Artist profile: Alphonse Mucha – Introduction

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is my favorite artist. I can look at his artwork for hours and hours, and I try to incorporate elements of his style into my own, with varying success.

His advertising and decorative work speaks to me for many reasons:

  • influenced by late-century Japanese prints
  • dynamic motion and movement even though most figures are stationary
  • unabashed sensuousness
  • classical Greek feel (all that flowing cloth)
  • personifications (the seasons, flowers, stars, etc.)
  • nature-inspired geometric elements
  • resemblance to shoujo manga art styles

Now, biography time!

Self portrait (1899)
Self portrait (1899)

Alphonse Mucha was a proud Czech. He started drawing at a very young age, but for some reason wasn’t accepted into the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. His father, who worked at the local courthouse, got Mucha a job there, but the young man soon went to Vienna to apprentice with a theatrical scenery painter. Within a year, the theatre in which he worked burnt down, leaving him without a job.

Mucha decided to travel around the area until his funds ran dry. He was out of money when he arrived in the town of Mikulov, where he exchanged drawings for food and shelter. His art soon made its way to the local landowners, Count Khuen Belasi and his brother, Egon. Count Egon became Mucha’s patron and sent him first to the Academy of Art in Munich, then to Paris in 1887.

After three years of art school in Paris, Mucha was out on his own, without his patron’s support. He was a starving artist for a little while, but after drawing for books and magazines, he became a successful illustrator.

Mucha was catapulted to Art Rock Star status in 1895, when he illustrated a theatre poster for the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. He got the job quite serendipitously: the day after Christmas 1894, Mucha was at his friend’s workplace, helping him with a project. Sarah Bernhardt called to commission a poster for her latest play, Gismonda, but all of the regular staff at the print shop were still on Christmas vacation, so Mucha took the project. The beautiful result is below:

Gismonda (1895)
Gismonda (1895)

It was almost life size, with a soft color palette compared to other theatre posters of the day. Its artistry took Paris by surprise, and soon people were bribing the poster-hangers copies and cutting the posters down from walls at night. (This poster, and nearly all his other works, were produced via lithography.) Sarah Bernhardt contracted him for six years to create posters for her and design her theatrical costumes and jewelry.

His Art Nouveau style graced advertisements, posters, magazines, books, menus, and interior walls; he created several series of decorative posters, such as The Arts, so that even those with little means could have beauty in their lives. Mucha said,

I was happy to be involved in an art for the people and not for private drawing rooms. It was inexpensive, accessible to the general public, and it found a home in poor families as well as in more affluent circles.

He published a collection of his decorative elements called Documents Decoratifs in 1902, taught art, and designed jewelry with famed jeweler Georges Fouquet. He also produced a few 3-dimensional works. In 1906, he met and married his wife, Maruška (Marie) Chytilová, who was twenty years younger than him.

That year they left for America to raise money and find sponsorship for the project that would become The Slav Epic, a celebration of the history of the Slavic peoples, including the Czechs. Their daughter, Jaroslava, was born in 1909 (presumably in New York) and their son, Jiří, was born in 1915. Mucha often included their likenesses in his work.

Mucha with his family, 1917
Mucha with his family, 1917

There is not much information available about Jaroslava, but I’ve read that she was an artist and restored The Slav Epic; Jiří had a hard life (as you can read in his Wikipedia article) and became his father’s biographer. Jiří’s son, John, runs the Mucha Museum in Prague.

Returning to his homeland in 1910, Mucha began painting The Slav Epic, a collection of twenty canvases, some of which are over 25 feet wide. He worked on this project from 1912 and 1926, abandoning his Art Nouveau style in favor of dramatic realism. I will be covering this work later this month.

Mucha working on The Slav Epic, 1920
Mucha working on The Slav Epic, 1920

When Czechoslovakia became an independent nation after World War I, Mucha designed its currency and stamps. He also promoted Freemasonry in his country. In 1939, his pro-Czech activities drew the attention of the Gestapo (Germany invaded Czechoslovakia that year), and he was arrested. During his interrogation (who knows what that entailed), Mucha developed pneumonia and died in July 1939 at almost 79 years old.

In 2010, seventy years after his death, his works became public domain, which is why you see them everywhere. You can also see his influence in artwork from the 1960s, during which Art Nouveau enjoyed a revival.

Join me this month as I look at Mucha’s gorgeous works!

Other parts in the Alphonse Mucha artist profile series
Theatre and advertisements
Art Posters
3D works
The Slav Epic



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