By the end of the 19th century, the belief in technological and scientific progress was a constitutional element of a modernist ideal that nurtured a new generation of individuals willing to propose revolutionary solutions and enhance the spirit of our civilization. The art was no longer a manifestation of a patron’s will (whether the patron is a monarch, the church, or a wealthy merchant); rather, it became a more autonomous practice aimed to question the inherited canons and representational patterns.
Although not as radical as some latter movements, when it first appeared Art Nouveau also seemed as defiant to what has been proposed by academia. The idea of tearing down the distinction between fine arts (especially painting and sculpture) and applied arts was perceived as rebellious, although it was articulated theoretically by the leading 19-century thinkers such as French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) and British art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900). It encompassed tendencies proposed by the Arts and Crafts movement, and the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," as a result of a unification of different artistic disciplines.
The movement was apparently international, with expressions and leading artists found in different contexts. One of them was the renowned Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist, active in Paris throughout the Art Nouveau period, Alphonse Mucha.
Alphonse Mucha is mostly saluted for his posters that gained him outstanding fame between 1895 and 1900. During that time, Mucha’s style was even called "le style Mucha" as it coincided with the trending Art Nouveau style. Decorative panels (panneaux décoratifs), as they were called at the time, were posters without text, designed specifically for decorating interior walls. Initially championed by the printer Champenois, as a business novelty, Mucha’s designs were continually used for different editions. It was Mucha himself who appropriated and transformed decorative panels into a new art form available to the wider public as opposed to traditional artwork available to the privileged individuals.
The first series of panels Mucha produced was The Seasons (1896) and they became so popular they were quickly followed by another, equally popular series such as The Flowers (1898), The Arts (1898), The Times of the Day (1899), The Precious Stones (1900) and The Moon and the Stars (1902). All of them share the same - Mucha’s fascination with magnifying female presence, the decorative use of flowers, and the subtle yet striking colors – the constitutional elements of his signature style.
To revisit these six astonishing series we decided to pay a closer look at each of Mucha's art themes and admire their uniqueness and splendor.
Spanning the entirety of Alphonse Mucha’s prolific career, this handsome, affordable and concise overview examines the beloved artist’s oeuvre―from posters, jewelry, interior decoration, theater and product design to painting, book illustration, sculpture and photography―across six themed sections that highlight the artist’s personality: “A Bohemian in Paris”; “A Picture-Maker for People”; “A Cosmopolitan”; “The Mystic”; “The Patriot”; and “The Artist-Philosopher.”
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - Painting, from The Arts Series, detail. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris.
The first series made by the artist in 1896 is called The Seasons. Shortly after it was published, it became popular to such an extent that the mentioned printer Champenois asked Mucha to produce two more sets based on the same theme.
The personifications of seasons were a commonplace in visual art, especially the works of Old masters; nevertheless, Mucha’s compositions featuring female divinities juxtaposed against the seasonal views of the countryside gave a fresh look to the classic theme. The four panels represent the mood of each season (fruitful Autumn, frosty Winter, innocent Spring, and sultry Summer) while representing the cycle of Nature.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - Four Seasons, circa 1897. Image creative commons.
For The Flowers, the second series that represent the personifications of four flowers, Mucha used a naturalistic style followed by minimal decoration. Two watercolors from the series were shown in 1897 within the artist’s solo exhibition at the Salon des Cent, but the whole become available the following year. As The Flowers sold out quickly, Champenois printed a smaller version with all four panels presented as a single image.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - Lily, The Flowers Series, 1898. Colour lithograph. Dimensions: 103.5 x 43.5 cm. Image creative commons.
By 1898 Alphonse Mucha gained fame, and so The Arts series was presented more luxuriously as it was printed on vellum in an edition of one thousand copies, with fifty limited edition copies printed on satin.
For this particular representation, the artist focused on the natural beauty of women (as the embodiment of each discipline) encircled and attributed to a certain time of day.
For instance, Painting holds a red flower and is encircled by rainbows in fresh daylight, while Poetry contemplates as the evening star shines in the sky at dusk, and Music listens to the song of birds at moonrise.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - Music, part of the series The Arts series, 1898. Colour lithograph. Dimensions: 60 x 38 cm. Image creative commons.
The fourth important Alphonse Mucha art series personifies, as the title suggests, The Times of The Day. The artist used a frame to position figures of women set in natural surroundings which reflect their sentiment. This particular series perhaps more than others shows Mucha’s appropriation of art historical references especially Gothic art and Renaissance.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - The Times of the Day, 1899. Image creative commons.
The Precious Stones again feature mesmerizingly beautiful women that personify four precious stones. The upper part of the composition in each panel is marked by the female figure, while the lower part depicts a flower whose color resonates to that of the particular gemstone.
Interestingly so, every other detail of the composition from the hair decorations, over the flowing robes, to the woman's eyes also features the color of the stone.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - The Precious Stones, 1899. Image via amazon.com.
In the last series of the six decorative panels, the stars are presented as female figures. This time Mucha went a bit further in the exploration of the time by giving it a certain philosophical quality. Unlike the previous, more earthly representations, the women in The Moon and the Stars series have become literally divinities as they sensually float in a space illuminated by radiating light from within the composition.
Featured image: Alphonse Mucha - The Moon and the Stars, 1902. Image via Flickr.