Alphonse Mucha, Master of Art Nouveau

In today's Art Nouveau season guest post, Marie Vítková of the National Museum in Prague tells us how Alphonse Mucha made his artistic breakthrough.

In December 1894, the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt called the Parisian lithographers Lemerciers, asking for a new poster design for the play Gismonda. She wanted something different than what Lemerciers had produced before and she wanted it as soon as possible. Bernhardt understood the power of effective advertising to drive ticket sales and grow theatre audiences. Faced with Bernhardt’s urgent request, Lemerciers’s head of manufacturing was placed in some difficulty.

Fortunately, though, there was an artist from Moravia in the next room working on some graphic corrections for a friend. “Can you do it?” asked the workshop manager. Alphonse Mucha accepted the challenge. Next day, he visited the theatre and began work. Soon after, Mucha presented a new design proposal for the poster, depicting Sarah Bernhardt as a Byzantine princess with palm leaf on golden background.

Sarah Bernhardt was delighted with the design and Mucha’s stellar career as the Parisian “King of Art Nouveau” began. The poster was printed more than 4000 times and Paris fell in love with Mucha’s distinctive style. According to historians, many Parisians actually removed the posters from public places and kept them as interior decoration. Mucha’s poster for Gismonda launched a new chapter of graphic style. After its success, Mucha collaborated with Sarah Bernhardt on advertising material, jewellery and theatrical costumes.

Alphonse Mucha was born in the small Moravian town of Ivancice in 1860. He loved painting and drawing and his first artistic job was designing decorations for a Moravian theatre company. Mucha spent some time in Vienna and Mikulov before – thanks to his sponsor Count Karl Khuen Belassi von Mikulov – he enrolled for formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. In 1887, Mucha traveled to Paris to continued his artistic education. He got a job at the magazine La Costume au Théâtre as an illustrator and he established his own studio in the city centre. At this time, Mucha met Paul Gauguin and, after Gauguin returned from Tahiti in 1893, they shared a studio.

The influence of Mucha‘s work was amplified by the rise of advertising during the period. Mucha created many advertisements for clients including the biscuit firm Lefèvre-Utile and the champagne company Ruinart Père et Fils. All of them had the Mucha signature elements: women with long curly hair as the main motif (some of Mucha’s critics used to call the hair “macaroni“), flowery decor and soft colours, especially gold. Despite the fame and wealth that Mucha’s commercial work brought him, he preferred to see his work as being personal, spiritual and national. Mucha asserted himself as an artist capable of more than just Art Nouveau style and in his later career he focused more on personal projects.

Explore Mucha's work on Europeana and on our dedicated Pinterest board, and don't forget to check out our Art Nouveau exhibition.