NEW YORK — More than 100 bound, hand-painted lithographs by Alphonse Mucha, one of the fathers of the art nouveau movement, go on auction Wednesday. The works have not been seen publicly for over a century.
Swann Galleries President Nicholas Lowry gave a pre-auction estimate of the books of $300,000 to $400,000.
Art nouveau, which thrived from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, may be one of the most recognized and utilized art movements of the 20th century. Its influence continues to resonate, from the giant Cinzano poster ads still hugely popular today to Pink Floyd concert posters from the 1960s.
Its highly stylized romantic, elegant images is crowded with practitioners, and Mucha is one of the most celebrated.
The Czech artist, who moved to Paris in the late 1880s to study art, came to fame in 1884 when he created a poster for legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt, who loved art nouveau, commissioned Mucha to produce works for her ranging from posters and set design to jewelry.
In 1897, Mucha was given three months to illustrate “Ilsee, Princesse de Tripoli,” a fairy tale based on a play by Edmond Rostand that starred Bernhardt; Mucha did the costumes.
In this short time, Mucha managed to produce 138 images showing flowing hair and halos in muted colors swirling among serene skies.
Some 250 copies of the “Ilsee, Princesse de Tripoli” were printed, one of which is owned by the New York Public Library. The book, according to Lowry, is considered a masterpiece of the art nouveau movement.
On auction is a two-volume set of proofs hand-watercolored by Mucha conveying his vision for the 138 images in the book. The proofs offer a blueprint in vivid blues, greens and oranges, bordered in sparkling gold and silver paint. Compared to those in the original book, the images are made all the more intense by the clarity of color and clear, stunning detail. Women, hearts, stars, eyes, flowers all pop from the pages.
Lowry said the images were last up for auction in Paris in 1897 and the buyer bought them all and bound them in a rich green and gold silk, still immaculate despite its age. Wednesday’s auction will be the third time the illustrations have come up for sale.
Lowry said the plates for the illustrations were destroyed shortly after the print run, so the chances of coming across even a black and white print from one of the original plates is extremely unlikely. The chance of coming across a print from the original plates, hand-colored by Mucha? Almost impossible.
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