Alphonse Mucha is an outstanding Czech painter, engraver and decorative artist of the Art Nouveau epoch. He’s a symbol of so called “silver age”, known, first of all, for his printing production – theatrical and advertising posters.
Alphonse Maria Mucha was born on July 24, 1860 in the town of Ivančice (Moravia). He started his training in Brno and left for Vienna in 1880, where worked for a theatrical design company. However, just in a year the artist returned to Moravia and was hired by Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov to paint murals in Hrušovany Emmahof Castle.
In 1885 Alphonse was accepted to the third year at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts and after two years of studying decided to elaborated his mastery in Paris, at Académie Julian. In France he was forced to illustrate fashion-magazines and other periodical publications for living, but never stopped education.
In 1887 – 1922 master lived mainly in Paris. There he elaborated his skills in designing of covers and illustrating, established communications with publishers. Mucha made paintings and his paintings were transferred in xylography: the first experience in that field was a drawing for the “Petit Francais illustre”. Alphonse partnered with journals “Popular life” (“La Vie populaire”), and Sunday newspapers “Le Figaro illustre” and “Parisian life” (“La Vie Parisienne”). He also sent works to his homeland, where they were placed in “Zlata Praha” magazine. Some of the projects were done in cooperation with Vojtěch Preissig.
During those years Mucha managed to shape up his own perception of art and was ready to introduce new, unique style to Parisians. His workshop situated above the sweetshop of Madame Charlotte’s cremerie Alphonse shared for certain time with Van Gogh. Just at that period he made friends with Paul Gaugin, who often came around together with his beloved Javanese Annah to visit the painter’s dwelling at rue de la Grande-Chaumière. A commission for creating illustrations for several volumes of “German Histroy” was an important milestone in the early master’s career.
The turning point in Alphonse Mucha’s destiny was a seemingly insignificant order from the “Renaissance” theater he received in December of 1894, for a poster of the the play “Gismonda”. Prominent actress Sarah Bernhardt featured in it. As the artist remembered later, a publisher de Brunhoff called him just because all other printmakers were on holidays and “divine Sarah” needed a new poster immediately. It was ready by December 27. 1894, rendered in technique of polychromic lithography. Full-length portrait of the actress was done in flat, without hatching, very decorative manner in goldish tones. The title of the play “GISMONDA” was written above the image on the golden background. All walls and fences of Paris were covered with those big elongated posters (22,26 x7,95 m).
Sarah Bernhardt was delighted with the result and expressed a desire to meet the unknown artist. After acquainting with Mucha she insisted on appointing him main the decorator of the theater. Apart from that, the star of the stage signed a six-year contract with Alphonse, so he was preoccupied with posters, costumes and decorations to her plays. “The Lady of the Camellias”, “Medea”, “Hamlet” are among the printmaker’s most popular theatrical advertisements.
Splendid, sensual and languishing “Mucha’s women” were of great demand and were replicated immediately in thousands of copies on posters, postcards, playing cards etc. Cabinets of art-connoisseurs, halls of luxurious restaurants, ladies’ boudoirs were decorated with his silk panels, calendars and engravings. Analogical style was used for colorful graphical serieses “Seasons”, “Flowers”, “Trees”, “Months”, “Stars”, “Arts”, “Precious stones”, which have been published till nowadays.
In 1898 – 1899 Alphonse Mucha created covers, frontispieces and illustrations for Parisian magazine “Cocorico”. There his cycle “Twelve months” done in pencil and gouache was published for the first time. It contained mainly images of female figures, sometimes naked, and delicately pictures women’s heads. The artist was a true praiser of female beauty, making his characters attractive and even erotic. Since 1897 he organized solo exhibitions in Paris and other European cities, including Prague. A respectable “La Plume” magazine dedicates a whole issue to Mucha. In 1900 Alphonse participated in the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. The project motivated him to penetrate into Slavic history that developed in a whole series of canvases just in a decade.
Bu the turn of the century Alphonse Mucha had gained indisputable authority in the artistic circles. Sometimes Art Nouveau style is called “Mucha’s style”. So, appearence of the author’s book “Documents Decoratifs” in 1901 was quite logic. “Documents decoratifs” was a sort of guide for artists with numerous examples of patterns, fonts, design of furniture, dinnerware, jewelry, combs, watches, brooches etc. These drawings were done in various techniques – lithography, gouache, sketches in pencil or charcoal. Some of them were even rendered in material, like golden brooches and necklace with portraits of Sarah Bernhard, meant for the actress herself.
In 1906 Alphonse Mucha left for the USA to earn money, needed to realize his ambitious idea of creating pieces that would glorify his motherland and all Slavic people. There he gave courses at the New York schoold of Applied Design for Women, befriended with president Roosevelt and got acquainted with his future patron Charlse Richard Crane. For the latter’s daughter, Josephine, the painter completed a portrait with the model as Slavic goddess, Slavia.
Despite his raging success overseas, the painter found the American lifestyle with its total commercialism, a bit irksome, so he never gave up dreaming of returning to Czechia. For the master all his previous works were of minor importance, so he wanted to set about a grandiose, monumental project – in 1910, when he came back to Europe, Mucha concentrated on “The Slav Epic” – a cycle of twenty paintings about history of people. The last painting was finished only in 1926. The series was bequeathed to Czech people and the city of Prague, but received mixed reviews from the critics. After declaration of Republic in 1918, Alphones Mucha was commissioned to make first Czechoslovak stamps, banknotes and state emblem.
The artist had his own, unique manner that defines all his creations. A figure of a beautiful and maidenly graceful woman, freely and organically drawn into the system of floral ornamentation became a sort of his “trade mark”. Alphonse chose a special type of female appearance, mainly of Slavic type, with magnificent mop of hair. She could different – captivating with her languor, mysterious, joyful or haughty and fatal, but always remained charming and pretty. They were closer to the image of Eva or goddess of fertility, then to temptress Lilith. Unlike works of contemporary to him symbolists, the painter rejected their decadent notes of anxiety and melancholy. Patterns of flowers and arabesques gave hints at Byzantine and oriental art.
Undisguised sensuality of Mucha’s paintings and prints still fascinate viewers, though every epoch introduce new erotic ideals. Specialists notice his “winding” lines, exquisite warm coloring.
Alphonse Mucha was a talented master of popular art and some features of his art can be easily traced in samples of contemporary design and advertising. The master adhered typically Art Nouveau idea of artistic many-sidedness. Being talented painter and engraver he managed to enrich everyday life with aesthetics, representing such “secondary” art as posters and other printing trades in new, favorable light. Mucha embodied the refined epoch of fin de siècle in lucid, vigorous and expressive forms, which can be easily recognized by an inexperienced viewer. His legacy is unique by its integrity and stylistic purity.
During the last decade of his life the artist was preoccupied with new serieses of large-scale paintings, makred by tendency towards allegories and symbolism. Unfortunately his triptych “The Age of Love”, “The Age of wisdom” and “The Age of Reason” (1936) remained unfinished.
At the beginning of World War II Alphonse Mucha was arrested by the Gestapo and died on July 14, 1939 – just four months after occupation of Czechia and Morvia by Nazi and 10 days before his 79th birthday.
There’s a museum, dedicated to his oeuvre in Prague.