Born in Ivancice in what is now Czechia, 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 painting, as the beautiful young artist holds up the plate she has decorated with an Eastern European floral design while fixing the viewer with her piercing stare.
Girl with a Plate with a Folk Motif is typical of the direction of Mucha’s art after 1910, when he and his family returned to Prague and he was working on The Slav Epic, a series of 20 paintings depicting the history of the Czech lands and other Slavic countries which comprise his late masterpiece. As Mucha moved away from commercial work in the second half of his career to focus on patriotic history painting, he traveled through Russia and Poland to the Balkans, making sketches and taking photographs to document what he saw. As a result, Slavic costume, themes, and decorative elements became increasingly common in his work from this period outside of The Slav Epic as well. The luminous, fluid brushwork and the harmonious cool pastel color palette found in the present work are also hallmarks of Mucha’s late work. The sinuous line of Mucha’s Art Nouveau style is still evident in the sitter’s hair and in the folds of her voluminous garment, but it has been suffused through a symbolist bent – the delicate strokes of purple and blue which define the edges of the figure make her seem as if she is glowing, giving her an almost mystical quality.
The present work is accompanied by a certificate from the Mucha Foundation dated 20 July 2008.