Art Markets: Languid lines and sensual women – Mucha’s signature style

Last December the top lot in sales at Swann’s “Rare and Important Art Nouveau Posters” sale was claimed by Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) for a set of two ornately bound and decorated portfolios. Containing 138 lithographic proofs, the collection illustrated a story called llsee Princesse de Tripoli. The monochromatic prints were hand-colored in watercolor by the artist. The set sold for $260,000.

An international movement that proliferated on many continents at the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau was characterized by flowing adornments and serpentine movement and became the signature style for fine as well as commercial art in the years leading to World War I. Mucha produced one of Art Nouveau’s most instantly recognizable images in an advertising poster for cigarette paper. Featuring a sensual woman in the throes of savoring a hand-rolled cigarette, Mucha’s famous Job lithograph boasted a scantily clad beauty with a tangled forest of brunette hair ringed in cirrus clouds of cigarette smoke and a border resembling an Oriental carpet. The Job poster reappeared in cheap reproductions on dorm room walls across the world in the 1960s and ’70s.

Long out of fashion on the art market, Mucha was embraced during the psychedelic ’60s as a forerunner. His languidly wrought style with its curvaceous forms and organic imagery helped launch a thousand trips and at least a hundred careers in commercial art during the era of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.

Most of his hippie fans never realized that for Mucha, his Job lithograph was just one day’s work among many others. He was much prouder of designing postage stamps, paper currency and government documents for his newly independent homeland, Czechoslovakia. At the time of his birth, the country now known as the Czech Republic was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mucha worked in Austria’s capital, Vienna, painting theatrical stage backdrops, all the while cultivating the dream of a Czech nation.

Moving to Paris in 1887, Mucha found assignments as a magazine illustrator and rose to the forefront of the emerging Art Nouveau movement in 1895 after his lithograph poster for a Sarah Bernhardt play became a sensation. Afterward he was swamped with work for everything from book illustrations to designs for jewelry and carpets. At the Universal Exhibition in Paris (1900), he became internationally known for decorating several pavilions representing provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Although renowned in commercial art and often imitated, his heart was with his birthplace and his art reflected this shift with his portrayals of the homeland. In the first decade of the 20th century, Mucha and his new wife visited the United States frequently and in 1910 their daughter was born in New York City. Hoping to earn money in New York to finance his nationalistic projects, he received support from millionaire industrialist Charles Crane, a philanthropist of Slavic nationalism. After returning home and settling in Prague, he created murals for civic buildings and designed the emblems and motifs for the new state of Czechoslovakia after World War I brought its independence.

In 1928, culminating the fulfillment of his life-long ambition, he completed his magnum opus, Slav Epic, a series of 20 historic murals chronicling his native land and people. He donated the collection to the city of Prague. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Mucha was so thoroughly identified with the fallen nation that he was arrested by the Gestapo. Although eventually released, the aging artist fell ill from the strain and died in Prague later that year.

Mucha produced a large body of work and his lithographs are among the favorites at poster auctions from the era. The Job poster frequently shows up at auction with sale prices ranging from $3,000-$10,000. Several other artists from the era created posters for the cigarette paper manufacturer, Jules Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec among them. Mucha created two posters for Job. The first, done in 1896, is in a small format; the girl with the arabesque hair appears to be the same model depicted in his earlier poster for the Salon des Cents Exhibition. The second poster done two years later is larger, repeats the Job logo throughout the image and features a darker-haired model with a red flower in her hair.

Less commonly seen is Mucha’s commission for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Steeped in American symbolism the image features stars and stripes, a fair-haired maiden seated beside a Native American Indian woman in full headdress and two South American masks bordered on the top corners. Allusions to the exhibition’s theme of progress through science and industry are skillfully included in the design. Swann Galleries in New York sold Exposition de St. Louis in December 2006 for $7,000 (including buyer’s premium).

Mucha’s oil paintings are harder to come by at auction and the prices are steep. An oil on canvas completed in 1903, Femme a l’embleme, Winter, sold at Christie’s New York in April for $86,000 (including buyer’s premium). Mucha’s 1920 Impressionist rendering Reduced Version of the Abolition of Serfdom in Russia sold in April 2006 at Christie’s New York for $1,300,000 (including buyer’s premium). A sizable 40 inches by 57 inches, the darkly-hued painting is not recognizable in the Mucha Nouveau style; peasants in colored costume dance in the foreground of an outdoor wintry scene with an Orthodox church breaking through the snowy fog in the distance.

Original works on paper were also in the artist’s repertoire. A mixed media pastel, gouache and pencil, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter, Jaroslava (1922) sold in 2002 at Sotheby’s London for $42,939 (including buyer’s premium).

Mucha also explored sculpture, perhaps because of his close association with the French master artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The period between 1899 and 1903 was his most productive in the medium. Full figures and busts of women were rendered astonishingly well. They are rare in the marketplace. Sotheby’s New York offered LaNature (circa 1900), a 27-inch bronze and lapis lazuli bust of a woman in the style of his poster images, with a reserve of $400,000-$600,000. The artist exhibited the bronze at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. It sold at the December 2002 auction for $725,000 (including buyer’s premium).

Throughout his long career, Mucha was never confined to one style or medium. The signature Mucha Nouveau design of languid lines and sensual women gave way to sober studies of portraits and narratives of the homeland he loved. Although he covered the world geographically as well as stylistically, the Slav Epic series brought him back to the Nouveau style for which he will always be recognized.