Alphonse Mucha, a Czech illustrator, painter, and graphic artist, lived in Paris during La Belle Epoque, a late 19th-century era associated with art and gaiety. After years of providing illustrative art to books and magazines, Mucha’s life took an unexpected turn. Legendary screen actress Sarah Bernhardt commissioned him to create an original theatrical poster for Gismonda, a Greek melodrama which she would star in and direct.
As color lithography advanced, Parisian advertising posters became more artful, giving graphic designers a welcome platform in which to exhibit their talents to potential customers. When Mucha’s soft-hued, elongated, goddess-like vision of Bernhardt was released, it caused a sensation. “…Paris woke up on 1895’s New Year’s Day to find the city plastered with this beautiful and hypnotic illustration, but by lunch, all had been removed and taken home by poster aficionados and fanatic Bernhardt fans,” writes Hyperallergic a contemporary online forum offering art perspectives.
At the time, only a handful of avant-garde artists had been creating similar, free-flowing designs. Yet due to a similarity of style, Mucha’s sylph-like maidens set amidst sweeping, swirling natural motifs became associated with those of the emerging Art Nouveau movement. In France, in fact, Art Nouveau became known as le style Mucha. Like Bernhardt, the illustrator had become a celebrity.
After Gismonda, Mucha went on to create theatrical posters portraying Bernhardt as La Tosca, La Dame aux Camélias, and Medea, knife in hand, towering above her slain son. Although executed in subtle pastels and golds, all are dramatic in spirit and substance.
Concurrently, Mucha produced numerous sets of decorative art posters. The Flowers, for instance, features four sensuous damsels, each amid sprays of blossoming irises, roses, carnations, or lilies. The Times of the Day depicts maidens in natural, sun-lit surroundings framed by flowery, ornamental openwork windows. The Moon and the Stars, on the other hand, shows them free of halos or alcoves, floating dramatically through dark night skies.
The Precious Stones series features four lithe maidens, each with an ensemble in matching amethyst, emerald, topaz, or ruby-hued eyes, robes, hair accessories, and Byzantine-like, halo-effect crescents. The Arts Series, a limited edition on vellum, celebrates aesthetic creativity with maidens and natural motifs nestled in circular alcoves. According to the Mucha Foundation, Dance is personified with falling leaves blown by a morning breeze; Painting, with a red flower encircled by daylit rainbows; Poetry, with an evening star at dusk; and Music with a birdsong at moonrise.
Mucha also produced an array of bright, eye-catching advertising posters for Nestle’s Food For Infants, Lance Perfum Rodo, Cassan Fils Printing Works, and railway services in Monte Carlo. He also designed enticing posters advertising La Belle Epoque indulgences like Benedictine Brandy, Moet & Chandon Dry Imperial Champagne, and Le Chocolat Ideal.
Mucha’s designs were also adapted for use in packaging designs, postcards, menu cards, wine labels, and calendars featuring female faces framed by signs of the zodiac. As commissions continued to flow in, he also authored Documents Decoratifs, an innovative, encyclopedic handbook for artists and craftsmen, offering an array of Art Nouveau patterns for personal use. Along with copies of his decorative panels, it contains botanical and figural studies, and his delicate wallpaper, tableware, stained glass, furniture, and jewelry designs.
In 1910, Mucha, who had long dreamed of painting the history of his homeland, began creating Slav Epic, a monumental series of murals depicting a millennium of mythological Slavic history. During World War II, his canvases were hidden, then languished in storage. In the years to follow, Mucha’s work fell out of fashion.
Mucha’s creations enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, however, when his pre-modern graphic art captured the imagination of free-thinking, 1960s coming-of-agers. Copies of his instantly recognizable posters adorned college dorms across the nation. Some pundits of that period speculated that Mucha’s highly detailed, spiraling images might have been the inspiration for the mind-bending swoops and swirls of post-modern psychedelic art. In examining some of the now-classic designs of rock concert posters of the 1960s/’70s – especially those of San Francisco’s Fillmore West and Family Dog – there is certainly substance to the argument that Mucha was godfather to the hippie-art movement.