Update: The Alphonse Mucha-designed poster of Sarah Bernhardt sold for $8,750.
What you see: A poster that advertises Sarah Bernhardt’s 1896 American Tour. Alphonse Mucha designed it.
Who is Sarah Bernhardt? The French actress was the world’s first superstar. Dubbed “The Divine Sarah” by her fans, she dominated the stage and later acted on film, posthumously earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Who is Alphonse Mucha? He was a Czech-born artist whose distinctive, alluring style shaped the visuals of the Art Nouveau movement.
What makes this poster special? “This was the image that was used for the very first Bernhardt poster. It catapulted Mucha to international recognition and stardom,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries’ vintage poster department. The poster’s origin story sounds like a fairy tale. In December 1894, Bernhardt contacted the Paris print shop where he worked to commission an image to advertise her new play, Gismonda. The city was shutting down for Christmas, so the task fell to Mucha. “He was the only employee there, the poor lonely expat. He was the only one who could possibly help, and he does so.” He produced a long, slim design that was bracingly fresh and new. Bernhardt, overjoyed, demanded to see Mucha, reportedly telling him, “You have made me immortal.”
Why is it estimated at $7,000 to $10,000? The poster boasts the image that made Mucha famous, and it debuts motifs that would define Mucha’s style–the halo around Bernhardt’s head, and the mosaic-inspired details. It’s definitely valuable, but it lags behind the $12,000 to $18,000 sum typically asked for an original 1894 Gismonda poster. It was printed in 1896, in America; it’s seven inches shorter, probably due to removing the word ‘Gismonda’ from the top of the design; and the text at the bottom is different. “The Gismonda is more collectible, mostly because it’s his first big poster,” says Lowry.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Photo is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.