Alphonse Mucha was born in the small town of Ivancíce in Moravia, now a region of the Czech republic. He showed an early talent for drawing. His father was a court usher, his mother a miller's daughter. In 1871 Mucha became a chorister at the cathedral of Brno, where he received his secondary school education. 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, and in 1878 he applied without success to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but was rejected and advised "to find a different career".
|The Slav Epic. King Premysl Ottokar of Bohemia|
In 1880 he travelled to Vienna and found employment as a scenery painter for Vienna theaters. Here he discovered the museums, churches, palaces and especially theaters and also Hans Makart, who created murals for palaces and government buildings in Vienna. 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.
Later in 1881 he went by train to 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 at his ancestral home in the Tyrol, Gandegg Castle. The paintings at Emmahof were destroyed by fire in 1948, but his early versions in small format exist and are now on display at the museum in Brno. He showed his skill at mythological themes, the female form, and lush vegetal decoration.
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His illustrations began to give him a regular income. He was able to buy a harmonium to continue his musical interests and a 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. 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.
When Bernhardt called, Mucha happened to be at the publishing house correcting proofs. He already had experience painting Bernhardt; he had made a series of illustrations of her performing in Cleopatra for Costume au Théâtre in 1890. When Gismonda opened in October 1894, Mucha had been commissioned by the magazine Le Gaulois to make a series of illustrations of Bernhardt in the role for a special Christmas supplement, which was published at Christmas 1894, for the high price of fifty centimes a copy.
The poster appeared on the streets of Paris on 1 January 1895 and caused an immediate sensation. Bernhardt was pleased by the reaction; she ordered four thousand copies of the poster in 1895 and 1896, and gave Mucha a six-year contract to produce more. With his posters all over the city, Mucha found himself famous quite suddenly.
Following Gismonda, Bernardt switched to a different printer, F. Champenois, who, like Mucha, was put under contract to work for Bernhardt for six years. Champenois had a large printing house on Boulevard Saint Michel which employed three hundred workers, with twenty steam presses. He gave Mucha a generous monthly salary in exchange for the rights to publish all his works. With his increased income, Mucha was able to move to a three-bedroom apartment with a large studio inside a large historic house at 6 rue du Val-de-Grace originally built by Francois Mansart.
Mucha designed posters for each successive Bernhardt play, beginning with a reprise of one of her La Tosca. In addition to posters, he designed theatrical programs, sets, costumes, and jewelry for Bernhardt. The enterprising Bernhardt set aside a certain number of printed posters of each play to sell to collectors.
Early great successes, la Dame aux Camelias (September 1896), followed by Lorenzaccio (1896); Medea (1898);la Tosca (1898) and Hamlet (1899).
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 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 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.
The Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, famous as the first grand showcase of the Art Noveau, 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."
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.
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 end.
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. The Cascade pendant designed for Fouquet by Mucha )1900) is in the form of a waterfall, composed of gold, enamel, opals, tiny diamonds, paillons, and a barocco or misshapen pearl.
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 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's next project was a series of seventy-two printed plates of watercolors of designs, titled Documents Decoratifs, which were published in 1902 by the Librarie central des beaux-arts. They represented ways that floral, vegetal and natural forms could be used in decoration and decorative objects. In about 1900 he had begun to teach at the Academy Colarossi, where he himself had been a student when he first arrived in Paris.
He still had commissions to complete in France, and returned to Paris at the end of May 1904. 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. 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.
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. . The Pater Noster (Lord's Prayer): why not give the words a pictorial expression?". 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".
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.
During his long stay in Paris, Mucha had never given up his 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.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.
While he was working on the Slavic Epic, he also did work for the Czech government. In 1918, he Jeu de Paume museum, with 139 works, including three canvases from the Slav Epic.
Mucha was and remains best known for his Art Noveau work, which frustrated him. According to his son and biographer, Jiri 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 Jiri 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.