A Closer Look: Alphonse Mucha’s “Les Saisons” Lithographs
“The aim of art is to glorify beauty.” -- Alphonse Mucha
Alphonse Mucha is internationally known for his work as a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist, which came to be intricately tied with the Art Nouveau period. Living in Paris, France, during the time when Art Nouveau was coming to life, his work is characterized by “le style Mucha,” with stylized decorative theatrical posters, particularly those of French stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt.
Born in 1860 in the Czech Republic, Alphonse Mucha was an avid drawer. Beginning work as a commercial artist in his teenage years, he painted mostly portraits and theatrical scenery, later living in Vienna, and finding his way to Paris by the age of 27. While in Paris, he volunteered at a lithography shop, and his meteoric rise began less than a decade later, in 1895, when he was commissioned to create a theatrical poster for Gismonda, a play starring none other than Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt fell so deeply in love with Mucha’s artistic style that, upon seeing the poster, she commissioned him for a six year contract with her theatrical company.
This newfound popularity led to a massive influx of commissioned work for the young Alphonse Mucha, as his dramatic calligraphic lines and intriguing female figures captured the public’s attention. Soon, his work was seen in popular advertisements, selling everything from cigarettes to bicycles to champagne. Throughout the 1890s, lithographic prints became increasingly desirable among collectors, but were also widely accessible, thanks to “affichomanie,” or poster mania. By 1896, Mucha’s works could be seen not only in Paris, but also in Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, cementing his international fame and newly acquired title of “master of the poster.” While Mucha tended to reject his popularity, he also continually sought to make art more attainable, saying, “I was happy to be involved in an art for the people… it was inexpensive, accessible to the general public, and it found a home with middle-class families as well as in more affluent circles.”
After Gismonda, Alphonse Mucha developed a number of works, but “Les Saisons,” or “The Seasons,” is considered to be one of the most iconic series. A set of four purely decorative “pânneaux”, or panels, completed in 1896, Mucha was commissioned by Fernand Champenois, a wealthy elite printer who was also on contract with Sarah Bernhardt at the time. Champenois adored the work so much that he had Mucha recreate the themed series two additional times, in 1897 and 1900. “Les Saisons” was Mucha’s first design of purely decorative artistic lithographs, without any aspects of advertising to them.
In this first set of pânneaux décoratifs (decorative panels) from 1896, Alphonse Mucha depicts the harmonious cycles of nature with four nymph-like female figures, beautiful and distinguished against a natural backdrop, each conveying the mood of the four seasons with dramatic views of the countryside. Likely influenced by Hans Makart’s The Five Senses (1879), Mucha captures the moods of the seasons perfectly, with innocent Spring, sultry Summer, fruitful Autumn, and frosty Winter. The idea of personifying the seasons was not a new concept, but Mucha’s depiction of these women set against seasonal views of the countryside breathed new life into the old classic theme.
In “Les Saisons,” Mucha uses nature, wildlife, and the female form as subtle metaphors for life, death, and rebirth. Other than Winter, who sits bundled against the cold surrounding her, these romantic female figures frolic about in diaphanous clothes, their buoyant hair roaming freely in iconic Art Nouveau style. Mucha’s depiction of these women are timeless, depicting them as though they are part of the rhythms of nature, existing in harmony with their natural environment surrounding them.
Spring, depicted as a beautiful, rosy-cheeked woman, innocent and fair with long blonde hair that reaches down to her ankles, is fashioning a lyre from a verdant green branch, using her luscious golden hair as strings. Amongst white blossoms and charming songbirds, her natural surroundings seem to flock to the allegorical figure, adding to the aural aura that this airy piece emits.
Summer, meanwhile, sits lethargically at the side of a pond, lounging while dipping her feet into the cool water and resting on a branch of ivy. She wears a crown of crimson poppies in her deep brunette strands of gentle curls, and her thin white robes appear to be falling off with the heat of the summer day. Her sultry and beguiling gaze draws the viewer into the intimate scene.
Autumn's hair is a rich reddish-brown, which echoes the colors of the dried leaves in the trees and on the ground below her. The allegorical figure is not looking directly into the viewer's eyes, but rather to the bountiful grapes she holds in her hand, fruitful and abundant. She is crowned with the fall-blooming flower, chrysanthemum.
Winter, the final form, is huddled under an icy blue shawl, frosty and reclusive, surrounded by snowy branches in a wintery landscape. The viewer is left to wonder if the allegorical woman is quietly whispering to the sweet, small birds to teach them the song of spring to come; or, if she is using the songbirds that once celebrated new life with her as sustenance to make it through the bitter winter.