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.
Mucha, for his own exhibition at the Salon des Cent, drew a “life-like girl with a twinge of homesickness; it is a decidedly Slavic face, with a bonnet featuring one of the embroidered regional patterns that distinguish the folk costumes in his part of the world, and her hair is adorned with daisies—[a] symbol of the Moravian fields where Mucha spent his youth” (Rennert/Weill, p. 150). This is the very rare version before letters, and it is hand-signed by Mucha.
“This is the poster that launched Mucha’s career and introduced a new artistic style into commercial lithography. Prepared by Mucha as a rush order for Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre during the Christmas period of 1894, when the printer could not find any other artist available, it is a sensitive portrayal of the actress in an ornate costume for a deeply religious play that has her, in the third act, carry a frond in a Palm Sunday procession. The full size of the poster gives the viewer an opportunity to get the full effect of the lengthy robe; the Byzantine mosaic decoration emphasizes the biblical background; Sarah’s pious expression of faith; and the gentle pastel hues whisper the commercial message instead of shouting it. It was a radical departure from prevalent poster styles, and Paris took notice of the fact. Sarah Bernhardt was so grateful she made Mucha one of her protégés, and for the next few years he was the darling of Parisian high society. During this period, Art Nouveau and le style Mucha were synonymous, and his ideas on composition and decoration were taught in every art school. It is doubtful that any other single poster has ever had such far-reaching consequences for its creator and his whole epoch” (Lendl/Prague, p. 41). This is a two-sheet poster.
“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). “Mucha’s last and perhaps most unusual series of panels achieves an eerie effect of moonlight and starry wonder in four scenes with nocturnal nymphs… A few swirls of cloth and several hues of colour suggest a windswept eve; a modest hand gesture hints at the silent serenity of a lunar nightscape; a luminous band creates the impression of the Northern Lights; and the act of shedding the night wrap symbolises the advent of dawn. But although these are celestial allegories, the sturdy frames with a floral pattern anchor them firmly on Earth” (Lendl/Prague, p. 234). Seen left to right in the illustration are the moon, the Evening Star, the North Star, and the Morning Star. This is the larger format. (4)
“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).
Exhibited: Arthur Jeffries Gallery, London, 1963 (cat. 62).
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.
“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 rare variant with the names of the seasons at bottom and in the larger format. (4)
“It is clear that Mucha understood well the principles of selling not the object itself, but the feeling that is associated with it. Here, he is barely showing a piece of the bicycle… but as to the pleasure of riding, this sylph has it all over any dreary mechanical details. Airily she caresses the machine, her windblown hair embodying motion and a restless spirit, a vision of idle loveliness and a perfect Mucha maiden. Her gaze at us is straight and direct, not flirtatious but inviting and challenging, daring us to take her on in a race… Mucha finally had a perfect subject that justified hair in motion, and he took full advantage of it, giving her the most dizzying configurations of his famous ‘macaroni’ [hair]. The Perfecta was an English brand bicycle, which makes this one of the very few Mucha posters for an English client. It was also sold in France” (Rennert/Weill, p. 294). This is the larger format.