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  • The Photographic Sketchbook of Alphonse Mucha
  • Kristine Somerville

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Self-portrait with poster for Sarah Bernhardt, in his studio, rue du Val de Grâce, Paris (c. 1901)

© Mucha Trust 2016

[End Page 75]

For art nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha, owning a camera was like having a harmonium. He barely knew how to use either one, but they were both great fun. While his skill on his portable keyboard remained rudimentary, he became increasingly proficient at taking photographs. First there were playful candid shots of friends—Gauguin in a negligée at the keyboard, fellow artists in Moravian hats and Renaissance costumes—but the photos became more skillful and purposeful. Hiring models to pose for him was expensive. He discovered he could take photographs and use them later to finish the details of his drawings and pastels. Like a theater director, he staged photographs of both costumed and nude models, improvising a number of poses and gestures to express his philosophical ideas about beauty and goodness. The result was a catalog of variations, a photographic sketchbook, from which he selected and synthesized images when working on new commissions.

Mucha spent more than two decades living on lentils and beans and rationing coal in winter as he practiced his craft primarily as an illustrator for cheap magazines. This period of “cheerful poverty,” as he called it, left its mark. He did not turn down work. Once his popularity surged after his 1895 poster of Parisian theater star Sarah Bernhardt swept the city, work became more bountiful. He accepted commissions for posters, book and magazine illustrations, dust jackets, screens and decorative panels, and stained-glass windows. By 1896, after moving to a large studio in the rue du Val de Grâce, he increasingly relied on his photographs to speed up his artistic process.

Although his photographs were intended as studies for other work, they are art in their own right: they communicate his models’ blend of beauty and imperfection in ways that his illustrations and paintings do not. In the voluptuous curves of Mucha’s women, some in loose, flowing gowns, others luxuriating in their nudity, he captures the fashion and freedom of the demimondaines who seem happy to be liberated from corsets and bustles. Yet there is a studied extravagance in the photos. The staged, stylized central image fills the space, evoking his best illustrations. The floral, botanical, and mosaic motifs woven into his pastels and drawings are suggested by the rich textures and fabrics of the theatrical backdrop of his studio.

Mucha entertained Parisian artists, writers, and musicians in his studio. They met there to discuss art and politics in a space decorated with flea-market treasures. Writers read their latest work, and musicians played. His “asylum of necessary things,” as he called it, overflowed with [End Page 76] stags’ antlers, medieval costumes, books on exorcism, carved statues, and antique furniture. The walls were hung with Chinese draperies of dark red silk and richly ornamented Turkish tent cloth and Parisian carpets. At the center of all this “Byzantine luxury,” he placed his easel and an iron stove. The perfume of incense mingled with his cigarette smoke and the fragrance from vases of orchids.

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Model reclining on the couch in Mucha’s studio, rue du Val de Grâce, Paris (c. 1899)

© Mucha Trust 2016

Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in the backwater village of Ivančice, Moravia, part of the Hapsburg Empire. He drew before he learned to walk, so his mother tied a pencil to a ribbon that he wore around his neck, allowing him to leave his mark on any surface. As a young boy, he sketched for his mother well-known personalities about town. He finished his formal education at eleven and at nineteen set out for Vienna, where he found employment with a theatrical firm designing sets and costumes. Alphonse took art classes at night, learning the foundations [End Page 77] of painting. From Vienna, he went to Munich, a German art center that attracted students from all over Europe.

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Model posing in Mucha...


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pp. 75-83
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