I've been an admirer of Art Deco for a long time, and for years now I've been saying that Gaudí is probably my all-time favorite architect, but earlier this year I realized that I am a huge fan of the Art Nouveau style. I guess I didn't really know what Art Nouveau was until I picked up The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt's latest novel, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century and discusses at length some of the era's movements in decorative arts (including Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts style popular in Britain at that time). A couple of the main characters were potters.
Anyway, once I read a little about it, I was like "Oh, so that's what Art Nouveau is! I love that shite." Allow me to elaborate.
What is Art Nouveau?
The Art Nouveau movement gained prominence around the turn of the 20th century (wikipedia lists the movement's heyday as 1890-1905). Most of the movement's artists were active in Continental Europe, but its resonance can be seen worldwide. In German, Art Nouveau is often called Jugendstil after a German magazine (Jugend) which promoted the movement.
The central tenant of the movement's philosophy is that artists' designs should be incorporated into everything: not only the fine arts (painting, sculpture) but also architecture and the decorative arts (including pottery, furniture, jewelry...). The movement represents a departure from the academic schools that reigned during the Victorian era. Those tended to be formalistic and backward-looking, but Art Nouveau freed artists' creativity from the constraints of the past.
Characteristics of the Art Nouveau Style
Art Nouveau as an international movement embraces a lot of local variations and idiosyncratic artists, but there are some stylistic elements we can point to as being characteristic. The first and most important of these is definitely the use of curved lines (early on, one critic likened these to the crack of a whip). Another common element is the incorporation of nature designs like flowers, leaves, vines and even insects. Fairies and other mythological figures -- from the folklore native to Northern Europe (e.g. the Arthurian cycle, Norse sagas) as opposed to Classical myths -- also appear in Art Nouveau artwork. I would say that the combination of these three elements lend the style a "fairytale" feel.
Wrought iron and glass, including stained glass, can be seen in a lot of Art Nouveau works. Some of the movements' artists also drew inspiration from non-European artwork, such as Japanese woodblock prints.
Examples of Art Nouveau
In Paris, the Metro entrances designed by Hector Guimard have become emblematic examples of the Art Nouveau style. Paris was also the site of the Exposition Universelle in 1900 which introduced the movement to people from across the world. Some of the structures built for the occasion and still standing today also represent the new style (in particular, I would point your attention to the gallery of the Grand Palais). Some people even consider the Eiffel Tower (finished in 1889) to be an Art Nouveau structure.
In neighboring Belgium Victor Horta was an important Art Nouveau architect and his maison and atelier in Brussels is now a museum, while in Austria the movement was represented by the Vienna Secessionists whose first president was the artist Gustav Klimt.
The Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí's structures are Spain's most famous examples of the Art Nouveau. Some critics might consider his style to be too personal and unique to fit comfortably under the movement's aegis, but I would say that his curvilinear, organic forms and flights of fancy are definitely characteristic of the style. The majority of Gaudi's works are concentrated in Barcelona, and they represent Art Nouveau at its most surreal.
Another European city worth mentioning is the Latvian capital of Riga, where the wealth of Art Nouveau architecture earned the city center recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of these works were designed by architect Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, father of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein.
The United States was geographically removed from the epicenter of Art Nouveau. Moreover, here the movement faced competition from the rival Arts & Crafts school. Nevertheless, two American artists worth mentioning in this context are Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his work in stained glass, and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose buildings include Art Nouveau elements.
Art Nouveau vs. Arts & Crafts
I've already mentioned the Arts & Crafts movement twice. This school was popular in the English-speaking world around the same time that Art Nouveau predominated in Europe (in the US, it is often called the American craftsman style). Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau can be considered sister movements: they share many similarities but also harbor some key differences which make it difficult to reduce Arts & Crafts to the British branch of the larger Art Nouveau movement.
Ideologically, Arts & Crafts proponents romanticized the role of the (working class) craftsman, and thus the movement had a progressivist, Luddite inclination. This political element was largely absent from Continental Art Nouveau, making it a more bourgeois/intellectual/elite movement. Stylistically, I would say that a lot of Arts & Crafts work tends to have an earthy, cottagey feel, whereas Art Nouveau tends more towards the sophisticated and elegant.
The British artist and writer William Morris is usually considered the spiritual father of the Arts & Crafts movement, which was also inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. I also strongly associate the pottery of the Martin Brothers with the Arts & Crafts style.
Art Nouveau's Place in Art History
Although the golden age of Art Nouveau has come and gone, the movement holds an important place in the history of Western Art. Through Art Nouveau, one can see the progression from the traditionalist schools that preceded it to the modernist styles that replaced it, particularly Art Deco. In Art Deco, the wrought iron and stained glass remain, but the curves and natural designs are replaced by the straight lines and geometric shapes of the machine age.
More recently, Art Nouveau also served as a major source of inspiration for a lot of the psychadelic artwork of the '60s and '70s such as the posters of Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley and Stanley "Mouse" Miller.
National Gallery of Art page for 2000 Art Nouveau exhibit;
Flickr feed of Louis H. Sullivan's work by user Atelier Tee;
Images of Art Nouveau Architecture in Latin America by photographer Peter Langer.
Images: Jugend cover from Oscar Wilde - Standing Ovations; Paris Metropolitan entrance from FashionMista; Horta museum, Brussels interior uploaded on wikipedia by user Rafaelij and used under GNU license; detail of facade of 10b Elisabetes Iela, Riga designed by Eisteinstein found on riga-life.com; Wisteria panel by Louis C. Tiffany on display at Morse Museum in Winter Park, FL (image from metmuseum website); 1966 poster by Wes Wilson found on lysator.liu.se.