Alphonse Mucha , the key proponent of the Art Nouveau movement in the late 19th century, was all about curving, sensuous lines, long tresses and women clad in loosely draped mythical clothing.
His work was anathema to the prim, buttoned-up society, and as with trailblazers like Egon Schiele and Frida Kahlo, celebrated the sexuality of women.
These muses stare back, coquettish, strong and defiant, daring the viewer to challenge their pride, their spirit the absolute epitome of the Belle Epoque.
He peaked between 1895-1900. Witness his flirtatious dancer, below, rendered in vivid oranges and bronzes. She’s enraptured, moving like a flame licking down a building.
She doesn’t seek your approval. So too, with all of his muses, the dancers and models who commanded spaces. They are impossible not to look at, demanding attention, and utmost adoration. They are almost narcissistic in intent.
He’s inextricably linked with the darling of the Parisian theatre scene, Sarah Bernhardt , who, upon being depicted as libertine in a poster for one of her plays, flung her arms around him.
She felt reinvigorated, reinvented through his eyes. He painted her with stylised flowers, and so synonymous are these symbols of femininity with Bernhardt, that pink roses have been named after her. Yet he didn’t shy away from the violence of the art form, as evinced by his Medea poster.
Even his advertising work felt voluptuous and decadent. Chocolates and cigarettes, emblematic of luxury goods, were rendered as exotica in Mucha’s hands. Proto- Cadburys Flake teases, anyone? He sold sex before many people. Yet the artwork is tasteful, as it’s simply so beautiful.
All images from the Mucha archives.