Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)
One of the great pioneers of poster art, the Czech artist and painter Alphonse Mucha became famous for his 1894 life-size poster for Sarah Bernhardt as Gismonda. This richly textured poster led to a 6-year contract and was the basis for Mucha's success as the archetypal Art Nouveau designer, who infused decorative art with a new aesthetic. As well as poster lithographs, his output included book covers, illustrations, calendars, stamps, packaging, textiles, jewellery art and stained glass, all executed in a richly decorated idiom known as Le Style Mucha. This style influenced an entire generation of painters and graphic artists: indeed, in the minds of many, his work epitomizes the Art Nouveau movement. An exhibition of his lithography held in Paris, travelled to other European cities before crossing to New York. Mucha's success as a poster-designer financed his travel and studios in America and finally Czechoslovakia, where he settled in 1910. Here he produced Slav Epic (1909-28), a series of 20 monumental murals outlining the history of his nation. An ardent patriot, Mucha also freely assisted the young Czechoslovakian nation with the graphic design of its banknotes and stamps. Ironically, posters of Mucha's 'Art Nouveau Posters' are in extremely high demand and can be obtained from a number of online sources.
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In 1887, after completing his studies in Munich, Mucha moved to Paris - the Mecca for any aspiring artist - where he continued his artistic studies at the Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi. His main academic interest was in history painting, while he was also drawn to the Symbolism movement. In addition, in order to support himself, he started drawing illustrations for books and magazines. In 1892, he designed his first advertising poster, which he found even more profitable.
Poster For Sarah Bernhardt and Gismonda
Two years later came his lucky break: just before Christmas 1894, he wandered into a print shop where he learned that a new play (Gismonda by Victorien Sardou) opening in the New Year with Sarah Bernhardt in the lead role, needed a new advertising poster in a hurry. He immediately agreed to produce a chromolithographed poster within 14 days, and on 1 January 1895, the poster duly appeared on the streets of the city. Up until then, posters typically consisted of a copious amount of text accompanied by a few monochrome or two-colour illustrations. In contrast, Mucha's Gismonda poster (1894) used a new vertical format, and included far less text but a rich variety of colour and decorative detail. It was an overnight sensation and made Mucha instantly famous. Sarah Bernhardt, then the city's most famous actress was so delighted that she agreed an exclusive 6-year contract with the 34-year old artist. Among the many works he created for her, were: Lorenzaccio (1896), La Dame aux Camelias (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Medee (1898), Tosca (1899) and Hamlet (1899). In addition, he produced many of the theatrical stage sets, scenery and costumes at the Theatre de la Renaissance, where Bernhardt worked.
Mucha produced a huge number of posters, paintings, advertisements, and book illustrations, as well as applied art designs such as packaging, ceramics, jewellery, textiles, and wallpaper in what critics initially termed "the Mucha Style", but later became known as Art Nouveau. Mucha's designs were characterized by luxuriantly flowing motifs/patterns, often featuring beautiful women (with none of the morbid sensuality typical of the period) cast in Neoclassical-style robes, and haloes of lush flowers, painted in pale pastel colours. In 1896, he designed his first limited-edition large-size prints (panneaux decoratifs), which were usually executed on silk or stiff paper, and ornately framed for hanging on walls or screens. Subject matter was heavily influenced by oriental silk screen paintings. His most famous panneaux decoratifs were: The Seasons (1896), Flowers (1898), The Arts (1898), The Months (1899), Gemstones (1900) and Stars (1901). For more details, see: History of Poster Art.
In 1897, Mucha held his first one-man art show at the Galerie La Bodiniere. Later the same year, a second, larger exhibition of his graphic art was staged at the Salon de Cent, after which it toured Europe before ending up in New York. Other major advertising posters he produced after this, included those for Bières de la Meuse (1897), Job Cigarette papers (1898), Benedictine (1898), Moet & Chandon (1899) and Heidsieck (Reims) & Co (1899) champagnes. At the same time he started collaborating with the famous Parisian jeweller Georges Fouquet on a range of Art Nouveau Mucha-style necklaces, earrings and other jewellery. The 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris helped to promote the "Mucha style" internationally. Not only were exemplars of his work on display but he also decorated the Bosnia & Herzegovina Pavilion and assisted in the design for the Austrian Pavilion. He was also a success in America as well as Europe, both as a portraitist and lecturer, making a total of four transatlantic trips between 1903 and 1922.
Move Away From Art Nouveau
In 1902, with Art Nouveau in decline, Mucha returned to his native Moravia and Prague where he first began thinking about creating a series of patriotic works, showing the historical aga of the Slavic people in a grandiose, neo-classical style. In a sense, this was the real Alphonse Mucha - the same person who had arrived in Paris in 1887 with a passion for high-minded, classical historical painting. Accordingly, he began the task of raising money to finance the project. In 1906, in Prague, he married Maria Chytilova a Paris friend with whom he later travelled extensively in the United States. It was in America that Mucha met the millionaire slavophile Charles Richard Crane, who agreed to sponsor his Slav project. He began work on it in 1909.
The Slav Epic
Unfortunately, the paintings met an unenthusiastic response from the public, partly because of the distractions of World War I, and probably also because of changing tastes. And while they were more highly thought of by American audiences, none proved anything like as successful as Mucha's earlier Art Nouveau works. The Czech authorities thought so little of them that they were mothballed for 25 years before being shown in public. And only in recent years has Prague instituted a Mucha museum.
When German troops invaded Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Mucha - as a patriot and slavophile - was among the first people to be rounded up by Himmler's Gestapo. During his interrogation, the 78-year old artist caught pneumonia and, although eventually released, he never fully recovered. He died in Prague in July, 1939, of a lung infection.
Posters art by Alphonse Mucha can be seen in some of the best art museums in France and the Czech republic.