Alphonse Mucha’s Newly Discovered
“Young Couple from Rusadla”, 1920
by Jessica Jokhi,
On Thursday, December 2, 2021, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers held its year-end Art & Design auction. Lot 1 in the sale was a newly discovered Alphonse Mucha oil on canvas. The painting, depicting a young couple embracing, is a fully realized study from a larger composition by Mucha. The larger composition, Rusadla, illustrates a procession scene from a Slavic Midsummer Feast. The two figures in the painting, offered in Art & Design, appear in the upper-right-hand corner of Rusadla. “Young Couple from Rusadla”, 1920 is signed and dated, was estimated at $100,000-200,000, and sold for $965,000, which represents a record price for a study by Alphonse Mucha. The work was accompanied by a certificate from the Mucha Foundation, dated 3rd November 2021. The Foundation plans on including this work in a forthcoming catalogue raisonné.
Studies from Alphonse Mucha’s Rusadla
“Young Couple from Rusadla” is a striking painting with a controlled palate of mostly greens and whites. The figures hold each other in a soft embrace; a sheet of fabric covers their heads and wraps their bodies. The man gazes lovingly inward as the woman looks calmly outward. Both figures hold flowering branches. Placed in an ethereal verdant scene, the bright green and blue background evokes a sense of magic surrounding the couple. The brushstrokes that form the background envelop the figures in an abstracted landscape that simply glows.
Authenticated by the Mucha Foundation, this painting has been identified as a fully developed study adapted from the larger composition titled Rusadla. A comparable study, which Mucha created prior to completing Rusadla, Spring Night, circa 1910, sold at Christie’s in 2007 for $385,000. That work shows a different couple from the same upper-right section of Rusadla, depicting another intimate moment between two figures.
Mucha Achieves Fame as an Art Nouveau Artist
A highly influential figure in the Art Nouveau movement, Alphonse Mucha was one of the most celebrated artists in Paris at the fin de siècle. Born in Ivančice, Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Mucha began his career painting theatrical scenery. After moving to Paris in 1887, he continued his studies while producing illustrations for magazines and advertisements.
In 1894, while wandering the streets of Paris, Mucha entered a print shop, which needed someone to design a poster advertising Gismonda, an upcoming play starring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in Paris at that time. Mucha agreed to create a lithograph for them. He produced a striking portrait of Bernhardt, rendered nearly life-size, in a long, gold embroidered dress and robe, her head adorned in a crown of flowers. Bernhardt was so enamored with Mucha’s portrayal of her that she entered into a six-year contract with him. As his poster of Bernhardt began to cover the city of Paris, Mucha’s fame rose overnight.
Mucha’s commercial work is so uniquely stylized that it inspired many in the Art Nouveau movement. His advertisements often featured young women with flowing hair spun into spherical shapes, surrounded by glorious flowers. Utilizing a unique palate of pastel colors, Mucha’s artwork stood out in contrast to the contemporary posters of the time. As his popularity rose, many artists began to incorporate his style into their own works.
Mucha’s Ambitious Painting Series, Slav Epic, and Rusadla
Although his commercial success ultimately led to larger commissions, Mucha was frustrated that his fame seemed to come solely from his work in advertising. Insisting that he created works purely inspired from within, his goal was to dignify and elevate art. He endeavored to bring honor to his birthplace through his work. Mucha decided then to create only artwork that celebrated his country. In 1911, he embarked on a 25-year journey to create his Slav Epic, a 20-painting series sharing the stories of the Slavic people.
Rusadla depicts the procession scene of a Slavic Midsummer Feast. As noted in the magazine Zlatá Praha (issue 45/46 from July 20, 1919), while studying ancient Slavic mythology for the Slav Epic series, Mucha discovered the scene of a Midsummer Feast that inspired the motif of this piece. This Rusal week or Rusalje was associated with the Christian celebration of the Pentecost. In Russian mythology, mermaids play a part in this festival. In Slavic culture, these mermaids were known as Rusalki, an appellation given to them by pagan Slavic people who associated them with fertility. Traditionally during this time, the Rusalki leave their hiding places in the water to inspect the crops and asperse them with the necessary moisture to flourish. Later versions of the mythology portray them as female water demons, creatures that rose from the drowned bodies of women. These creatures, however beautiful, were also said to be very dangerous. Different dreadful outcomes would supposedly befall those who crossed paths with a Rusalka. In either interpretation, these creatures are said to interact with humans only during Rusalje.
Mucha Combines Religious and Folk Traditions in Rusadla
With inspiration from the many varying traditions of this festival, Mucha created a painting that embraced the dichotomy of the passion of the Midsummer Feast and the gloomy myth of sea creatures rising from the water in a beautiful, haunting landscape. Since an image of Rusadla was printed in Zlatá Praha on July 30, 1919, the full canvas must have been completed prior to or during 1919.
Depicted along the left side of the painting are what appear to be the Rusalki emerging from the water during Rusalje. The Slavic people look upon them from atop a hill, keeping their distance. Traditionally dressed in white, the Slavic people carry flowering branches of apple blossoms. “A summer dream where life and death seem to shake hands, as well as the play of lights and deep shadows” come together to create a landscape filled with history and myth (partially translated from the Czech in issue 45/46 of Zlatá Praha). The intertwined figures of the “Young Couple” in the painting in Art & Design may be found in this larger work, placed carefully in the upper-right-hand corner. At present, the location of Rusadla itself is unknown.
The fully developed, original study, “Young Couple from Rusadla”, 1920, is a beautiful painting that stands on its own while expanding the scope of the larger, lost painting, Rusadla. Mucha’s fondness for these two characters is clearly evident given the vivid, rich detail he applied to their representation. Perhaps his affection and fascination with this attractive pair inspired him to explore their story further in a separate work. With Mucha studies so uncommon, this rediscovered example allows us a rare view into what happens when a great artist transforms two intriguing members of a large-scale assemblage into the primary subjects of an impressively realized study.