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.
One of Mucha’s most spare and dignified designs, this thoughtful muse presents American-made Waverley Cycles to a French audience. The laurels in her hand represent the many awards won by the brand, while the anvil signifies strength of craftsmanship. With nothing but the stalk and handlebars of the cycle on display, it’s radically different than virtually every other bicycle ad of the period. Its success depends upon the strength of its colors, the immediate impact of its symbolism, Mucha’s artistry, and, of course, the seminude woman out in front.
“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 first state before any addition of text. (4)
“Today La Tosca is known to most people only from the opera which Giacomo Puccini composed and introduced in 1900; however, for the 13 years prior to that, it was a romantic tragedy, written especially for Sarah Bernhardt by Victorian Sardou. Mucha’s poster shows Bernhardt in her costume for the first act of the play, dressed in a fashion dating from 1800 when the play takes place” (Rennert/Weill, p. 221).
“In both of Mucha’s posters for Job cigarette papers… he gives us women sensually involved in the act of smoking. Here, the figure is full-length, her abandoned hair an echo of the pale fabric volumes of her gown. As she watches the lazy waft of smoke, even her toes curl deliciously in pleasure. The artist’s meticulous craftsmanship can be seen in such details as the gown’s clasp (of Mucha’s own design), and in the way he worked the product name into the background pattern” (Gold, p. 2).
“This is one of Mucha’s best and most frequently reprinted designs. For many years, it was known as Reverie, the name given to the decorative panel widely sold by La Plume without the lettering,” as shown here. It was used originally as a promotion for the printer, Champenois. “The design shows one of Mucha’s most captivating maidens leafing through what may be a sample book of the printer’s designs. The circular decorative halo behind her is one of the most elaborate ones Mucha ever used, as well as one of the largest in terms of its relation to the size of the picture” (Rennert/Weill, p. 160).
“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)
“The mastery evident in creating two archetypes of the female form against a decorative background confirms Mucha’s artistic maturity. Both women, portrayed in profile, have their heads decorated with beautiful jewelry, the richness and oriental nature of which suggested the name Byzantine Heads for the series. The subtle differences in details between the paintings are worth noticing. For the first time, there appears the perfect form of Mucha’s often-used motif, circle framing each head interrupted by a strand of hair. With this device, it is as if Mucha’s unreachable beauties have broken the magic border between themselves and their admirers and suggest the possibility that they might, perhaps, meet” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 192). In this version, Mucha added corners filigreed with curves to the original circular designs in order to create the standard rectangular shape of decorative panels. This is the rarest of all variants. (2)
“In this series, Mucha began to see the decorative panel as painting with a meaning deeper than mere ornament. He connected his attraction to higher ideals, expressed through the stars, with his recurring theme of beautiful women personifying the stars as floating female figures… The dramatic quality of the movement of the individual figures is also remarkable, resembling the great baroque artistic heritage of Mucha’s country” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 206). “The suggestion of pale moonlight and clouds chasing across the night’s sky is done beautifully. Note the subtle shadings conveying the idea of indirect lighting, which permeate each scene with a strange mystic quality, haunting and mysterious, unique in Mucha’s works. And the flowery borders are virtual textbook examples of Art Nouveau as carried out by its master” (Rennert/Weill, p. 297). Seen left to right in the illustration are the moon, the Evening and Morning Stars—both aspects of Venus—and the North Star. This is the larger format. (4)
“The falcon (in Czech, ‘Sokol’) is the largest bird of prey to be found in the Czech woods… Its name was used by a seemingly innocuous athletic organization that was founded during the dark era when the Slav nations of Central Europe were the unwilling subjects of Austrian rule. The purpose of Sokol was to train young people in athletics and organize, every four years, a country-wide gymnastics competition along the lines of the Olympic games. But the real purpose was much deeper: the Sokol was a fervently patriotic political society which worked tirelessly to arouse the nationalistic spirit and throw off the Austrian yoke… The quadrennial Sokol Festival held in 1912, the sixth since the practice was put into effect in 1892, was the last one in which the patriotic message still had to be concealed from authorities; two years later, World War I broke out, and the older order was on its way to perdition. Mucha’s poster for the event is a happy combination of the realistic with the symbolic: the girl with the garlands and the staff with Prague’s emblem on it is real, while the dimly adumbrated young woman in the background holding a spiked ring and a falcon is a symbolic figure” (Rennert/Weill, p. 338). This is the extremely rare version of the poster with the complete bottom text panel.
“To hold, as ’twere, The Mirror up to Nature”—in this case, Mucha does not mean that entirely literally, despite the plumes of flowers and branches of trees flourishing in this image. He is in fact paying tribute to the investigate journalism of Polly Pry, the pen name of Leonel Rose Campbell (1857-1938). After a small job at the New York World, she became a media success at The Denver Post, though her career was not without controversy (we recommend reading her full story sometime). She then became one of the first women to own her own newspaper, which she named The Polly Pry. In its pages, she attacked unions, capitalists, anarchists, communists, and the government; she was fiercely feminist and used her platform to promote women’s suffrage. It’s unclear what the purpose of this particular drawing was, but it’s a spectacular memento of both Mucha’s intoxicating hand and Polly Pry’s groundbreaking career.