While a choirboy at the Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia, Alphonse Mucha had a divine revelation about the nature of the Baroque aesthetic. It took him to Vienna, Munich, and finally to Paris, where the 1900 Universal Exhibition brought him international renown. The spiritual and the commercial appear perfectly wedded in his work, but he was conflicted about this his entire life.
“Alexander Dumas Jr.’s drama… had been very popular since its premier in 1852. Sarah Bernhardt considered it to be the key drama in her repertoire. This is perhaps Mucha’s most beautiful poster. The story of the tragic love of the great courtesan is portrayed in the poster with shocking impact. The figure of the heroine in a white robe leans against a balustrade with a background of silver stars. Her rich swept-back hair is adorned with her favorite flower, the camellia. This heraldic flower is repeated at the bottom of the poster, held by a mysterious hand… The tragedy is also symbolized by the hearts twined by thorny branches in the corners above the figure’s head… Mucha’s ability to characterize the substance of the play for which he created this poster, as well as his ability to express the most beautiful features of Sarah’s personality, was brought to perfection in this poster” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 146).
Sarah Bernhardt made one of her periodical tours of the United States from January through June of 1896. In the process, not only did she introduce American audiences to her luminescent acting style, but also to her personal posterist, Alphonse Mucha. She had the two-sheet “Gismonda” design (see PAI-LXXX, 415) recreated at Strobridge and used it throughout her American tour.
Sarah Bernhardt adopts the pose of a pensive Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), the most powerful of the Medicis, in this play by Alfred de Musset. In the drama, Lorenzaccio struggles to save Florence, which had grown rich during his reign, from the grip of a power-hungry conqueror. Mucha represents this tyranny with a dragon menacing the city coat of arms (top left); Lorenzo has closed the book he was reading to ponder his course of action. Bernhardt adapted this 1863 play for herself, and the new version, represented by this poster, opened December 3, 1896. “Never afraid to tackle a male role, Bernhardt made Lorenzaccio one of the regular parts of her repertoire” (Lendl/Prague, p. 47). Anatole France’s review says it all: “In her latest transformation she is astonishing… She has created a living masterpiece by her sureness of gesture, the tragic beauty of her pose and glance, the increased power in the timbre of her voice, and the suppleness and breadth of her diction—through her gifts, in the end, for mystery and terror” (Bernhardt/Gottlieb, p. 140). This is the two-sheet larger format.
“One of Mucha’s most endearing and enduring sets… Spring is a blonde sylph who seems to be fashioning a makeshift lyre out of a bent green branch and her own hair, with some birds as interested spectators. Summer, a brunette, sits dreamily on the bank of a pond, cooling her feet in the water and resting her head against a bush. Autumn is an auburn lady, making ready to partake of the ripe grape. Winter, her brown hair barely visible as she huddles in a long green cloak, snuggles by the snow-covered tree trying to warm a shivering bird with her breath” (Rennert/Weill, p. 90). It’s not only the passage of time that makes this series rare—they were difficult to find even at the time of their publication. The editor of The Poster couldn’t help a reader locate this set back in 1899, concluding: “they are getting scarce” (January 1899, p. 42). This is the variant with the names of the seasons at bottom and in the larger format. (4)
Of the various “Seasons” sets which Mucha created, this is a rare variant with the imprint of L. Brancher and the complete titles and descriptions; as always, it’s a tour de force, reaching beyond the decorative and into the subconscious. Winter is secluded, hidden, in tones of white and brown; Spring steps forward with erotic directness of intent; Summer is warm, languid, and indolent; while Autumn, regal Autumn, sets her bounty out with Byzantine splendor. Rare! (4)
In subdued pastels, this “quartet of barefoot young ladies represents the different times of the day. The borders are decorated in identical patterns… and the crisscross areas at the top have different floral panels. Each girl appears in an outdoor setting, with slender trees or tall flowers emphasizing her slim figure… The borders are worked out in such an exquisite pattern that each picture appears to be mounted in an elaborate frame of its own, or else seen through a decorated window. Quite possibly Mucha’s whole concept for the series was that of gothic stained-glass windows” (Rennert/Weill, p. 232). This is the only known variant of the decorative set, here used to advertise the Dewez printing firm as a promotional calendar with a 1905 calendarium.
This is Mucha’s single most famous work, though it seems impossible that such flamboyant effort would be devoted to selling cigarette papers. But the exotic tendrils of her hair conjure up the fractal whorls of smoke from an idle cigarette. The image is breathtaking; the beauty intoxicating. Photographs are seldom able to capture the metallic gold paint used for the hair, which gleams and radiates in the light, delivering an experience not unlike a religious icon.
“For the firm of Moët & Chandon… Mucha executed a number of designs which were used on menus, postcards and other publicity. Two of his assignments were for posters; one of them was used to advertise their White Champagne… while the other served to publicize the… Dry Impérial. [White Star’s] seductive being tempts us with choice grapes in a lovely outdoor setting, with flowers at her feet and vine tendrils and leaves all about her head… [While Dry Impérial is a] grand design for a grand wine—the serene repose of the classically beautiful face, the gentle flowing garment, the delicate hues, the rich ornamental pattern, and the precise handling of spaces and shapes” (Rennert/Weill, p. 244). (2)
For many years, this design was simply known as “Reverie,” the name under which the decorative panel version of the design was widely sold by La Plume without lettering. However, further research appears to establish that its original use was as an in-house poster for a variety of establishments, from printing firms to chocolate manufacturers. Here, however, is the first incarnation of the design, used by F. Champenois to usher in the New Year of 1898. This is the version with text.