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Alphonse Mucha is synonomous with the aesthetics of the Art Nouveau movement in France at the turn of the century. Originally from Czechoslovakia, Mucha was an unknown artist when he was tapped in 1984 to create a design graphic of the most famous actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha's interpretation of Bernhardt was wildly popular and reflective of a style so clearly new and revolutionary that Europeans of all countries recognized the distinctive look and concept. Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in Moravia, now part of the Czech republic. He painted murals and oils in traditional historical and religious motifs on commission from many sources, but he aspired to be a serious artist and pursued formal training in Prague and Munich. Soon thereafter, Mucha moved to Paris in 1887 and was exposed to the vitality of the French capital. Whlie partially supported by a wealthy patron, Mucha was also forced to take on many smaller commissions including illustrations for books, magazines, and calendars.

When Sarah Bernhardt was looking for an artist on very short notice to help promote her new play Gismonda, Mucha lept at the chance for such exposure. While even his printer was reluctant to send such an unconventional style to so prominent a personality, he ultimately did and Bernhardt loved it. As it turned out, so did the public. Mucha and Bernhardt maintained their relationship for many years, and he designed stage sets, costumes, publicity, and jewelry for Bernhardt's many productions. Paris during this period was a very exciting time, when the traditionalism of the Victorian period was giving way to a more indulgent, luxurious time when excesses where the norm. These unhibited times were perfect for Mucha, who loved women and the female form. Curvaceous lines are typical of Mucha's women and of his work, reflected in many ways in how he stylized women and introduced abstractions to go beyond what the eye could see. Mucha was not an elitist artist; he allowed his art to be used on a wide variety of functional and decorative objects. The print shop Champenois had a contract with Mucha which allowed virtually unlimited quantities of panels, posters, calendars, and illustrations to be produced to meet public demand. The output was extremely diverse in both form and in quality, ranging from mass production prints to fine, limited editions. One of Mucha's most famous works is the zodiac calendar, popularized as the La Plume calendar. La Plume was a magazine which purchased the rights to the calendar design from Champenois, who was using it on one of their in house calendars. When popularized subsequently in La Plume, it was widely recognized and liked, and it became synonomous with the magazine.

The Art Nouveau period spans roughtly 1895-1914 and resulted in an international style based on decoration. While Mucha was a pioneer, many artists contributed to the development of the style during this period such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, René Lalique, Emile Galle, and others, ushering in the modern, urban era. Art Nouveau exploded on the scene at the Paris World's Fair (Exposition Universelle) in 1900, drawing 48 million visitors. There, Siegfried Bing and owner of the shop L'Art Nouveau in Paris introduced the world to furniture, jewelry, ceramics, posters, glass, textiles, and metalwork. The American dancer Loie Fuller was also present at the fair, whose erotic dances with veils later inspired lamps and other decorative objects of the period.

Nature was the most common theme among artists of this period, inspired by Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, linking human beings inextricably to nature. René Lalique interpreted this discovery in his jewelry, often combining the female form with flowers and insects from the natural world. The French town of Nancy was also a center of the Art Nouveau movement, the workplace of Emile Galle, an accomplished botanist who used flowers and insects on his cameo glass just as René Lalique did with his jewelry. Furniture and lighting also came to embody the Art Nouveau style with the sinuous forms of Louis Majorelle and others. Cast iron and the print media also captured the flowing lines of this style, especially the work of Henri Guimard on the Paris Metro and the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Art Nouveau was literally a worldwide design movement, from the work of Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde, and Gustave Serrurier-Bovy in Brussels, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the U.S. In Vienna, Art Nouveau was known as the Secession style and was associated with the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. In 1903, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, members of the Secession group, founded the Vienna Workshops which respected the principles of craftsmanship developed in severak years earlier in Scotland with Mackintosh and with historical Japanese designs. In Germany, Art Nouveau was known as Jugendstil, or Youth Style, and was practiced by such notable designers as Otto Eckmann, Richard Riemerschmid, and Hermann Obrist. In Italy, Carlo Bugatti was a leading practitioner of what was known as the "stile floreale" in his eclectic furniture designs. In New York, the Industrial Revolution had given rise to wealthy businessmen and philanthropists, whose patronage of the arts led to major public museums, libraries, and mansions in the Art Nouveau style. The most prominent of these was Louis Comfort Tiffany, who pioneered an amazing variety of visually stunning and technically advanced glass and pottery techniques in his work. It is interesting to note that he originally began to create lamps in order to use the leftover glass from the production of windows, and LCT never considered lamps to be the focus of his artistic endeavors although they have certainly achieved that status today.

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