Born in Ivancice in what is now the Czech Republic, Alphonse Mucha began his artistic training in Prague and Munich before moving to Paris to enroll in the Académie Julien in 1888. Mucha is best remembered for the prominent role he played in shaping the aesthetics of French Art Nouveau at the turn of the century. In December of 1894, while the artist was at Lemercier’s printing workshop doing a favor for a friend, a call came in from Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of her generation, who urgently needed a poster designed for her next performance. With the regular Lemercier artists on holiday, the printer turned to Mucha in desperation. It was a moment of happenstance that would change the artist’s life. While he had been working in relative obscurity for several years, Mucha’s poster for Berhardt’s production of Gismonda rocketed the artist to near-immediate fame. Though the printer was hesitant about Mucha's design because of its new, unconventional style, ‘La divine Sarah’ loved the image and the public followed suit. The posters immediately became collector’s items, and collectors went so far as to bribe bill posters and cut the posters down under cover of night in order to obtain them.
As a result, Le style Mucha, as Art Nouveau was known in its earliest days, was born. The success of the Gismonda poster resulted in a six-year contract between Bernhardt and Mucha, and the artist designed not only posters for her performances, but costumes and stage decorations as well. It was in the artist’s iconic images of Bernhardt that he also began to experiment with what would come to be one of the hallmarks of his later work – having his model directly engage the viewer’s gaze. This same powerful gaze is on full display in the present drawing, which was executed around 1901 as a preparatory work for a book the artist was to publish with the Librairie centrale des beaux-arts in 1902 called Documents Decoratifs. The book consisted of seventy-two printed plates of watercolor designs which could be used as inspiration for works of art, posters, and decorative arts designed in the Art Nouveau style. A poster modeled on the present drawing appears in the volume (fig. 1). As the artist recalled ‘I was asked to design all sorts of objects in every type of material…It was impossible to meet all these requests so I decided to publish a special work containing decorative elements and items where these elements could be used so that everybody would find what he wanted ready made’ (J. Mucha, Alphonse Maria Mucha, 1989, p. 137). The artist thought that these designs would reduce the demand on him for commissions. Instead, the publication had the opposite effect, and he found himself more in demand than ever.
We are grateful to the Mucha Foundation for confirming the authenticity of this work.
(fig. 1) Alphonse Marie Mucha, Documents Decoratifs, 1902. Librairie Centrale des Beaux-Arts, Paris.