Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau at the Dayton Art Institute

Photo: Monaco, Monte-Carlo, 1897; Dhawan collection

By Terri Gordon

Alphonse Mucha is not Art Nouveau—Art Nouveau is Alphonse Mucha. His name may not be as well known, but the works of Alphonse Mucha are as recognizable as any Monet or Van Gogh—maybe even more so. Mucha’s work became the definition of Art Nouveau, and with much of his work being magazine illustrations, advertisements, and posters, it was arguably more accessible and more widely distributed than the “fine art” of the other greats.

Mucha was born in Moravia in 1860, according to information from the Mucha Foundation. His penchant for art came early—he was drawing pictures before he could even walk, and when opportunity came knocking, he was ready for it. His first real art job came when he was 19, and ended a year later, when the theatre that was his employer’s best client burned down. Mucha travelled after that, earning his keep by drawing portraits. In a stroke of good luck, some of these portraits were seen by a local count—who hired Mucha to paint murals. In the end, he paid for Mucha to go to school in Paris, supporting the artist over a span of five years. Once this support ended, Mucha scratched out a living by producing illustrations for magazines and books.

In 1894, Lady Luck struck again when stage star, Sarah Bernhardt, needed a poster for her latest show Gismoda. It was a rush job, and all the artists in the studio were on vacation. It just so happened that Mucha was doing some work for a friend at the same place, so they turned to him for the design. Bernhardt was so pleased with the work she put Mucha under contract to design all her posters…And her costumes… And her sets. The posters were so popular that people even stole them.

The next 10 years were undoubtedly a blur for Mucha as commissions came pouring in, and it wasn’t just illustrations, postcards, and advertisements. It was jewelry, fabric, table settings, and more—he also spent time teaching.

In 1899, he accepted a commission that would alter the course of his career. Researching the project took him on a year and a half journey into the Balkins, but the trip planted a seed, the fruit of which would be The Slav Epic—a series of 20 large scale paintings depicting the lives of the Slav people. It was a feat that consumed Mucha, and advised his career decisions from that point on. Mucha died in 1939. He’d been arrested by Gestapo some time earlier, and while he was released, those who knew him felt that the incident broke his spirit. His health deteriorated, and he succumbed to pneumonia.

The life and works of Mucha are examined in the Dayton Art Institute’s newest exhibition—its last for the year—Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau, on display at the museum from Sept. 16 through Dec. 31.

Mucha is most known for his contributions to French Art Nouveau at the turn of the 20th century, and that is seen throughout the exhibit’s 75 pieces.

“Art Nouveau is a predominant visual in decorative arts style starting in the 1880s and ending around the first World War, when Art deco gains popularity,” says Kettering Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth. “Art Deco is far more wispy and whimsical. It’s highly stylized. It’s inspired by natural elements. You see a lot of long curving plants, you see a lot of long flowing hair, and all these sinuous line details.

“This is also the era of the modern woman. The femme fatale is kind of gaining prevalence in society as a whole and so within Art Nouveau, you tend to see a lot of beautiful women—or femme fatales—who are seductively selling a product. And that’s kind of the trademark style of Alphonse Mucha.”

The Dayton Art Institute is the only venue in the Midwest for this tour.

Admission to Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau is free for museum members. Non-member admission is $14 adults; $11 seniors (60+), students (18+ w/ID), active military and groups (10 or more); $6 youth (ages 7-17); and free for children (ages 6 & under). Prices include admission to the special exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection.

Tickets for the exhibitions may be purchased at the museum’s Guest Services Desk or by phone at 937.223.4ART (4278) during regular hours, or online at Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The museum stays open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Events and programs related to the exhibit include:

Draw from the Collection: Our Natural World Saturday, Oct. 7, 1–3 p.m.

ARTventures: Visiting Artist Jes McMillan Saturday, Oct. 14, 1–3 p.m.

Behind the Scenes: Alphonse Mucha Thursday, Oct. 19, 4–5 p.m.

Exhibition Lecture by Karla Huebner, Wright State University Saturday, Nov. 4, 3 p.m.

Curatorial Conversations: Loie Fuller Thursday, Nov. 16, 6–7 p.m.

Vine & Canvas: Bring on the Bubbly Friday, Nov. 17, 6:30–9 p.m.

Curatorial Conversations: New Year’s Toast Tour, Thursday, Dec. 21, 6–7 p.m.

ARTventures: Organic and Geometric Shapes, Saturday, Dec. 23, 1–3 p.m.

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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