Even if you don’t know his name, chances are you will recognize the unmistakable style of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha: beautiful women with long, thick tendrils of hair dressed in flowing gowns and surrounded by flowers (most often also adorning their hair) and other decorative botanical motifs done in soft, delicate shades of gold, green, ochre and peach.
Mucha first found fame with his revolutionary poster designs and was instrumental in popularizing the Art Nouveau aesthetic, called “Le Style Mucha” by many. His influence in the art world is still felt today and his posters and other artwork sell at auction from four to six figures.
After moving to Paris in 1887 and toiling in obscurity for the next eight years, Mucha’s big break came via a favor and a fortuitous phone call that turned him into a superstar virtually overnight. It was in late December 1894 when legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt called the Paris publishing company that produced her promotional posters with a last-minute request to create one for her play, Gismonda. The company’s regular illustrators were on vacation, but Mucha happened to be there correcting proofs as a favor for a friend, so the task fell to him out of desperation.
In creating the poster, Mucha eschewed the bold colors that were typical of the era and instead designed a long and narrow poster filled with soft pastels and gold accents. He painted Bernhardt in the style of Byzantine nobility with an orchid headdress and her name arched above her head like a halo.
“The way he treated Sarah Bernhardt’s poster was revolutionary,” said Tomoko Sato, curator of the Mucha Foundation in Prague.
Indeed. Although Parisians were used to seeing posters in the streets and shops promoting everything from plays to soap, Mucha’s design was unlike anything else they had seen and it not only rocked the advertising world, it inspired collectors to bribe bill stickers for them or outright steal copies. Mucha became a sensation overnight, and the work launched his career as the most celebrated graphic design artist of the Art Nouveau movement.
Mucha was born on July 24, 1860 in Moravia and from his earliest years, his artistic talent was evident. According to the Mucha Foundation, he could draw before he could walk, and his mother used to tie a pencil around his neck so that he could draw while crawling around on the floor. Despite his talent, Mucha failed to gain a place to study at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. Instead he took up a job arranged by his father in the court, where he disgraced himself by making caricatures of the plaintiffs and defendants, said the Foundation.
After working several years as a scene painter for a theater in Vienna, Mucha met his first patron, Count Khuen Belasi, who invited him to create decorations for the Emmahof Chateau and sponsored him to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Mucha studied there for a couple of years and then left to study in Paris.
Fast forward to Bernhardt’s fateful call. After the Gismonda poster was such a wild success, Bernhardt became Mucha’s muse and they worked together for the next decade. She commissioned several more posters for her productions and also had Mucha create set designs and costumes for her plays.
Bernhardt was the single most influential figure in Mucha’s life as an artist and he created more alluring, strong women in her image to advertise everything from cookies to bicycles, and alcohol to rolling papers. His advertisement for Job cigarette papers, circa 1896, is one of the most famous works in design history. Taking its cue from a new kind of female beauty, the modern woman he designed has hair with a life of its own, and her tendrils look similar to the floating tentacles of a jellyfish. The women Mucha created were part of a budding 20th-century world where they had newfound independence and social agency. Through them, Mucha changed the world of advertising and brought Art Nouveau to the streets.
For the next nine years, he was one of the most celebrated artists in the world, with recognition in both Europe and America, and besides posters, he churned out calendars, decorative panels, advertising labels, fabric designs, menu cards and table settings.
Mucha also enjoyed a successful three-year collaboration with leading French jeweler and goldsmith Georges Fouquet, which began around 1898. This collaboration led Mucha into a new area when he accepted the job of designing Fouquet’s new shop, including the interior and furnishings. The boutique Fouquet opened in 1901 in the rue Royale, the heart of Paris, to great critical acclaim. It was regarded as “a shop of a new type” that rose to the level of art, where Fouquet’s jewelry was in total harmony with its surroundings, according to the Mucha Foundation, and with one of the most outstanding Art Nouveau interiors.
Their most famous creation was a snake bracelet for Bernhardt, seen in Mucha’s poster for her play, Médée. In her 2004 book, Sarah Bernhardt (Women in the Arts), author Elizabeth Silverthorne says that for the death scene in Médée, in which Bernhardt’s character is bitten by an asp, the actress kept two live garter snakes in a jewel case on her dressing table. She was fond of them and often twined them around her wrists, to the horror of her maid and visitors. Inspired by the theatrical prototype in his own work, Mucha designed a serpent bracelet that could be more practically kept in Bernhardt’s jewel box and wouldn’t horrify anyone by wriggling around on her wrist.
Crafted by Fouquet, the bracelet is a twist of gold and enamel embellished with diamonds and opals and is an extraordinary piece created by two masters of the Art Nouveau style. The bracelet sold at Christie’s in Geneva for around $1.07 million US dollars in 1987. It is now at the Alphonse Mucha Museum in Japan.
In 1901, Mucha published Documents Decoratifs, a guide for aspiring artists and designers to replicate Le Style Mucha. It became an Art Nouveau bible and was widely used in art schools and factories. Demand for Mucha’s work grew, and, in 1904, he left the “treadmill of Paris” for America, hoping to remake himself as a painter of singular, monumental works. He also taught at the Art Institute in Chicago.
Mucha returned to Prague in 1910 to work on his Slav Epic, a cycle of twenty canvases depicting the struggles and the triumphs of the Czechs and other Slavic peoples. During this time, he also designed the Mayor’s Hall in Prague’s Municipal House, which was the last significant work of art in the Art Nouveau style in Prague, designed postage stamps and banknotes for the newly established Czechoslovak Republic, and designed a stained-glass window for St. Vitus’ Cathedral.
He completed the Slav Epic in 1928, which he considered his masterwork, and officially presented it to the Czech people and the City of Prague.
After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Mucha, then 78, was hunted down and one of the first arrested by the Gestapo for allegedly being a member of the secretive Czech Masonic movement. Although he was allowed to return home, his health deteriorated rapidly and he died in Prague on July 14, 1939.
Mucha’s distinct and unmistakable linear style is still influencing artists today, including generations of manga artists in Japan. There are also Mucha exhibitions all over the world each year, with a number planned in the US in 2020, including “Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau” at the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, WI. The exhibit, organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles, will be at the Paine from Feb. 8 through May 10 and features 75 rare lithographs, original drawings, advertising ephemera and books by the celebrated Czech master. More information is at thepaine.org.
Mucha’s work also continues to sell well at auction. At a recent Poster Auctions International’s sale, Art Nouveau work in general received enthusiastic acclaim and Mucha’s work specifically. His 1902 “Cycles Perfecta,” which exudes the decorative style and expressive spaghetti hair that made him famous, blew away its estimate of $17,000-$20,000 and sold for $36,000. A rare female bust by Mucha titled “La Nature” was also recently rediscovered as one of only seven known in existence and sold at Sotheby’s for more than $750,000.
Swann Auction Galleries will have many Mucha posters in its Vintage Posters sale on Feb. 13, with estimates ranging from $800 to $20,000.