Biography of Alphonse Mucha, Czech Art Nouveau Poster Artist

alphonse mucha
Erich Auerbach / Getty Images

Alphonse Mucha (July 24, 1860–July 14, 1939) was a Czech illustrator and painter. He best-remembered for his Art Nouveau posters of plays staged in Paris featuring Sarah Bernhardt, one of the greatest actors of all time. Late in his career, he created the 20 monumental paintings that are known as the "Slav Epic" depicting the history of Slavic people.

Fast Facts: Alphonse Mucha

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: July 24, 1860 in Ivancice, Austria-Hungary
  • Died: July 14, 1939 in Prague, Czechoslovakia
  • Education: Munich Academy of Fine Arts
  • Selected Works: Sarah Bernhardt theater posters, La Plume magazine covers, "The Slav Epic" (1910-1928)
  • Notable Quote: "Art exists only to communicate a spiritual message."

Early Life

Born to a working-class family in southern Moravia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic, Alphonse Mucha demonstrated a talent for drawing as a young boy. At the time, access to paper was considered a luxury, but a local shop owner who was impressed with Mucha's talent provided it for free.

In 1878, Alphonse Mucha applied to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but he was unsuccessful. In 1880, at age 19, he traveled to Vienna and found work as an apprentice scenery painter in local theaters. Unfortunately, the Ringtheater, one of Mucha's company's key clients, burned in 1881, and Mucha found himself jobless. He traveled back to Moravia and met Count Khuen Belasi who became the young artist's patron. With funding from Count Khuen, Alphonse Mucha enrolled in the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Art Student and Parisian Success

Mucha moved to Paris in 1888. He enrolled first in the Academie Julian and then in the Academie Colarossi. After meeting many other struggling artists including Czech illustrator Ludek Marold, Alphonse Mucha began working as a magazine illustrator. The magazine work brought in regular income.

Alphonse Mucha became friends with the artist Paul Gauguin, and, for a time, they shared a studio. He also grew close to the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. In addition to his magazine illustration work, Mucha began providing pictures for books.

Work with Sarah Bernhardt

In late 1894, Alphonse Mucha was in the right place at the right time. Sarah Bernhardt, one of the world's most famous actors, contacted the publishing house Lemercier to create a poster for her latest play Gismonda. Mucha was at the publishing house when the manager Maurice de Brunhoff received the call. Because he was available and said he could complete the work in two weeks, Brunhoff asked Mucha to create a new poster. The result was a more than life-size rendering of Sarah Bernhardt in the lead role in the play.

sarah bernhardt la plume
Sarah Bernhardt in La Plume magazine. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

The poster caused a sensation on the streets of Paris. Sarah Bernhardt ordered four thousand copies of it, and she signed Alphonse Mucha to a six-year contract. With his work displayed all over Paris, Mucha was suddenly famous. He became the designer of the official posters of each Bernhardt play. Enjoying the sudden increase in income, Mucha moved to a three-bedroom apartment with a large studio.

Art Nouveau

Success as a poster designer for Sarah Bernhardt brought Alphonse Mucha many other illustration commissions. He created a wide range of advertising posters for products from baby food to bicycles. He also provided cover illustrations for the magazine La Plume, a famous artistic and literary review published in Paris. His style featured women in lavish natural surroundings often swathed in flowers and other organic forms. Alphonse Mucha was a central artist in the emerging Art Nouveau style.

waverley cycles advertisement
Art nouveau advertisement for Waverley Cycles. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 included a massive showcase of Art Nouveau. The work of many French designers in the style appeared, and many of the buildings constructed for the exposition included Art Nouveau design. Alphonse Mucha applied to the Austro-Hungarian government to create murals for the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion at the expo. After the government rejected his plan to create paintings depicting the suffering of the Slavic peoples of the area under foreign powers, he created a more upbeat salute to traditions of the Balkan region that included Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In addition to his murals, Mucha's work appeared in many other parts of the exposition. He created displays for jeweler Georges Fouquet and perfume maker Houbigant. His drawings were featured in the Austrian pavilion. Pleased with Mucha's work, Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I knighted him. He also earned the Legion of Honor from the French government. After the exposition, Georges Fouquet hired Mucha to design his new shop in Paris. It opened in 1901 featuring Art Nouveau-inspired decoration.

The Slav Epic

While continuing his work on illustrations in the first decade of the twentieth century, Alphonse Mucha did not give up on creating murals depicting the suffering of the Slavic people. He traveled to the U.S. in 1904 hoping to find funding for his project. He returned to Paris two months later, but, in 1906, he went back to the U.S. and stayed for three years. During the stay in the U.S., Mucha earned income as an instructor including a stint as a visiting professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, he did not find the patronage he needed and returned to Europe in 1909.

Fortune shined on Mucha in February 2010. While in Chicago, he met Charles Richard Crane, heir to a fortune from his father who sold plumbing parts. Nearly a year after Mucha returned to Europe, Crane finally agreed to fund the creation of what became known as the "Slav Epic." He also agreed to gift the finished pieces to the Prague government upon completion.

slave epic master jan hus preaching alphonse mucha
Panel of "Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel" (. Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

Mucha worked on the 20 paintings that make up the "Slav Epic" for 18 years from 1910 through 1928. He worked through World War I and the proclamation of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The completed set of paintings was shown once during Mucha's lifetime in 1928. They were then rolled up and put into storage. They survived World War II and were placed on public display in 1963. They were moved to the National Gallery's Veletzni Palace in Prague, the Czech Republic in 2012.

Personal Life and Legacy

Alphonse Mucha married Maria Chytilova in 1906 in Prague just before traveling to the U.S. Their daughter Jaroslava was born in New York in 1909. She also gave birth to a son Jiri in Prague in 1915. Jaroslava worked as an artist, and Jiri worked to promote his father's art and serve as an authority on Alphonse Mucha's biography.

In early 1939, the German army arrested and interrogated 78-year-old Alphonse Mucha after they occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of pneumonia on July 14, 1939, less than two months before the start of World War II. He is buried in Prague.

Although during his lifetime, Alphonse Mucha fought efforts to tie him directly to Art Nouveau, his images are part of the definition of the style. By the time of his death, he took the greatest pride in his historical paintings. Mucha's work was out of style at the time of his death, but it is very popular and well-respected today.

Source

  • Husslein-Arco, Agnes. Alphonse Mucha. Prestel, 2014.