At the end of the 19th century, a movement of “new art” swept through Europe. Characterized by an interest in stylistically reinterpreting the beauty of nature, artists from across the continent adopted and adapted this avant-garde style. As a result, it materialized in sub-movements like the Vienna Secession in Austria, Modernisme in Spain, and, most prominently, Art Nouveau in France.
The French Art Nouveau style was embraced by artists working in a range of mediums. In addition to the fine arts, like painting and sculpture, it featured heavily in architecture and decorative arts of the period. However, perhaps its most enduring legacy can be found in the poster—a commercial craft that Czech artist Alphonse Mucha helped elevate as a modern art form.
Alphonse Mucha’s Early Life
In 1860, Alfons Maria Mucha (known internationally as Alphonse Mucha) was born in Ivančice, a small town now part of the Czech Republic. His childhood was shaped by a unique trio of influences: his Catholic upbringing, an interest in music, and his natural artistic talents. “For me,” he wrote, “the notions of painting, going to church, and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music, or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies.”
Though Mucha viewed these elements as interconnected, each one had a discrete and discernible influence on his artistic career and eventual success. His role in the Catholic Church, for example, helped him secure his first big commission, a Portrait of Saints Cyril and Methodius , while his fascination with music morphed into an interest in the theatre and, consequently, work as a stage designer.
It was not his religious paintings and theatrical decoration, however, that made Mucha a household name. It was, rather, the commercial illustrations he began churning out in Paris.
Artistic Success in La Belle Époque Paris
In 1888, Mucha moved to the French capital. Here, he found a support system in both the local Slavic community and in Charlotte Caron, a patron of the avant-garde arts and owner of the artist-filled Crémerie boarding house. While living in this creative hub, Mucha shifted his focus from painting and theatre to magazine illustration, a field in which he quickly found success.
The visuals he provided for contemporary publications like La Vie popular and Le Petit Français Illustré resulted in a suitable income for the 30-year-old. Soon, he was able to afford supplies and space to help him hone his craft, including a camera so he could work from photographs and a shared studio with fellow artist Paul Gauguin.
In the early 1890s, two big breaks changed the course of Mucha’s career once again. First, he began working for the Central Library of Fine Arts, an art book company that would eventually popularize the Art Nouveau style with its magazine, Art et Decoration. Secondly , and most importantly, he was commissioned to create posters publicizing the work of popular Parisian stage actress Sarah Bernhardt .
Together, these roles prompted Mucha to pursue what would become his most well-known practice: poster design.
In December 1894, Bernhardt was looking for an artist to create a fresh poster for the play Gismonda . The spectacle, which starred Bernhardt, had recently been renewed for an extended run in Paris. Unfortunately, due to the fact that her request was made during the busy holiday season, her go-to team of artists from Lemercier, a popular publishing company, was not available to complete it.
On short notice, Maurice de Brunhoff, the manager of the firm, asked theatre-loving Mucha to step in and design the advertisement, which the artist realized as a larger than life-sized poster featuring exotic motifs, swirling silhouettes, and mosaic-inspired patterns. Posted all over Paris, this piece made Mucha a well-known artist—and secured him a contract with Bernhardt.
For six years, Mucha designed the flyers and bills for Bernardt’s productions, including La Tosca and Hamlet . This role, however, was only the beginning of Mucha’s liaison with lithography, which culminated in several commercial commissions.