Perhaps the quintessential Art Nouveau book, by the famous Czech decorative artist and jewellery designer, Alfons "Alphonse" Maria Mucha (1860-1939), sometimes called the High Priest of Art Nouveau. Mucha wanted to bring aesthetic values into arts and crafts. He invented the "Mucha Style", which soon became known as Art Nouveau. "At the end of 1894 his career took a dramatic and unexpected turn when he began to work for French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. As Mucha later described it, on 26 December Bernhardt made a telephone call to Maurice de Brunhoff, the manager of the publishing firm Lemercier which printed her theatrical posters, ordering a new poster for the continuation of the play Gismonda
. The play, by Victorien Sardou, had already opened with great success on 31 October 1894 at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on the Boulevard Saint-Martin. Bernhardt decided to have a poster made to advertise the prolongation of the theatrical run after the Christmas break, insisting it be ready by 1 January 1895. Because of the holidays, none of the regular Lemercier artists were available. When Bernhardt called, Mucha happened to be at the publishing house correcting proofs. He already had experience painting Bernhardt; he had made a series of illustrations of her performing in Cleopatra
for Costume au Théâtre in 1890. When Gismonda
opened in October 1894, Mucha had been commissioned by the magazine Le Gaulois
to make a series of illustrations of Bernhardt in the role for a special Christmas supplement, which was published at Christmas 1894, for the high price of fifty centimes a copy. Brunhoff asked Mucha to quickly design the new poster for Bernhardt. The poster was more than life-size; a little more than two meters high, with Bernhardt in the costume of a Byzantine noblewoman, dressed in an orchid headdress and floral stole, and holding a palm branch in the Easter procession near the end of the play. One of the innovative features of the posters was the ornate rainbow-shaped arch behind the head, almost like a halo, which focused attention on her face; this feature appeared in all of his future theatre posters. Probably because of a shortage of time, some areas of the background were left blank, without his usual decoration. The only background decoration were the Byzantine mosaic tiles behind her head. The poster featured extremely fine draftsmanship and delicate pastel colours, unlike the typical brightly-coloured posters of the time. The top of the poster, with the title, was richly composed and ornamented, and balanced the bottom, where the essential information was given in the shortest possible form: just the name of the theatre. The poster appeared on the streets of Paris on 1 January 1895 and caused an immediate sensation. Bernhardt was pleased by the reaction; she ordered four thousand copies of the poster in 1895 and 1896, and gave Mucha a six-year contract to produce more. With his posters all over the city, Mucha found himself quite suddenly famous" (Wikipedia).
His work remained immensely popular and very sought-after. This work shows, in its entirety, Mucha's iconic dedication to female beauty, pairing seemingly contradictory quick sketching with a fabulous eye for detail and expression. Plates with some slight irregularities to a few bottom edges, one plate with a pinpoint hole and some repairs in the top margin, but generally in an absolute great condition. Single plates are scarce - complete suites, such as this one, are nearly "introuvable". Not in Schneider-Henn, underscoring its rarity.