Alfons Maria Mucha CzechRepublic : ˈalfons ˈmuxa
24 July 1860 – 14 July 1939 known internationally as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter, illustrator and graphic artist, living in Paris during the Art Nouveau period, best known for his distinctly stylized and decorative theatrical posters, particularly that of Sarah Bernhardt. He produced illustrations, advertisements, decorative panels, and designs, which became among the best-known images of the period.
In the second part of his career, at the age of 43, he returned to his homeland of Bohemia-Moravia region in Austria and devoted himself to painting a series of twenty monumental canvases known as The Slav Epic, depicting the history of all the Slavic peoples of the world, which he painted between 1912 and 1926. In 1928, on the 10th anniversary of the independence of Czechoslovakia, he presented the series to the Czech nation. He considered it his most important work. It is now on display in Brno.
Alphonse Mucha was born on 24 July 1860 in the small town of Ivančice in southern Moravia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (currently a region of the Czech Republic). His family had a very modest income; his father was a court usher, and his mother was a miller’s daughter. He showed an early talent for drawing; a local merchant impressed by his work provided him with paper for free, though it was considered a luxury. In 1871, Mucha became a chorister at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, Brno, where he received his secondary school education. He became devoutly religious, and wrote later, “For me, the notions of painting, going to church, and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music, or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies.” He grew up in an environment of intense Czech nationalism in all the arts, from music to literature and painting. He designed flyers and posters for patriotic rallies.
His singing abilities allowed him to continue his musical education at the Gymnázium Brno in the Moravian capital of Brno, but his true ambition was to become an artist. He found some employment designing theatrical scenery and other decorations. In 1878 he applied without success to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but was rejected and advised “to find a different career”. In 1880, at the age of 19, he traveled to Vienna, the political and cultural capital of the Empire, and found employment as an apprentice scenery painter for a company which made sets for Vienna theaters. While in Vienna, he discovered the museums, churches, palaces and especially theaters, for which he received free tickets from his employer. He also discovered Hans Makart, a very prominent academic painter, who created murals for many of the palaces and government buildings in Vienna, and was a master of portraits and historical paintings in grand format. His style turned Mucha in that artistic direction and influenced his later work. He also began experimenting with photography, which became an important tool in his later work.
To his misfortune, a terrible fire in 1881 destroyed the Ringtheater, the major client of his firm. Later in 1881, almost without funds, he took a train as far north as his money would take him. He arrived in Mikulov in southern Moravia, and began making portraits, decorative art and lettering for tombstones. His work was appreciated, and he was commissioned by Count Eduard Khuen Belasi, a local landlord and nobleman, to paint a series of murals for his residence at Emmahof Castle, and then at his ancestral home in the Tyrol, Gandegg Caste. (The paintings at Emmahof were destroyed by fire in 1948, but his early versions in small format exist (now on display at the museum in Brno.) He showed his skill at mythological themes, the female form, and lush vegetal decoration. Belasi, who was also an amateur painter, took Mucha on expeditions to see art in Venice, Florence and Milan, and introduced him to many artists, including the famous Bavarian romantic painter, Wilhelm Kray, who lived in Munich.
Count Belasi decided to bring Mucha to Munich for formal training, and paid his tuition and cost of living at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He moved there in September, 1885. It is not clear how Mucha actually studied at the Munich Academy; there is no record of his being enrolled as a student there. However, he did become friends with a number of notable Slavic artists there, including the Czechs Karel Vítězslav Mašek, Ludek Marold and the Russian Leonid Pasternak, father of the famous novelist Boris Pasternak. He founded a Czech students’ club, and contributed political illustrations to nationalist publications in Prague. In 1886 he received a notable commission for a painting of the Czech patron saints Cyril and Methodius, from a group of Czech emigrants, including some of his relatives, who had founded a Roman Catholic church in the town of Pisek, North Dakota. He was very happy with the artistic environment of Munich: he wrote to friends, “Here I am in my new element, painting. I cross all sorts of currents, but without effort, and even with joy. Here, for the first time, I can find the objectives to reach which used to seem inaccessible.” However, he found he could not remain forever in Munich; the Bavarian authorities imposed increasing restrictions upon foreign students and residents. Count Belasi suggested that he travel either to Rome or Paris. With Belasi’s financial support, he decided in 1887 to move to Paris.
Studies and first success in Paris
Mucha moved to Paris in 1888 where he enrolled in the Académie Julian and the following year, 1889, Académie Colarossi. The two schools taught a wide variety of different styles. His first professors at the Academie Julien were Jules Lefebvre who specialized in female nudes and allegorical paintings, and Jean-Paul Laurens, whose specialties were historical and religious paintings in a realistic and dramatic style. At the end of 1889, as he approached the age of thirty, his patron, Count Belasi, decided that Mucha had received enough education and ended his subsidies.
When he arrived in Paris, Mucha found shelter with the help of the large Slavic community. He lived in a boarding house called the Crémerie at 13 rue de la Grand Chaumerie, whose owner, Charlotte Caron, was famous for sheltering struggling artists; when needed she accepted paintings or drawings in place of rent. Mucha decided to follow the path of another Czech painter he knew from Munich, Ludek Marold, who had made a successful career as an illustrator for magazines. In 1890 and 1891, he began providing illustrations for the weekly magazine La Vie popular, which published novels in weekly segments. His illustration for a novel by Guy de Maupassant, called The Useless Beauty, was on the cover of the 22 May 1890 edition. He also made illustrations for Le Petit Français Illustré, which published stories for young people in both magazine and book form. For this magazine he provided dramatic scenes of battles and other historic events, including a cover illustration of a scene from the Franco-Prussian War which was on the 23 January 1892 edition.
His illustrations began to give him a regular income. He was able to buy a harmonium to continue his musical interests and his first camera, which used glass-plate negatives. He took pictures of himself and his friends, and also regularly used it to compose his drawings. He became friends with Paul Gauguin, and shared a studio with him for a time when Gauguin returned from Tahiti in the summer of 1893 In late autumn 1894 he also became friends with the playwright August Strindberg, with whom he had a common interest in philosophy and mysticism.
His magazine illustrations led to book illustration; he was commissioned to provide illustrations for Scenes and Episodes of German History by historian Charles Seignobos. Four of his illustrations, including one depicting the death of Frederic Barbarossa, were chosen for display at the 1894 Paris Salon of Artists. He received a medal of honor, his first official recognition.
Mucha added another important client in the early 1890s; the Central Library of Fine Arts, which specialized in the publication of books about art, architecture and the decorative arts. It later launched a new magazine in 1897 called Art et Decoration, which played an early and important role in publicizing the Art Nouveau style. He continued to publish illustrations for his other clients, including illustrating a children’s book of poetry by Eugène Manuel, and illustrations for a magazine of the theater arts, called La Costume au théâtre .
Commercial art and posters
The success of the Bernhardt posters brought Mucha commissions for advertising posters. He designed posters for JOB cigarette papers, Ruinart Champagne, Lefèvre-Utile biscuits, Nestlé baby food, Idéal Chocolate, the Beers of the Meuse, Moët-Chandon champagne, Trappestine brandy, and Waverly and Perfect bicycles. With Champenois, he also created a new kind of product, a decorative panel, a poster without text, purely for decoration. They were published in large print runs for a modest price. The first series was The Seasons, published in 1896, depicting four different women in extremely decorative floral settings representing the seasons of the year. In 1897 he produced an individual decorative panel of a young woman in a floral setting, called Reverie, for Champenois. He also designed a calendar with a woman’s head surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, The rights were resold to Léon Deschamps, the editor of the arts review La Plume, who brought it out with great success in 1897. The Seasons series was followed by The Flowers The Arts (1898), The Times of Day (1899), Precious Stones (1900), and The Moon and the Stars (1902). Between 1896 and 1904 Mucha created over one hundred poster designs for Champenois. These were sold in various formats, ranging from expensive versions printed on Japanese paper or vellum, to less expensive versions which combined multiple images, to calendars and postcards.
His posters focused almost entirely on beautiful women in lavish settings with their hair usually curling in arabesque forms and filling the frame. His poster for the railway line between Paris and Monaco-Monte-Carlo (1897) did not show a train or any identifiable scene of Monaco or Monte-Carlo; it showed a beautiful young woman in a kind of reverie, surrounded by swirling floral images, which suggested the turning wheels of a train.
The fame of his posters led to success in the art world; he was invited by Deschamps to show his work in the Salon des Cent exhibition in 1896, and then, in 1897, to have a major retrospective in the same gallery showing 448 works. The magazine La Plume made a special edition devoted to his work, and his exhibition traveled to Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, giving him an international reputation.
1900 Paris Universal Exposition : The Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, famous as the first grand showcase of the Art Nouveau, gave Mucha an opportunity to move in an entirely different direction, toward the large-scale historical paintings which he had admired in Vienna. It also allowed him to express his Czech patriotism. His foreign name had caused much speculation in the French press, which distressed him. Sarah Bernhardt stood up on his behalf, declaring in La France that Mucha was “a Czech from Moravia not only by birth and origin , but also by feeling, by conviction and by patriotism.” He applied to the Austrian government and received a commission to create murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Exposition. This pavilion displayed examples of industry, agriculture and culture of these provinces which in 1878, by the Treaty of Berlin, had been taken away from Turkey and put under the tutorship of Austria. The temporary building built for the Exposition had three large halls with two levels, with a ceiling more than twelve meters high, and with natural light from skylights. His experience in theater decoration gave him the ability to paint large-scale paintings in a short period of time.
Mucha’s original concept was a group of murals depicting the suffering of the Slavic inhabitants of the region caused by the occupation by foreign powers. The sponsors of the exhibit, the Austrian government, the new occupier of the region, declared that this was a little pessimistic for a World’s Fair. He changed his project to depict a future society in the Balkans where Catholic and Orthodox Christians and Muslims lived in harmony together; this was accepted, and he began work. Mucha immediately departed for the Balkans to make sketches of Balkan costumes, ceremonies and architecture which he put into his new work. His decoration included one large allegorical painting, Bosnia Offers Her Products to the Universal Exposition, plus an additional set of murals on three walls, showing the history and cultural development of the region. He did discreetly include some images of the sufferings of the Bosnians under foreign rule which appear in the arched band at the top of the mural. As he had done with his theater work, he often took photographs of posed models, and painted from them, simplifying the forms. While the work depicted dramatic events, the overall impression given by the work was one of serenity and harmony. In addition to the murals, Mucha also designed a menu for the restaurant of the Bosnia Pavilion.
His work appeared in many forms at the Exposition. He designed the posters for the official Austrian participation in the Exposition, the menu for the restaurant at the Bosnian pavilion, and menu for the official opening banquet. He produced displays for the jeweler Georges Fouquet and the perfume maker Houbigant, with statuettes and panels of women depicting the scents of rose, orange blossom, violet and buttercup. His more serious art works, including his drawings for Le Pater, were shown in the Austrian Pavilion and in the Austrian section of the Grand Palais.
His work at the Exposition earned him the title of Knight of the Order of Franz Joseph I from the Austrian government, the Legion of Honor from the French Government. During the course of the Exposition, Mucha proposed another unusual project. The Government of France planned to take down the Eiffel Tower, built especially for the Exposition, as soon as the Exposition ended. Mucha proposed that, after the Exposition, the top of the tower should be replaced by a sculptural monument to humanity be constructed on the pedestal. The tower proved to be popular with both tourists and Parisians, and the Eiffel Tower remained after the Exhibit ended.
Jewelry and collaboration with Fouquet
Mucha’s many interests included jewelry. His 1902 book, Documents Decoratifs, contained plates of elaborate designs for brooches and other pieces, with swirling arabesques and vegetal forms, with incrustations of enamel and colored stones. In 1899 he collaborated with the jeweler Georges Fouquet to make a bracelet for Sarah Bernhardt in the form of a serpent, made of gold and enamel, similar to the costume jewelry Bernhardt wore in Medea. After the 1900 Exposition, Fouquet decided to open a new shop at 6 Rue Royale, across the street from the restaurant Maxim’s. He asked Mucha to design the interior.
The centerpieces of the design were two peacocks, the traditional symbol of luxury, made of bronze and wood with colored glass decoration. To the side was a shell-shaped fountain, with three gargoyles spouting water into basins, surrounding the statue of a nude woman. The salon was further decorated with carved moldings and stained glass, thin columents with vegetal designs, and a ceiling with molded floral and vegetal elements. It marked a summit of Art Nouveau decoration.
The Salon opened in 1901, just as tastes were beginning to change, moving away from Art Nouveau to more naturalistic patterns. It was taken apart in 1923, and a replaced by a more traditional shop design. Fortunately most of the original decoration was preserved, and was donated in 1914 and 1949 to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris, where it can be seen today.
Mucha made a considerable income from his theatrical and advertising work, but he wished even more to be recognized as a serious artist and philosopher. He was a devoted Catholic, but also was interested in mysticism. In January 1898 he joined the Paris masonic lodge of the Grand Orient de France. Shortly Before the 1900 Exposition, as wrote in his memoirs, “I had not found any real satisfaction in my old kind of work. I saw that my way was to be found elsewhere, little bit higher. I sought a way to spread the light which reached further into even the darkest corners. I didn’t have to look for very long. The Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer): why not give the words a pictorial expression?”. He approached his publisher, Henri Piazza, and proposed the book, in these words: “First a cover page with symbolist ornament; then the same ornament developed in a kind a variation on each line of the prayer; a page explaining each line in a calligraphic form; and a page rendering the idea of each line in the form of an image.”
Le Pater was published on 20 December 1899, only 510 copies were printed. The original watercolor paintings of the page were displayed in the Austrian pavilion at the 1900 Exposition. He considered Le Pater to be his printed masterpiece, and referred to it in the New York Sun of 5 January 1900 as a work into which he had “put his soul”. The critic Charles Masson, who reviewed it for Art et Decoration, wrote: “There is in that man a visionary; it is the work of an imagination not suspected by those who only know his talent for the agreeable and charming.
American travels and marriage : In March 1904 sailed for New York and the beginning of his first visit to the United States. His intent was to find funding for his grand project, The Slav Epic, which he had conceived during the 1900 Exposition. He had letters of introduction from Baroness Salomon de Rothschild. When he landed in New York, he was already a celebrity in the United States; his posters had been widely displayed during Sarah Bernhardt’s annual American tours since 1896. He rented a studio near Central Park, in New York, made portraits, and gave interviews and lectures. He also made contact with Pan-Slavic organizations. At one Pan-Slavic banquet in New York City, he met Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who was a passionate Slavophile. He commissioned Mucha to make a portrait of his daughter in a traditional Slavic style, More important, he shared Mucha’s enthusiasm for a series of monumental paintings on Slavic history, and he became Mucha’s most important patron. When Mucha designed the Czechoslovak bills, he used his portrait of Crane’s daughter as the model for Slavia for the 100 koruna bill.
From New York, he wrote to his family in Moravia: “You must have been very surprised by my decision to come to America, perhaps even amazed. But in fact I had been preparing to come here for some time. It had become clear to me that that I would never have time to do the things I wanted to do if I did not get away from the treadmill of Paris, I would be constantly bound to publishers and their whims…in America, I don’t expect to find wealth, comfort, or fame for myself, only the opportunity to do some more useful work.”
He still had commissions to complete in France, and returned to Paris at the end of May 1904. He finished his commissions and returned to New York in early January 1905, and made four more trips between 1905 and 1910, usually staying for five to six months. In 1906, he returned to New York with his new wife, (Marie/Maria) Chytilová, whom he had married on 10 June 1906, in Prague. He remained in the U.S. until 1909. Their first child, Jaroslava, was born in New York in 1909.
His principal income in the United States came from teaching; he taught illustration and design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, at the Philadelphia School of Art for five weeks, and became a visiting professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. He rejected most commercial proposals, but accepted one proposal in 1906 to design boxes and a store display for Savon Mucha, a soap bar. In 1908 he also undertook one large decoration project, for the interior of the German Theater of New York; he produced three large allegorical murals, in the Art Nouveau style, representing Tragedy, Comedy and Truth. Besides the decoration, he made graphic designs, stage and costume designs.
Artistically, the trip was not a success; portrait painting was not his strong point, and the German Theater closed in 1909, one year after it opened. He made posters for the American actress Mrs. Leslie Carter (known as ‘The American Sarah Bernhardt’) and the Broadway star Maude Adams, but they were largely echoes of his Bernhardt posters. His finest work in America is often considered to be his portrait of Josephine Crane Bradley, the daughter of his patron, in the character of Slavia, in Slavic costume and surrounded by symbols from Slavic folklore and art. His contact with Crane made possible his most ambitious artistic project, the Slav Epic.
Move to Prague and the Slav Epic (1910-1928)
During his long stay in Paris, Mucha had never given up dream of being a history painter, and to illustrate accomplishments of the Slavic peoples of Europe. He completed his plans for the Slav Epic in 1908 and 1909, and in February 1910, Charles Crane agreed to fund the project. In 1909, he had been offered a commission to paint murals on the interior of the new city hall of Prague. He made the decision to return to his old country, still then part of the Austrian Empire. He wrote to his wife, “I will be able to do something really good, not just for the art critic but for our Slav souls.”
His first project in 1910 was the decoration of the reception room of the mayor of Prague. This quickly became controversial, because local Prague artists resented the work being given to an artist they considered an outsider. A compromise was reached, whereby he decorated the Lord Mayor’s Hall, while the other artists decorated the other rooms. He designed and created a series of large-scale murals for the domed ceiling and walls with athletic figures in heroic poses, depicting the contributions of Slavs to European history over the centuries, and the theme of Slavic unity. These paintings on the ceiling and walls were in sharp contrast to his Parisian work, and were designed to send a patriotic message.
The Lord Mayor’s Hall was finished in 1911, and Mucha was able to devote his attention to what he considered his most important work; “The Slav Epic”. a series of large painting illustrating the achievements of the Slavic peoples over history. The series had twenty paintings, half devoted to the history of the Czechs, and ten to other Slavic peoples. The canvases were enormous; the finished works measured six by eight meters. To paint them he rented an apartment and a studio in the Zbiroh Castle in western Bohemia, where he lived and worked until 1928.
While living in Paris Mucha had imagined the series as “light shining into the souls of all people with its clear ideals and burning warnings.” To prepare the project he traveled to all the Slavic countries, from Russia and Poland to the Balkans, making sketches and taking photographs. He used costumed models and still and motion picture cameras to set the scenes, often encouraging the models to create their own poses. He used egg tempera paint, which, according to his research, was quicker-drying and more luminous, and would last longer.
He created the twenty canvases between 1912 and 1926. He worked throughout the First World War, when the Austrian Empire was at war with France, despite wartime restrictions, which made canvas hard to obtain. He continued his work after the war ended, when the new Republic of Czechoslovkia was created. The cycle was completed in 1928 in time for the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of the Czech Republic.
Under the conditions of his contract he donated his work to the city of Prague in 1928. They Epic was shown in Prague twice in his lifetime, in 1919 and 1928. After 1928 it was rolled up and put into storage.
From 1963 until 2012 the series was on display in the chateau in Moravský Krumlov in the South Moravian Region in the Czech Republic. Since 2012 the series has been on display at the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace in Prague.
While he was working on the Slavic Epic, he also did work for the Czech government. In 1918, he designed the korun bank note, with the image of Slavia, the daughter of his American patron Charles Crane. He also designed postage stamps for his new country. he declined commercial work, but did make occasional posters for philanthropic and cultural events, such as the Lottery of the Union of Southwesern Moravia, and for Prague cultural events.
Last years and death
In the political turmoil of the 1930s, Mucha’s work received little attention in Czechoslovakia. However, in 1936 a major retrospective was held in Paris at the Jeu de Paume museum, with 139 works, including three canvases from the Slav Epic .
Hitler and Nazi Germany began to threaten Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. Mucha began work on a new series, a triptych depicting the Age of Reason, the Age of Wisdom and the Age of Love, which he worked on from 1936 to 1938, but never completed. On 15 March 1939, the German army paraded through Prague, and Hitler, at Prague castle, declared lands of the former Czechoslovakia to be part of the Greater German Reich as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Mucha’s role as a Slav nationalist and Freemason made him a prime target. He was arrested, interrogated for several days, and released. By then his health was broken. He contracted pneumonia and died on 14 July 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. Though public gatherings were banned, a huge crowd attended his interment in the Slavín Monument of Vyšehrad cemetery, reserved for notable figures in Czech culture.
Mucha was and remains best known for his Art Nouveau work, which frustrated him. According to his son and biographer, Jiří Mucha, he did not think much of Art Nouveau. “What is it, Art Nouveau?” he asked. “…Art can never be new.” He took the greatest pride in his work as a history painter. Although it enjoys great popularity today, at the time of his death Mucha’s style was considered outdated. His son, author Jiří Mucha, devoted much of his life to writing about him and bringing attention to his artwork. In his own country, the new authorities were not interested in Mucha. The Slav Epic was rolled and stored for twenty-five years before being shown in Moravský Krumlov. The National Gallery in Prague now displays the Slav Epic, and has the major collection of his work.
Mucha is also credited with restoring the movement of Czech Freemasonry.
One of the largest collections of Mucha’s works is in the possession of former world no. 1 professional tennis player Ivan Lendl, who started collecting his works upon meeting Jiří Mucha in 1982. His collection was exhibited publicly for the first time in 2013 in Prague.