For this sketch, we were asked to create a series of Art Nouveau posters featuring the heroines of Tulsa Opera‘s 2019-2020 season: Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and Emmeline.

When arranged side by side, these posters would combine to form a triptych, or three-panel work of art.

The Art Style

Art Nouveau is an international art style that thrived at the turn of the twentieth century. It is best known for its organic, plantlike line. Frequent motifs include vine tendrils, flowers, hair, and the human female form.

Symbolizing glamour, modernity, and beauty, the idealized female figures of Art Nouveau enjoyed life to the fullest by riding bicycles, dancing, drinking wine, and smoking in public. In an era when women were increasingly more visible in the public sphere, Art Nouveau sold products and lifestyles that reflected the changing roles of women.

The Symbolism

Each poster incorporates their story’s motifs, infusing deeper meaning into the decorative details framing each heroine. From left to right:

Carmen is a fiery, independent woman who drives a Spanish solider to choose between duty and freedom. The roses in her hand and at her feet symbolize romance and the thorny aspect of Carmen’s passion. Her dress is inspired by Spanish flamenco dancers, but her hair is wild and loose rather than pinned up in a bun. The background is the interior of a bullfighting ring, hinting at the opera’s ending.

Madama Butterfly is a young Japanese geisha who falls in love with an unscrupulous American naval officer. She is holding a paper umbrella and a foldable fan, and behind her is a shoji screen – all objects prominent in the opera’s staging. The cherry blossom tree in the top right corner symbolizes the fleeting beauty and ephemeral nature of life. The flowers at her feet are red spider lilies, which are associated with death in Japanese culture.

Emmeline is a young mill worker who is seduced by evil and betrayed by fate. In the background is the textile mill where she works, and behind her is the railroad, which brings her love and also takes it away. The white lilies at her feet symbolize innocence and purity. Her hands are resting on her stomach, hinting at her pregnancy. The wagon wheel behind her head represents the “wheel of fate” while also evoking religious imagery.

The Project

Although the sketch was ultimately not used for the final artwork, this project presented a great opportunity for us to dig out our art history textbooks and think creatively about how to incorporate symbolism into each poster.