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.
“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 the two-sheet version.
“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).
“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 Mucha’s single most famous work. 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 larger format. (4)
“Plume et Primevère”—or, Quill and Primrose. “This series of decorative panels originally sold for 12 francs on paper, or 40 francs on satin. It depicts two rather pensive maidens, one blonde and one brunette, one holding a primrose, the other a goose quill and a leafy branch. Typical Art Nouveau ornamentation prevails in the background patterns and in the jewelry worn by the girls” (Lendl/Prague, p. 218). A recent exhibition catalogue rightly calls this a “masterful” work: “The beauty of this pair of panels lies in the contrast between the geometric mosaic behind the head of Quill and the floral ornamental circle inspired by nature behind the head of Primrose” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 198). (2)
One of Mucha’s best sets, and one of the rarest, with only three or four known to have survived among collectors. Each gem is represented by a lovely lady, and its characteristic color, in all its hues, is worked into the entire pattern, including the girl’s dress and the flowers at her feet. Perhaps the most unusual exotic flavor is given to the green-eyed Emerald vixen who is wearing a green snake ornament in her hair. Note that she is also leaning on an arm rest in the shape of a ferocious beast with open jaws. The lady of the Amethyst appears to have been originally bare from the waist up, because there is a letter in Mucha’s correspondence from Champenois about the subject—the printer is asking him to cover up the lady’s breast, otherwise there might be objections on moral grounds. “This set, done appropriately enough in the period when Mucha was associated with the goldsmith Fouquet and ventured into designing jewelry, is in Mucha’s mature style. There is still a circular motif in the background, but otherwise the design is virtually bare of adornments and ornamental borders. The name of each precious stone appears in plain print in the lower margin” (Rennert/Weill, p. 264). One of the finest specimens of this rare and famous decorative set ever seen—in the impressive larger format.
The great, ghostly Leslie Carter is here adorned with some of the most exquisitely detailed jewelry ever designed by Mucha for lithographic immortality. But who was this otherwise unknown goddess? Mrs. Leslie Carter was a “captivating woman who desired to become a great actress… She gained a fortune after a marriage to—and later divorce from—a billionaire, Leslie Carter, whose name she retained” (Lendl/Prague, p. 266). She conceived a vanity project, a play named Kassa, about “a Hungarian virgin ready to enter a convent, [but then] was seduced by Prince Béla, who a year later left her with a child. Kassa became insane and entered a convent, thinking that only a single day had passed” (Mucha/Art Nouveau, p. 174). Mucha contributed over 250 designs for the project, including stage, costume, and scenery design, but the play was a failure and Carter went bankrupt. Neither Mucha nor Long, the author, received an honorarium.
“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, a 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). (2)
In-gallery viewing February 7-22 (daily 11am-6pm)