Alphonse Mucha. Legacy

Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in the Czech Republic. Although his singing abilities earned him several scholarships that allowed him to continue his education through high school in Brno, drawing had been his main hobby since childhood. He began working as a commercial artist in his late teens, painting mostly portraits and theatrical scenery.

After living in Vienna for several years, Mucha moved to Paris in 1887, where he volunteered at a lithography shop. In 1895 the impoverished young Czech became an overnight sensation in Paris by creating a poster for Gismonda, a play starring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of the period. Bernhardt loved Mucha’s work so much that she commissioned a six year contract with him. Before long, “le style Mucha” – later known as the Art Nouveau movement – was the term used to describe the new spirit transforming the city.

Gismonda, 1894. © Mucha Trust 2018

His association with the celebrated performer led to a flood of commissions, and the partnership also benefited his artistic development. To produce his iconic images of Bernhardt, Mucha carefully studied her performances and noted “the particular magic of her movements.” The costumes he designed for her were meant to enhance her gestures. As Bernhardt sat, stood, or turned, the diaphanous fabric of her dress would swirl around her. These flowing movements later found their way into his commercial and decorative work.

The Parisian printer Ferdinand Champenois recognized the commercial possibilities of Mucha’s style, and offered the artist an exclusive commercial contract. Mucha went on to design posters for brands such as JOB cigarette papers (1896), Chocolat Idéal (1897), and Moët & Chandon (1899). All of these advertisements included a version of the so-called “Mucha Woman,” now using all of her ethereal charms to communicate the desirability of a product, rather than the strength of a performance.

Job Sigarette Papers was created as an advertisement for the Job cigarette company. A beautiful woman with a lighted cigarette dominates Mucha’s poster, the rising smoke intertwining with her swirling, Pre-Raphaelite hair and the Job logo. The poster’s golden zigzag border, inspired by Byzantine mosaics, combines with the twirling smoke and the rich purple background to create a luxurious and sensual mood. The curving lines of the woman’s hair and rising smoke stand out against the rhythmic lines of the zigzag frame.The very fact that this woman is smoking – let alone that she is somewhat eroticized – was scandalous, since no respectable woman of the time would smoke in public. Furthermore, her sensual tangle of cascading hair was daring, because respectable women of the era wore their hair tied up. 

These significant breaks from tradition suggest that the smoker may be wanton and wild. She is lost in pleasure – quite possibly in the nude, her closed eyes and half smile suggesting ecstasy. Mucha depicts his smoking woman in the manner of a rapturous saint to advertise an everyday product, thereby revealing his great skill at blending art and commerce. He elevates the ordinary to a realm of mysterious beauty.

Job Sigarette Papers, 1896

Mucha was famous for his commercial posters, which had a wide audience, but he also worked in a variety of other media, including furniture, jewelry, and theatrical sets. He mostly worked in Vienna and Paris, but was also in Chicago, where he taught at the Art Institute, from 1904 to 1910. There, he introduced his interpretation of the “new art” to a United States audience. The densely patterned posters epitomize the Art Nouveau interest in natural forms, decoration, and a rejection of the anonymity of mechanical production.

In 1902, Mucha was commissioned to decorate a church in Jerusalem dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Shown here is the final version of ‘Madonna of the Lilies‘, one of the murals for the church. The project was cancelled later for unknown reasons, so all that remains of this commission is this painting and earlier versions of it (Sakai City collection, Japan), as well as a design for a stained-glass window,’ Harmony’, which is also in the Mucha Trust collection. 

According to Mucha’s letter to his wife Maruška, he conceived the subject as ‘Virgo purissima’, thus depicting the heavenly vision of Madonna, surrounded with a mass of lilies, symbol of purity. The seated young girl in Slavic folk costume carries a wreath of ivy leaves, symbol of remembrance. Her serious expression and strong physical presence contrast with the ethereal figure of the Virgiin.

Madonna of the Lilies 1905

The Seasons was Mucha’s first set of decorative panels and it became one of his most popular series. It was so popular that Mucha was asked by Champenois to produce at least two more sets based on the same theme in 1897 and 1900. Designs for a further two sets also exist. 

The idea of personifying the seasons was nothing new – examples could be found in the works of the Old Masters’ as well as in Champenois’s other publications. However, Mucha’s nymph-like women set against the seasonal views of the countryside breathed new life into the classic theme. In the four panels shown here, Mucha captures the moods of the seasons – innocent Spring, sultry Summer, fruitful Autumn and frosty Winter, and together they represent the harmonious cycle of Nature.

The Seasons, 1896

Spring stands among white blossoms, charming birds; Summer lounges among red poppies; bountiful Autumn rests with chrysanthemums, gathering fruit; and Winter,in a snowy landscape, huddles under a cloak with a small bird. The decorative style of the images illustrates Mucha’s artistic influences and interests. This style reflects his debt to Japanese woodcuts, as well as to Hans Makart’s The Five Senses (1879), while his association of women with a subtle undercurrent of death and rebirth speaks to his interest in symbolism. The choice of medium reflects his interest in making art available to all, since the panels were created as affordable art for private homes.

Women were a common theme in Mucha’s work (and in Art Nouveau art in general). The femme nouvelle or “new woman” type was a favorite subject, since it served both allegorical and decorative purposes. Indeed, Mucha and his peers celebrated femininity as the antidote to an overly-industrialized, impersonal, “masculine” world.

Evening Reverie, 1898
Princess Hyacinth, 1911

This famous poster by Mucha was for the ballet ‘Princezna Hyacinta‘ (or Princess Hyacinth) by the Czech composer Oskar Nedbal. The person on the poster is the actress Andula Sedláčková who starred in the title role. In the ballet, a village blacksmith dreams that his daughter becomes the Princess Hyacinth and that she is abducted by a sorcerer. The aura incorporates items from the plot of the ballet: hearts, the blacksmit’s tools (a hammer), a crown and instruments of sorcery, together with the use of the hyacinth motif throughout the poster. 

Alphonse Mucha, Salon des Cent: exposition de l’oeuvre de Mucha, 1897. © Mucha
Le Zodiaque, 1896. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Talking about Mucha’s art, it’s impossible not to share at least some details of the amazing Le Pater. Mucha considered Le Pater his printed masterpiece, and referred to it in the January 5, 1900 issue of The Sun Newspaper (New York) as the thing he had “put [his] soul into”. Printed on December 20, 1899, Le Pater was Mucha’s occult examination of the themes of The Lord’s Prayer and only 510 copies were produced.

Another important chapter in Mucha’s artistic story is The Slav Epic, a series of twenty huge paintings depicting the history of the Czech and the Slavic peoples in general, bestowed to the city of Prague in 1928. He had dreamt of completing a series such as this, a celebration of Slavic history, since he was young. Since 1963 the series has been on display in the chateau at Moravsky Krumlovat the South Moravian Region in the Czech Republic.

The rising tide of fascism in the late 1930s led to Mucha’s works, as well as his Slavic nationalism, being denounced in the press as ‘reactionary’. When German troops marched into Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Mucha was among the first people to be arrested by the Gestapo. During the course of the interrogation the aging artist fell ill with pneumonia. Though eventually released, he never recovered from the strain of this event, or seeing his home invaded and overcome. He died in Prague on July 14, 1939 of a lung infection, and was interred there in the Vyšehrad cemetery.

Alphonse Mucha in New York, 1908



The following resources have been used for this post: