Artist to Know: Alphonse Mucha

Liz Catalano
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Sworders Presents Signed Lithograph Pair from Art Nouveau Poster Artist

On December 26th, 1894, French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt needed a new advertisement for her play Gismonda, and she needed it fast. Bernhardt was connected to rising Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, one of the few designers in Paris not on vacation at the time. Within a week, Mucha produced a poster for her that is now considered a cornerstone of the Art Nouveau movement.

Highly stylized posters would become the trademark of Mucha’s long and successful career. Two lithograph prints from the artist will come to auction on September 8th, 2020, at 10:00 AM WEST (5:00 AM EDT) with Sworders. Find out more about Alphonse Mucha’s life and legacy before the online bidding begins.

Alphonse Mucha in front of his Gismonda poster. Image from the Mucha Trust.
Alphonse Mucha in front of his Gismonda poster. Image from the Mucha Trust.

Born in a small Moravian town in the present-day Czech Republic, Mucha’s childhood was marked by violence and a cholera epidemic. Mucha’s interest in art grew out of these traumas and was cultivated under the influence of the Catholic Church. He would go on to study art in Vienna and Munich before landing in Paris, the city that would allow his career to take off.

Creating the Gismonda poster was a key moment in his life and in the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement. After it was released, it caused nothing short of a sensation in Paris. Audience members and everyday people were stealing the posters from the streets to sell and admire. “I predict fame for you,” Bernhardt told Mucha in the aftermath. Her prediction soon proved accurate. Mucha continued to create posters for Bernhardt’s performances for the next six years, leading to unprecedented commercial success.

Alphonse Mucha, Poster for ‘Gismonda,’ 1894. Image from the Mucha Foundation.
Alphonse Mucha, Poster for ‘Gismonda,’ 1894. Image from the Mucha Foundation.

Mucha’s paintings and posters followed consistent themes, many showing idealized women surrounded by flowers, swirling patterns, and elaborate costumes. His work juxtaposed the craft and style of high art with the common, everyday poster that could be easily printed and distributed. Mucha’s early innovations also created a lasting association with Art Nouveau. “Mucha is super-familiar. Even if the name is not familiar to you, once you [see the art you will] recognize his work,” said Poster House museum director Julia Knight in 2019.

Available in the upcoming Sworders sale is a pair of Mucha lithographs created at the height of his Parisian popularity. Tête Byzantine Brunette and Tête Byzantine Blonde, both printed in 1897, are offered together with an estimate of GBP 5,000 to 8,000 (USD 6,544 to $10,470). The brunette figure, shown in profile, faces the viewer’s right. In her hair are jeweled ornaments that draw the eye to her flowing curls. The blonde subject faces the opposite direction and wears a more geometric hairpiece.

Alphonse Mucha, Tête Byzantine Brunette and Tête Byzantine Blonde, 1897. Image from Sworders.
Alphonse Mucha, Tête Byzantine Brunette and Tête Byzantine Blonde, 1897. Image from Sworders.

Due to Mucha’s close association with the aesthetics of Art Nouveau, his work continues to perform at auction today. In a 2015 sale, an 1896 poster he made for Sarah Bernhardt sold for $13,750 with Hindman. This price ended well above the high estimate of $5,000. Mucha also created numerous matching works throughout his career, often using images of women to explore art and the seasons. One set of four posters representing the muses of Poetry, Dance, Painting, and Music sold for $70,000 with Poster Auctions International in 2012, a result consistent with many of his other poster sets.

Among Mucha’s lesser-known works are the political paintings completed near the end of his career. Though criticized for being more “bombastic and kitschy and nationalistic” than his Art Nouveau posters, The Slav Epic series and other pieces are considered major cultural contributions in the Czech Republic. A version of The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, the most famous panel in the Slav Epic series, brought in one of the artist’s highest figures at a 2006 Christie’s sale. The 1920 piece sold for a hammer price of $1,472,000. 

Mucha felt strongly about his political activities. However, his outspoken writings and artworks drew the attention of the German Gestapo in 1939, leading to Mucha’s arrest and questioning. Mucha died shortly after his release. Despite this difficult end, he established an artistic legacy that is inextricably bound to the imagery and stories of Art Nouveau.

Alphonse Mucha, reduced version of The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1920. Image from Christie’s.
Alphonse Mucha, reduced version of The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1920. Image from Christie’s.

Sworders will present the set of two Mucha prints in the upcoming Arts & Crafts and Art Deco sale, held live online on September 8th, 2020. Bidding will start at 10:00 AM WEST (5:00 AM EDT). For more information and to explore the complete auction catalog, visit the Sworders website.