Alfons (Alphonse) Mucha (1860 –1939) was a Czech artist who flourished during the era of the Belle Époque. He came to prominence after moving to Paris where, in 1895, he designed a lithographed poster for a theatrical production staring the famous actress and socialite Sarah Bernhardt. His subsequent work went on to celebrate the sinuous fashions and flowing lines of Art Nouveau, setting the human figure against extravagant backgrounds of floral colour and textures.
He was in many respects one of the first 'commercial artist,' as we would use the term today, producing not only paintings for specific projects, but also designs for jewellery, stained glass, wallpaper, stage-sets and posters - many of which are very lovely indeed. Here are some of my favourites.
Mucha really began to be noticed with the poster for Sarah Bernhardt's Gismonda, a Greek melodrama. It was at the time quite unusual and he had grave misgivings as to whether it would be acceptable. The exaggerated length of the body in proportion to the head is redolent of Aubrey Beadsley's work, but here we have the addition of gorgeous colour and the deliberately idealised, and clearly flattering, celebration of female elegance that Mucha so often made prominent in his creations. In the event, Bernhardt loved it, and Mucha's acceptance into Parisian artistic circles was secured.
'Zodiac' - 1896.
As you can see, one of the most salient features of Mucha's designs is the use of a solid line surrounding the various items. This technique clearly delineates the objects and makes them jump out with extra clarity. It was a trait which lent itself very well to printing techniques and also, notably, to works in stained glass.
Window in St.Vitus Cathedral by Mucha - 1930.
The esteem in which Mucha was held in his native Czech homeland is shown with the commission for a stained glass window in St.Vitus Cathedral within Prague Castle. This came late in his career. But Mucha's work is all about diversity. He could demonstrate the most lofty of intentions. But also had no qualms about embracing the more commercial end of the spectrum, also. Here, for example, is his magnificent illustration for 'Job' - a brand of cigarettes papers!
Job - a poster 1898.
Later career of Mucha
Mucha married, and had children, and the couple visited the United States between 1906 and 1910. His daughter was born in New York. He believed that art's purpose was to inspire and to communicate spiritual teachings. Thus, he was apparently often frustrated by having to earn a living through his more commercial ventures. Even there, however, we can sometimes see a spiritual/religious message. His women are often depicted in classical settings or else Madonna-like with flowers or haloes. A religious man, Mucha was also said to have been instrumental in the origins of Czech Freemasonry.
Alfons Maria Mucha (1860 –1939).
Alfons Mucha The Four Seasons.
In a sense, his work was at variance with many of the avant-garde styles that were already emerging in Paris and Vienna at the time. Mucha’s vision has little in common with those of a Picasso or a Braque, a Klimt or a Schiele. Today we marvel instead at his lovely posters and bright and joyful illustrations. We celebrate his brilliant draughtsmanship, his flair for colour and line. Above all we admire his spectacular rendition of the elegant, sensuous women of the Belle Époque. Nothing illustrates this so well as his friendship and working relationship with Ms Bernhardt that flourished through so much of his earlier career in Paris.