horta's Maison du Peuple can now be seen in the Brussels subway station Horta (named for him). Today the Musée Horta is now located in his former house and studio, meticulously preserved, and dedicated to the cultivation of his legacy.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Victor Horta
Interactive chart with Victor Horta's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Alphonse Balat
Godefroy Devreese
Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

Friends

Paul Hankar
Max Hallet
Leon Furnemont
Emile Tassel
Edmond van Eetvelde

Movements

La Libre Esthetique
Les XX
Arts and Crafts MovementArts and Crafts Movement
Victor Horta
Victor Horta
Years Worked: 1883 - 1947

Artists

Hector GuimardHector Guimard
Gustave Bovy Serrurier
Marcel Wolfers
Philippe Wolfers
Jean Delhaye

Friends

Pierre Braecke
Laurie AndersonLaurie Anderson
Charles AtlasCharles Atlas

Movements

Art DecoArt Deco
The International StyleThe International Style

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Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Victor Horta

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Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Victor Horta

By David Dernie

Horta: Art Nouveau to Modernism Recomended resource

By Victor Horta, Françoise Dierkens-Aubry, Jos Vandenbreeden, Palais Des Beaux-Arts

Art Nouveau

By Klaus-Jurgen Sembach

Victor Horta the father of Art Nouveau in Brussels Recomended resource

By Olivia Regout
Brussels Life.Be
November 2015

Architect Victor Horta's Countryside Home Goes on the Market

By Inti Landauro
WSJ
February 2016

Victor Horta: Belgium's Greatest Art Nouveau Architect Recomended resource

By Sam Parker
Culture Trip
October 2016

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