czech (active france)
Ivancice, Moravia, Austrian Empire
Celebrated as one of the creators of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha abandoned his great artistic and commercial success as a painter, illustrator and designer in Paris and America in the early 20th century to complete his career in Prague as an academic history painter. After working as a theatrical scenery painter in Vienna, Mucha obtained a commission in 1882 from Count Karl Khuen-Belassi (?-1887) to paint murals in the Count’s Emmahof Castle in Mikulov, north of Vienna (now in the Czech Republic). After Mucha completed this commission, the Count provided funds enabling the young artist to study at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich during 1885-87, followed by study in Paris at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi, with Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Gustav Boulanger (1824-1888) and Jules Joseph Lefebvre 1836-1912). His stipend from Count Khuen-Belassi ended in 1889, perhaps due to the Count’s suicide in 1887, forcing Mucha to earn a living in Paris as an illustrator for inexpensive journals. By 1894 Mucha had achieved modest success as an artist, exhibiting that year at the Salon des Artistes Français, beginning to teach at the Académie Colarossi and designing a few commercial posters. Mucha’s life and work changed radically on Christmas Eve of 1894, when he was hired to design (within a week) a poster advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s (1844-1923) role in Gismoda, a play by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908). This tall, narrow poster, showing a life-sized image of Bernhardt with detail inspired by Byzantine motifs (Bridges, A1), created a sensation in Paris when it was displayed in January, 1895 and elevated Mucha to the ranks of Jules Chéret (1836-1932) and other great poster designers. It also led to a six-year contract with Bernhardt, during which Mucha designed nine posters for her, along with costumes, sets and jewelry, generally in the style that became known as Art Nouveau. Other commissions followed, the most important of which was an arrangement under which Mucha created lithographs for the printer F. Champenois for a fixed salary. The famous works produced by Mucha under this contract included “panneaux décoratifs,” posters without text printed on high-quality paper or satin, mostly in Mucha’s characteristic tall and narrow format, as well as other posters, calendars and postcards. Mucha’s fame led to a solo show in 1896, which included some 400 works ranging from history paintings to his latest posters. From 1895 until 1905 Mucha was busy with a variety of projects in addition to his work with Bernhardt and Champenois. These included posters for the Salon des Cent (1896), Job Cigarette Papers (1898), Nestlé Baby Food (1898) and Moet et Chandon (1899) (Bridges A7, A36, A34, and A39, respectively), illustrations for several books, most famously Ilsée, princesse de Tripoli by Robert de Flers (1872-1927) in 1897, and illustrations of furniture, pottery, housewares and jewelry in Documents décoratifs (1902) and Figures decoratifs (1905). During this period he also continued to pursue history painting, and was noted for the murals he created for the Bosnia-Herzegovina Pavilion for the 1900 Paris Exhibition Universelle. Mucha spent much of the years from 1904 through 1912 in the United States, where he taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and gave lectures at the New York School of Applied Art for Women, painted portraits, designed decorations for New York’s German Theater (since demolished), designed costumes and sets for a theatrical production and created a few posters. A 1909 commission to create murals for the Prague Municipal Building gave Mucha the opportunity to return to Prague and to history painting. Financed by Charles R. Crane (1858-1939), an American industrialist, Mucha created The Slav Epic, twenty oil and tempera panels depicting the history of the Slavs, which he completed between 1912 and 1928. With this effort he left his famous Art Nouveau style, although his earlier work was featured along with his history paintings in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum in 1921 (including The Slav Epic) and at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1936. As a leading Czech artist in the new country of Cechoslovakia, created after World War I, he designed the country’s coat of arms, currency and postage stamps. After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, Mucha (then 78) was arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo, and later released. He died soon thereafter, on July 14, 1939. (TNB 5/2010) Selected bibliography: Arwas, Victor, et al. Alphonse Mucha—the spirit of art nouveau. Exhibition catalog. Alexandria, Va.: Art Services International and Yale University Press, 1998. Husslein-Arco, Agnes, et al., ed. Alphonse Mucha. Exhibition catalog. Munich and New York: Prestel Verlag, 2009. Mucha, Jirí. Alphonse Mucha: The Master of Art Nouveau (trans. Geraldine Thomsen) Prague: 1966; reprinted London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. 1967.
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