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An Unknown Side of Alfons Mucha

Alfons Mucha and his stamp designs

Alfons Maria Mucha (1860-1939)
Czechoslovak stamp issue
to commemorate his 100th birthday (1960)
designed by Max Švabinský
engraved by Jindra Schmidt
Účelem mého díla nikdy nebylo bořit,
ale vždy stavět, klást mosty, neboť nás všechny musí
živit naděje, že celé lidstvo se sblíží, a to tím snáze,
dobře-li se pozná navzájem.

The aim of my work never was to destroy,
but always to build up, to build bridges,
because we all must live the hope,
that the whole mankind comes together,
particularly by getting known each other.


Alfons Mucha, born July 24, 1860 in the small Moravian town of Ivančice (today in the Czech Republic), is one of the best-known artist of the international Art Nouveau movement. Mucha is known not only for his posters (especially those created for Sarah Bernhardt from 1894 on, the best known of which is "Gismonda"), or the so-called "panneaux décoratifs", but also for a tremendous amount of advertising illustration (for example, "Job" and "Bières de la Meuse"). But in spite of his wide-spread fame, very few people know that, starting in 1918, Mucha also designed stamps for his native country, the newly-founded state of Czechoslovakia.. Because of this, the Czechoslovak Post Office honored the designer of its first stamp many time over the years with various memorial stamps. One of these, designed by another famous Czech artist Max Švabinský, is shown above. ln addition, a great number of Mucha's paintings have been reproduced on stamps, the last one from the end of 2000 - entitled "Bruneta" and engraved by Bedřich Housa - is depicted at right. On this website I'd like to show a more personal, less well known side of the artist to anyone interested in Mucha or his artwork. A complete stamp list of all Mucha stamps is here for all specialists who are interested in.

1. Mucha's first artistic successes

After spending his youth in South Moravia, Mucha met Count Khuen-Belassi in Mikulov, who, as his long time patron, sponsored the artist's studies, first in Munich (starting in 1884), and then in Paris from 1888 on. During this period, Mucha painted many illustrations for books and magazines. Late in 1894 he created "Gismonda", his first commissioned poster for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, in the process developing his own unique style which came to be known as "style Mucha". As a result of the poster's success, he entered into a 6-year contract with the actress.

In addition to a large number of posters, in 1896 he created the first thematic series of his so-called "panneaux décoratifs", the "Seasons" cycle. On July 14, 1969, the 30th anniversary of Mucha's death, the Czechoslovak Post Office issued a set depicting five of the "panneaux" motives, engraved by Jiří Švengsbír. The 2.40 crown value shown here shows the allegorical "Ruby" and "Amethyst" themes from the "Precious Stones" cycle.

2. The "panneaux décoratifs"

Panneaux décoratifs are multiple-image compositions which were normally printed on strong paper or silk and then used to decorate wall screens. In these series of usually four pictures, both concepts and real things were often personified in allegorical female form. The image series symbolize seasons, flowers, precious stones or stars, among others. One of the best known of these sequences by Alfons Mucha is "The Arts" cycle, depicted on the three stamps shown here ("Painting", "Music" and "Dance"). The series, created in 1898, includes a fourth theme, "Poetry" (not shown). The "Dance" image may have been inspired by the American dancer Loie Fuller (1862-1928) and her exotic "dance of veils" performed during the 1890s in Paris.

3. Princezna Hyacinta

Inspired by a concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in 1908, at which Bedřich Smetana's symphonic poetry "Vltava" was performed, Mucha decided to return to his native country. His intention was to serve Czechoslovakia by reestablishing the traditions of slavic history and culture through his art. He settled at Zbiroh Castle in western Bohemia. During this time before World War I, he designed his only Czech theatre poster "Princezna Hyacinta", later reproduced by the Czechoslovak Post Office on November 29, 1968 as a part of its annual series depicting paintings.
The model for this painting probably was the well-known Czech actress Anna Sedláčková. "Princezna Hyacinta" is a kind of musical pantomime, and was written by Ladislav Novák, with music by Oskar Nedbal. It is about a man whose young daughter was transformed into the princess Hyacinth during a snow storm and the three princes who seek her hand in marriage. The first performance of this play was on September 1, 1911 in the national theatre at Prague.

4. Hradčany - the first stamp of Czechoslovakia

On October 28, 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, a new state was founded in Prague from part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire - Czechoslovakia. A few weeks later, on December 18, 1918, the new state issued its first stamp. This date is still known as the "Day of the Stamp" in the Czech Republic, and on this day in the years 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978 and 1988 commemorative stamps or sheets depicting the Hradčany stamp and/or Alfons Mucha have been issued.

(Girl with a lime-tree branch)
Another Mucha essay

HRADČANY (variety a)
The first stamp of Czechoslovakia
with postmark from the date of issue

(variety c)
first issue on February 27, 1919
The newly founded postal administration of Czechoslovakia gave the order for designing its first stamp to the best known artist in the country - Alfons Mucha. There probably isn't any country in the world which has had an artist of such stature as a creator of its first stamp. Besides the hradčany motive which were taken by the post office, there is at least one more Mucha stamp essay for the first stamp. This essay is depicted above (because I had no original print, the picture only has a poor quality - sorry!). Mucha's hradčany design - engraved by M. Šůla - shows a view to the Prague castle known as the "Hradčany" in Czech. Much himself explains, why he decided on Hradčany for the first stamp:

"Every nation has a palladium of its own embodying past and future history. Ever since my boyhood I felt and saw in the architectural lines of St. Vitus Cathedral built so close to the castle, a powerful interpretation of our national symbol. I could, therefore, select no other subject for my design than Hradčany Castle and the surrounding architecture of the Middle Ages."

Because there only existed limited technical possibilities, the stamps must be printed by a simple typography technique. This again was the reason for a poor print quality. There are also many plate flaws and plate varieties, because there were obviously made some slight variations from one plate to the next - a wide field for every specialized collector of these stamps. All in all, there are the five known varieties (a through e) which every collector of Czechoslovak stamps knows and considers when collecting. The varieties have been issued over a period of 16 months until 1920. On December 18, 1918, only the light-green 5 haleřů and the red 10 haleřů stamps were issued. Therefore stamps with a postmark from this first issue date are very sought-after among collectors (example see above). In varieties a through c, the sun depicted shining behind the castle is more than a little odd, because the sun cannot be seen rising or setting at this viewing angle. Although the sun was obviously symbolic for the birth of the new nation, it can't be seen on later issues (variety d and e) anymore. The first issue was imperforate, and with variety e, you can distinguish between one version with an open and one with a closed spiral (types I and II). The new Czech POFIS specialized catalogue identifies 7 official perforations (B through H) and needs 15 pages to describe and list all varieties. Besides this, there also are stamps with private perforation. They came into being, because some banks and greater companies had many problems to handle the unperforated sheets of stamps. Therefore they let perforate the sheets and the Czechoslovak postal authorities tolerated these new perforation varieties. If you were total the released quantities of all the official varieties of the Hradcany issue, you would get - according the POFIS catalogue - 1,060,816,000 copies, making this image the most widespread and best known picture by Mucha in the world, although very few people even know that this stamp was created by the artist.

Banknote of Czechoslovakia, designed by Alfons Mucha
Many thanks to Val Timmons for the picture!

5. Mucha's additional stamp designs

Over the years, the Czechoslovak Post Office issued many stamps and sheets portraying Mucha or the Hradčany stamp. In addition, the newly established Czech Republic (1993) began a series on January 21, 1995, "Tradition of Czech Stamp Art" with a Mucha theme. The stamp shown at the left includes Mucha's design "Sokol v letu" (Flying Falcon) from the 1918 newspaper stamp of the first Czechoslovak Republic. Both the postage due stamp (doplatit) and the special delivery stamp of the first years of Czechoslovakia were also designed by Alfons Mucha. Mucha not only designed the first stamp of Czechoslovakia, but also its paper currency (one example see above), and even the Republic's Coat of Arms. This coat of arms was, from 1929 through 1937, shown on the definitive series (one example see right) engraved by the German born Karl Seizinger, and was released in a total of 6 values ranging from 5 up to 40 haleřů.

The Hussite Priest

The only original design by Mucha for a commemorative stamp was issued in June 1920 and shows a Hussite priest with Chalice. This stamp exists both as a purple 80 (see above) and a brown-black 90 haleřů value. Also this stamp has an somewhat unusual story. I quote as Phillips Freer describes it in its article "Philately of Czechoslovakia for Beginners":

"Alfons Mucha originally designed the stamp as a single issue with a 100h denomination. The numerals appeared in the lower left and lower right corners with the following text between them: "Droite a la Coupe" (The Rights of the Chalice). Some government officials argued that only the Czech language should appear on stamps of Czechoslovakia. Still others believed that the text offended those who embraced the Catholic faith. The words were therefore omitted from the final design. Furthermore, members of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications felt there were ample stamps already in circulation with the 100h denomination. Since the Hussite Priest raised a few eyebrows among religious non-reformists, the denominations of 80h and 90h were agreed upon inasmuch as the need for those values was generally small. Finally, when the two stamps were issued, one major political party objected to their issuance. This objection was circumvented by a compromise under which only a limited number of post offices throughout the country were to be supplied with the stamps, which would remain valid for postal use for only ten months. This was done despite the fact that more than four million copies of each stamp were printed. However, a large supply of the Hussite Priest in both values was retained in Pragues main post office where they could be purchased at face value through 1935. It is for that reason that, although the stamps themselves are readily available even today, covers bearing those stamps are not at all common. Statistically, the stamps were printed by neo-type in sheets of 100. The 80h is purple; the 90h, brownish black. These colors, along with the design, make them appear somewhat drab and unattractive. These stamps were line perforated 13 ľ as well as imperforate. Issued in June 1920 and withdrawn from official use in April 1921, they are probably the least popular of the First Republic sets."

6. The Slav Epics

In his studio on the Zbiroh Castle in 1911, Mucha began creation of a monumental and controversial series of paintings known as the "Slav Epics" (in Czech: "slovanská epopej"). The series attempted to record slavic history, and in so doing, justify and solidify the basic ideas of the new state. The stamp on the right - issued on November 27, 1990 and engraved by Václav Fajt - shows a detail of "Slované v pravlasti" ("Slavs in their native country"). This painting measures 610 x 810 cm and is the first of a total of 20 paintings which Mucha dedicated to the Czech nation. The whole project was sponsered by the American industrialist and diplomat Charles R. Crane. In 1928 - after moving into his own house in Prague-Bubeneč - Mucha donated the entire series of paintings to the city of Prague. In 1921, five of these paintings were displayed to great acclaim in Chicago and New York. Since 1963 you can see the complete series in the castle of Moravský Krumlov near Mucha's town of birth Ivančice.

In his native Czechoslovakia, Mucha received many commissions for works of art from the new national state of the Czechs and Slovaks. Among many others examples, he decorated the Lord Mayor's Hall and the windows of the Bishop's Chapel of the St. Vites Dome in Prague (1931). Alfons Mucha died on July 14, 1939 in Prague.

For more about other Czech and Slovak stamp artists
go to my Stamp Gallery

© Gerhard Batz 1997-2001
re-designed: March 29, 2001
Translation "with a little help from a friend". Many thanks to Alj Mary in Finleyville, Pa.!

In the first week of December 2000, this site was on Garry Law's website from New Zealand.

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