Alphonse Mucha Epitomizing Art Nouveau

Alphonse Mucha Epitomizing Art Nouveau  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Poster Auctions International.

Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous actress in Paris in 1894.  Beautiful and charismatic she understood the power of photography and new printing techniques like lithography as tools to promote her career.       

I was happy to be involved in an art for the people and not for private drawing rooms. It was inexpensive, accessible to the general public, and it found a home in poor families as well as in more affluent circles.
— Alphonse Mucha

A young illustrator named Alphonse Mucha was asked to design a poster for her play Gismonda. The poster created a sensation launching Mucha’s illustration career.  At the time he was mostly known as a book illustrator. After the Bernhardt print he was the most talked-about poster artist in Paris.   

Beautiful young women with long flowing hair surrounded by intricate ornamentation. That was Alphonse Mucha’s work.  His style epitomizes Art Nouveau with its sensuous curves and strong composition.   

Paris was entering its golden age of posters and Mucha was right there with all of it.  Bernhardt was so impressed she offered him a contract for more work designing stage sets, posters, and costumes.  Mucha portrayed the actress on paper as an idol, an iconic superstar.  It was a collaboration benefiting both of them.     

The success of Gismonda brought Mucha additional commissions from publishers and printers. Between 1896 and 1904 he produced more than 100 poster designs. Many were reproduced in different editions sizes and formats.  Even the most modest household could hang one his posters.

“I was happy to be involved in an art for the people and not for private drawing rooms. It was inexpensive, accessible to the general public, and it found a home in poor families as well as in more affluent circles,” he said. 

Mucha was welcomed into America in 1904 as a celebrity.  Thanks to Bernhardt people knew his work.  She had been using his designs to publicize her American tours since 1896.  He was also astounded by the large posters showing his own life-size portrait on billboards all over New York.

Between 1905 and 1910 he visited America four times.  His main source of income in America came from teaching. 

Mucha’s career as a poster artist was based on a simple formula. He reduced the poster to an elegant, narrow strip, displaying a single, full-length beautiful woman adorned with complex patterns.   

When all is said and done Mucha saw his Art Nouveau decorative work as a detour to his real calling.  He wanted to be a painter and to earn acknowledgment as a painter rather than a decorative designer. He also realized his fame in America rested in posters. 

“It is a field which has been overworked,” he said.  “And while it served its purpose for a time, I do not think of myself as a poster artist.”   

Hearing this people were tentative about asking for decorative work and his earnings dropped.  Teaching saved him in the lean times and he also accepted commissions for magazine covers. 

His American portraits are divided into two groups:  society portraits and drawings and decorative poster portraits.   

Although he is most often associated with posters in his later career he focused on his Czech roots and projects related to it. 

On June 26, a selection of his posters went on the block at Poster Auctions International

Here are some current values. 

Alphonse Mucha Posters

Dawn & Dusk; 2; 1899; each 35 3/8 inches by 18 5/8 inches;  $21,600.

Plume et Primevere;2; 1899; 12 ½ inches by 30 inches;  $24,000.

De Forest Phonofilm; 1927; 29 3/8 inches by 46 5/8 inches;  $24,000.

La Dame aux Camelias; 1896; 28 3/8 inches by by 80 inches;  $28,800.

Bieres de la Meuse; 1897; 39 ¾ inches by 59 7/8 inches;  $33.600.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

Lincoln's Appointment With Destiny

Lincoln's Appointment With Destiny

Yogi Berra's Mystique

Yogi Berra's Mystique