Alphonse Mucha: Behind the Magic

Even those unfamiliar with Alphonse Mucha’s name will recognize the tendrils of hair and profusion of delicate flowers surrounding his seraphic models. But what of the man himself? How did these ethereal figures come into being? In this post we take a rarified look into the artist’s life and process, using examples from our January 26 sale, Alphonse Mucha & Masters of Art Nouveau: The Harry C. Meyerhoff Collection, some of which were previously unknown to scholarship.

 

Lot 118: [Zodiac] / La Plume, 1896. Estimate $15,000 to $20,000.

Lot 118: [Zodiac] / La Plume, 1896. Estimate $15,000 to $20,000.

 

Mucha was born in 1860 in what is now the Czech Republic. He worked as a decorative painter in Eastern Europe before moving to Paris in 1887, where he attracted the attention of actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose patronage would launch his career. His ornate patterns and lyrical designs, known now as Art Nouveau, were, at the time, called “Le Style Mucha.” His depictions of languid nymphs, haloed by a kaleidoscope of flowers, are instantly recognizable and many are still in use today.

 

 

 Jiří Mucha

 

Lot 44: [Jirí Mucha and Hummingbird], etching, circa 1920. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.

Lot 144: Portrait of Jiří Mucha, etching, circa 1920. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.

 

This poignant etching, circa 1920, is a portrait of Mucha’s son Jiří at about five years old. The Mucha family suggests that the artist “did it for himself and the immediate family, so the overall number [of prints made] is likely to be quite small.” In fact, we can find no other recording of this work at all, aside from the family’s collection, and very few instances of the artist using this medium. The image is similar to a cover Mucha designed for Hearst International Magazine in January, 1922, featuring Jiří as a model, sporting the same angelic face and hair.

 

Cover for Hearst International Magazine, January 1922. Courtesy Mucha Foundation.

Cover for Hearst International Magazine, January 1922.
Courtesy The Mucha Foundation.

 

Preparatory Sketches

Through preparatory sketches, we can see how the details in Mucha’s work shift and come together, as well as how he brought to fruition what was in his mind.

 

Left: Lot 148: Preparatory sketches for Documents Decoratifs, plate 68 (top) and 43 (bottom), circa 1902. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000. Right: Finished images of Plates 68 and 43. Courtesy Christian Richet.

Left: Lot 148: Preparatory sketches for Documents Decoratifs, Pl. 68 (top) and Pl. 43 (bottom), circa 1902. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.
Right: Finished images of Plates 68 and 43 (details). Courtesy Christian Richet.

 

This set of sketches for the Documents Décoratifs and Figures Décoratifs shows us that Mucha perfected the figures first, and worked out the elaborate details later. The Documents Décoratifs, 1901, and Figures Décoratifs, 1905, were style guidebooks filled with designs by Mucha to allow people to decorate their homes with the latest Art Nouveau styles.

 

Left: Lot 149: Le Mois / Novembre, pen and ink preparatory sketch, circa 1899. Estimate $1,500 to $2,000. Right: Le Mois Novembre, postcard, circa 1900. Courtesy Christian Richet.

Left: Lot 149: Le Mois / Novembre, pen and ink preparatory sketch, circa 1899. Estimate $1,500 to $2,000.
Right: Novembre, postcard (detail), 1900. Courtesy Christian Richet.

 

Mucha designed a set of postcards for 1900, each depicting one month of the year. In the sketch for November, we can see how the artist used color to create depth and dimension to what could otherwise be a busy and fairly flat composition.

 

Lot 146: Le Carillon de Paques / Easter Bells, preparartory pencil sketch, circa 1896. Estimate $700 to $1,000.

Lot 146: Le Carillon de Paques / Easter Bells, preparatory pencil sketch, circa 1896. Estimate $700 to $1,000.

 

Lot 145: Le Carillon de Paques / Easter Bells, 1896. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

Lot 145: Le Carillon de Paques / Easter Bells, 1896. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

 

This charming cover for the magazine La Soleil du Dimanche in March, 1896, depicts the allegory of Nature awoken by Easter bells. As one of Mucha’s early Symbolist pieces it lacks the decorative arabesques that would come to distinguish him. The print was offered in June, 1896, from a run of only 46, for sale at 10 francs each. This copy is not numbered. Other stages of the work can be found, this unreferenced preparatory sketch is the earliest known rendition.

Through sketches not meant for the public eye and heartfelt portraits of his children, we see a side of Mucha beyond the glamorous world of Paris at the turn of the century. They have the effect of humanizing the master, and making us fall in love with his work all over again.

More works by Mucha and his circle can be found in our full catalogue.