Gismonda by Alfons Maria Mucha

Gismonda by Alfons Maria Mucha

Selena Mattei | May 25, 2023 11 minutes read 0 comments

Alfons Maria Mucha, internationally known as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist who resided in Paris during the Art Nouveau era...

Who was Alfons Mucha?

Alfons Maria Mucha, internationally known as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist who resided in Paris during the Art Nouveau era. Born on July 24, 1860, and passing away on July 14, 1939, Mucha is renowned for his distinctive and ornamental theatrical posters, particularly those featuring the iconic actress Sarah Bernhardt. His artistic repertoire also included illustrations, advertisements, decorative panels, and designs, many of which have become widely recognized as representative images of the Art Nouveau period.

In the latter part of his career, at the age of 57, Mucha returned to his homeland and dedicated himself to a monumental undertaking called The Slav Epic. Consisting of twenty large-scale canvases, this series depicts the history of all the Slavic peoples worldwide. Mucha worked on The Slav Epic from 1912 to 1926, and in 1928, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovakia's independence, he presented the series to the Czech nation. He regarded this project as his most significant and meaningful work, showcasing his passion for celebrating the Slavic heritage and capturing its historical narrative through his art.

Alphonse Mucha, Waverley Cycles (1898).


Alphonse Mucha gained significant acclaim and recognition primarily for his poster designs, which brought him exceptional fame from 1895 to 1900. During this period, Mucha's style became synonymous with the popular Art Nouveau movement, to the extent that it was often referred to as "le style Mucha." One notable contribution he made to the art world during this time was the introduction of decorative panels, known as "panneaux décoratifs," which were specifically designed to adorn interior walls. Originally promoted by the printer Champenois as a novel business venture, Mucha's designs were repeatedly used for various editions. He played a pivotal role in transforming decorative panels into a new art form accessible to a wider public, as opposed to being limited to privileged individuals as traditional artwork had been.

The Seasons, created in 1896, was the first series of panels produced by Mucha and achieved remarkable popularity. This success prompted the subsequent creation of equally beloved series, including The Flowers (1898), The Arts (1898), The Times of the Day (1899), The Precious Stones (1900), and The Moon and the Stars (1902). Across these series, Mucha consistently exhibited his fascination with accentuating the presence of women, utilizing floral motifs for decorative purposes, and employing subtle yet captivating color palettes—integral elements that define his distinctive artistic style.

Alfons Mucha, Portrait of Jaroslava (ca. 1927-1935); oil on canvas, 73 × 60 cm.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau, also known as "New Art," was an influential international style that encompassed art, architecture, and applied arts, particularly decorative arts. The style had different names in various languages: Jugendstil in German, Stile Liberty in Italian, Modernisme in Catalan, and the Modern Style in English. It gained popularity between 1890 and 1910, during the Belle Époque period, as a reaction against the academic art, eclectic styles, and historical references prevalent in 19th-century architecture and decoration. Art Nouveau often drew inspiration from natural forms, incorporating sinuous curves reminiscent of plants and flowers. Notable characteristics included a sense of dynamism and movement, achieved through asymmetrical compositions and fluid, "whiplash" lines. The style embraced modern materials like iron, glass, ceramics, and later concrete, resulting in innovative forms and more open spaces.

A significant goal of Art Nouveau was to blur the boundaries between fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, and applied arts. It found wide application in interior design, graphic arts, furniture, glass art, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and metalwork. The movement was influenced by prominent 19th-century thinkers such as French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and British art critic John Ruskin. In Britain, it was inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. German architects and designers aspired to create spiritually uplifting Gesamtkunstwerks, or "total works of art," where architecture, furnishings, and art unified in a harmonious style to uplift and inspire residents.

The first manifestations of Art Nouveau emerged in Brussels in the 1890s, seen in the architecture and interior design of houses by Paul Hankar, Henry van de Velde, and especially Victor Horta, whose Hôtel Tassel was completed in 1893. The style quickly spread to Paris, where Hector Guimard adapted it for the entrances of the new Paris Métro after being influenced by Horta's work in Brussels. Art Nouveau reached its peak at the 1900 Paris International Exposition, where artists like Louis Tiffany showcased their Art Nouveau creations. Alphonse Mucha's posters and the glassware of René Lalique and Émile Gallé also contributed to the movement's visibility.

Art Nouveau expanded from Belgium and France to other parts of Europe, each country adding its own distinct characteristics and names to the style. It appeared not only in capital cities but also in rapidly growing urban centers seeking to establish their artistic identities, as well as in regions with independence movements. By 1914, with the onset of World War I, Art Nouveau had largely waned. It was subsequently replaced by Art Deco and later Modernism as the dominant architectural and decorative art styles. In the late 1960s, Art Nouveau started receiving renewed attention from critics, and in 1970, a significant exhibition featuring the work of Hector Guimard at the Museum of Modern Art further elevated its recognition.

Alphonse Mucha, Spring (1896).


The term "Art Nouveau" was first used by Edmond Picard in 1894 in the Belgian magazine L'Art moderni to describe the artistic production of Henry van de Velde. However, it was Henry van de Velde himself, along with Victor Horta, Paul Hankar, and Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, who coined the name. These four artists' works were collectively examined and appreciated for their shared quality: novelty. This is how the name "Art Nouveau" came into existence.

Art Nouveau emerged as a comprehensive style that encompassed various fields, including architecture, interior and urban decoration, jewelry, furniture and fabrics, tools and objects, lighting, and funerary art.

The movement derived its origins from the principles of the Anglo-Saxon Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized the free creative expression of craftsmen as an alternative to mechanization and mass production of aesthetically unappealing objects. Art Nouveau reinterpreted these principles and paved the way for modern design and architecture.

An important catalyst for the spread of Art Nouveau was the 1900 Paris Exhibition, where the new style triumphed in all areas. The movement also gained momentum through the establishment of new magazines, such as L'art pour tous, and the founding of schools and craft workshops.

In Brussels, where the initial mature expressions of the movement emerged, the socialist environment and the desire to establish a distinct identity apart from distant Paris played significant roles.

Art Nouveau quickly gained prominence in major cities through large-scale exhibitions. In Paris, architect Hector Guimard designed iconic subway stations, while Berlin saw the birth of the Secession movement in 1898 with figures like Munch. Vienna became known for its Secessionist architects who reshaped the city's appearance. Additionally, smaller, more dynamic provincial cities embraced Art Nouveau with an anti-academic character, often incorporating elements of rebellion and provocation. Munich, Darmstadt, and Weimar in Germany frequently expressed an anti-Prussian sentiment in their secessionist movements, contrasting the dramatic and grandiose "Wilhelminian" style.

Cities like Nancy, Glasgow, and Chicago had slightly different trajectories. These rapidly growing cities, undergoing industrial and demographic expansion, welcomed new artistic trends. Barcelona, in particular, united Catalan modernism with Jugendstil expressions in Finland, fueled by nationalistic sentiments. Furthermore, while Art Nouveau broke away from academic traditions, it often incorporated motifs from local traditional art, which found appreciation across various cities, especially in Barcelona, Munich, and Finland.

Among the notable Italian cities associated with Art Nouveau, Turin, Milan, and Palermo hold significance in its history.

Alphonse Mucha, Lefèvre-Utile Champagne Biscuits (1896).

The advertising poster

Art Nouveau, also known as the Liberty style, emerged as a significant artistic and philosophical movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It represented a departure from traditional artistic norms, favoring nature and the realm of dreams. This artistic approach was characterized by soft and sinuous lines, organic forms inspired by the natural world, fantastical atmospheres, and abstract figures.

This movement sparked a true aesthetic revolution, not only influencing the realm of art but also permeating architecture and, most notably, communication. Art Nouveau played a pivotal role in the birth of the modern poster as a means of communication and propaganda. Artists associated with Art Nouveau transformed their artistic style into a cultural and communicative model. This marked a fundamental transition from simple informational posters to the early days of advertising campaigns.

During the early 1800s, manifestos primarily served an informative purpose for citizens, featuring minimal or no imagery and lengthy texts. Art Nouveau revolutionized this approach. Its proponents recognized the potential of posters for commercial purposes, enabling the showcasing of products, values, and missions of companies. To achieve this, the communicated message needed to be concise, impactful, and easily understood even in fast-paced and transient environments.

Consequently, the streets of major cities began to be adorned with entirely new advertising posters. These posters featured larger formats, prioritized images over text, employed concise slogans, utilized vibrant and bold colors to attract attention, and frequently incorporated the female figure. Some of these posters have become iconic in the history of advertising, leaving a lasting impression on the collective imagination. Notable examples include the works of Toulouse Lautrec for the Moulin Rouge and the Paris Opera House.

Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Nadar in 1864.

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt, born Henriette-Rosine Bernard on October 22, 1844, and passing away on March 26, 1923, was a renowned French stage actress. She achieved great fame and starred in numerous popular French plays during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable productions in which she appeared included La Dame Aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils, Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo, Fédora and La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, and L'Aiglon by Edmond Rostand. Bernhardt's versatility extended to portraying male roles, including Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rostand referred to her as "the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture," and Hugo praised her "golden voice." Throughout her career, she embarked on several theatrical tours worldwide and became one of the first prominent actresses to make sound recordings and act in motion pictures.

Sarah Bernhardt played a significant role in promoting the work of artist Alphonse Mucha. Her support and endorsement contributed to the rise of Mucha, who became highly sought after during that era for his distinctive Art Nouveau style.

Mucha's Gismonda.

Sarah Bernhardt and Gismonda

At the close of 1894, Alphonse Mucha's artistic career took an unexpected and transformative turn when he began working for renowned French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. The pivotal moment occurred on December 26, when Bernhardt contacted Maurice de Brunhoff, the manager of the publishing firm Lemercier, responsible for printing her theatrical posters. She requested a new poster to promote the continuation of the play Gismonda, written by Victorien Sardou, which had enjoyed tremendous success since its debut on October 31, 1894, at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on Boulevard Saint-Martin. Bernhardt insisted that the poster be ready by January 1, 1895, after the Christmas break. However, due to the holiday season, none of the regular artists at Lemercier were available. Coincidentally, Mucha happened to be at the publishing house, working on proof corrections. He had prior experience painting Bernhardt, having created a series of illustrations depicting her in the role of Cleopatra for Costume au Théâtre in 1890. Moreover, Mucha had recently produced a series of illustrations of Bernhardt in the Gismonda role for a special Christmas supplement published by Le Gaulois. Thus, Brunhoff asked Mucha to swiftly design the new poster for Bernhardt.

The resulting poster, larger than life-size at over two meters tall, depicted Bernhardt in the attire of a Byzantine noblewoman. She wore an orchid headdress and a floral stole, holding a palm branch in a scene from the Easter procession near the play's conclusion. Notably, the poster incorporated an innovative feature—an ornate rainbow-shaped arch positioned behind Bernhardt's head, resembling a halo, which drew attention to her face. This distinctive element would become a recurring motif in Mucha's subsequent theater posters. Due to time constraints, certain areas of the background were left blank, deviating from his usual decorative style. The sole decorative elements were Byzantine mosaic tiles behind Bernhardt's head. The poster exhibited exceptional draftsmanship and delicate pastel colors, departing from the vibrant hues typically seen in posters of that era. The top section of the poster, featuring the title, was richly composed and ornamented, offering a visual balance to the bottom section, which presented essential information succinctly with just the name of the theater.

The poster debuted on the streets of Paris on January 1, 1895, causing an immediate sensation. Bernhardt was delighted with the response and ordered four thousand copies of the poster in 1895 and 1896. She also awarded Mucha a six-year contract for further collaborations. With his posters plastered across the city, Mucha quickly found himself catapulted into the realm of fame.

Following Gismonda, Bernhardt switched to another printer, F. Champenois, who, like Mucha, entered into a six-year contract to exclusively work for Bernhardt. Champenois operated a large printing house on Boulevard Saint Michel, employing three hundred workers and operating twenty steam presses. In exchange for the rights to publish all of Mucha's works, Champenois provided him with a generous monthly salary. This newfound financial stability allowed Mucha to relocate to a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a large studio in a historically significant building at 6 rue du Val-de-Grâce, originally constructed by François Mansart.

Continuing their successful collaboration, Mucha designed posters for each subsequent Bernhardt production, beginning with a revival of her early triumph, La Dame aux Camelias, in September 1896. This was followed by posters for Lorenzaccio (1896), Medea (1898), La Tosca (1898), and Hamlet (1899).

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