This week, someone I’ve been interested in for a long time. And someone so much more interesting than I ever knew. Alphonse (originally Alfons, but I’m going with the westernized spelling) Mucha was the creator of Art Nouveau, but was also extremely interested in restoring the history of the Czech/Slovakian peoples. His biggest, and what he considered his most important, piece is something I’d never heard of before. But, to start at the beginning.
Alphonse Maria Mucha was born July 24, 1860 in Ivančice, Moravia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now the Czech Republic. Mucha’s father was a court usher and his mother had been a governess in Vienna. Mucha had two older half-sisters from his father’s previous marriage, and would have two younger sisters as well.
From an early age, art was Mucha’s main hobby. In 1868 he produced one of his first pieces, a Crucifixion, showing the heavy influence of the Catholic Church on him. Art wasn’t going to allow him to do much though, and at age twelve he received a “choral scholarship from the Petrov Church to board at the Gymnázium Slovanské secondary school in Brno” (1). However, just five years later, Mucha was “expelled from school due to poor academic performance” (2). His father found him a job back in Ivančice after his expulsion, and on his way there Mucha visited a friend in Ústí nad Orlicí. At a local church he saw a fresco by the current, local artist Jan Umlauf. Once he saw that artists currently working in the area could earn a living, Mucha “resolve[d] to become a professional artist” (3).
So the next year Mucha applied to the Prague Academy of Art, but didn’t get in. Instead, he worked at administrative jobs while pursuing “decorative design work for local magazines and theatres” (4). Two years later, Mucha applied and was accepted to “become an apprentice scenery painter at Vienna’s Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt theatre design company” (5). Mucha began taking evening classes as well, and visiting galleries and art exhibits as well, taking an interest in Hans Makart. Makart was a current Austrian painter, designer, and decorator; he was a celebrity in Vienna at the time and influenced other artists as well, such as Gustav Klimt.
Mucha’s success with Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt was short-lived though, due to the Ring Theatre burning down. The Ring Theatre was one of Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt’s biggest and most important clients at the time. A lot of Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt’s staff was laid off due to the decrease in the amount of work needed; Mucha was one of those laid off. He didn’t let this get him down; he moved back to Moravia and tried his hand at freelance work, focusing on portraiture and decorative painting.
In 1882 Mucha received his first real commission. He had travelled to Mikulov in southern Moravia where he was “painting portraits of local society figures” (6), when he was noticed by Count Karl Khuen-Belasi. The Count commissioned Mucha to paint a scene in Emmahof Castle, his main home. The Count’s brother, Egon, also commissioned Mucha to paint a scene in his castle, Gandegg. These early, large scale projects would lay the groundwork for much of Mucha’s work in the future. The Count also gave Mucha continued financial support, allowing him to “receive formal art training in Munich and Paris” (7).
From 1885 to 1887, Mucha studied at the Munich Academy of Arts. While there he became active with the Škréta group, “a community of Central and Eastern European art students living in Munich” (8). This is a theme that would continue to pop up in Mucha’s life: the importance of the Central and Eastern European countries own history and mythologies.
While at the Munich Academy of Arts, Mucha continued to do work for publications back in Ivančice, creating illustrations for the magazines Fantaz and Krokodil, run by his brother-in-law and friend. This is when Mucha’s approach to lettering and calligraphy really begins. (If you’ve ever seen anything written in an Art Nouveau style, it’s probably going to look like Mucha’s lettering style.)
Also while still at the Munich Academy of Arts, Mucha’s family contacts secured him a commission in the United States, to create an alterpiece for the Church of St. John of Nepomuk in the Czech community, Pisek, in North Dakota (9). Mucha decided to portray two of the Czech’s best loved Saints, Saints Cyril and Methodius.
After completing his two years in Munich, Mucha moved to Paris in the fall of 1887. Mucha entered the Académie Julian, where he studied under Lefèbvre, Boulanger, and Laurens. While at the Académie Julian, Mucha was introduced to the Nabis. The Nabis were a group that “believe[d] that art [stood] on an equal footing with design” and worked “with designers and publishers to produce set designs, wallpaper, textiles, ceramics and stained glass” (10). This would influence a lot of Mucha’s design sensibilities.
In 1888, Mucha moved on from the Académie Julian to the Académie Colarossi, but his education there was cut short. In 1889, the Count decided to stop funding Mucha’s education and so Mucha had to leave the Académie Colarossi. He stayed in Paris though, getting commissions for illustrations from French and Czech publishers (11). In 1890, Mucha became a contributor to Le Costume au théâtre et a la Ville, a magazine of theatre costumes. For this magazine, Mucha created his first drawing of Sarah Bernhardt, showing her as Cleopatra.
Mucha worked steadily at this point. In 1891 he worked for Armand Colin, illustrating high quality school books in Paris. In 1892 he began teaching drawing, eventually being asked to teach at Académie Colarossi, and at Whistler’s Académie Carmen.
Also in 1892, Mucha exhibited his work for the first time at the Paris Salon at Palais des Champs Elysées. He won an honorable mention for his piece which was a “selection of works illustrating Xavier Marmier’s Les Contes des Grand-Mères” (12). In 1893 Mucha purchased his first camera; this allowed him to better compose his works, but also allowed him to explore photography as an art in itself.
In 1894 Mucha met August Strindberg, who introduced him to occultism and mysticism, themes which would influence both his life and his work. Also in 1894 Mucha was commissioned by the publisher Lemercier to do a special edition of a supplement to their magazine Le Gaulois. This commission was to be a feature on Sarah Bernhardt’s Gismonda at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. At Christmas that year, Gismonda needed a new poster at the last minute. Mucha volunteered to do the poster within two weeks. This poster was long and narrow, with “subtle pastel colors and the ‘halo’ effect around the subject’s head” (13). Mucha’s poster was completely different from all other posters at the time, and it was hugely popular. Collectors would bribe poster hangers for a copy, or would quickly cut down the newly hung posters. Sarah Bernhardt was “so satisfied with the success of this first poster that she began a six-year contract with Mucha”, having him design posters, sets, and costumes for her (14).
In 1896 Mucha began contributing to La Plume, a monthly publication of poems, stories, art reviews, and avant-garde illustrations. La Plume put on exhibitions of its artists work called Salon des Cents. Mucha was asked to create the poster for the 20th Salon. The exhibitions and the magazine were interested in posters as art, so they took their posters seriously. At this same time Mucha entered into a contract with Champenois, “one of the most important printers of the period” (15). Champenois’s posters ranged from affordable ones on cardstock, to expensive ones on satin and vellum.
In 1896, Mucha moved to a new studio that had large, open windows and a glass ceiling. His interest in photography grew at this point due to the improved lighting; he also began experimenting with sculpture due to the influence of August Seysses, who worked in the same building as Mucha.
Mucha continued to work with Champenois, and in 1896 Champenois commission him to do a series of panels based around the four seasons. Decorative panels were increasingly popular at the time, and Mucha’s art on a decorative panel would be a sure success. The four season panels were so popular, that Champenois commissioned two more sets based on the seasons in 1897 and 1900. In 1897, in addition to the decorative panels, Champenois was putting Mucha’s work on whatever it could: “calendars, postcards, theatre programs and menus” (16). Champenois also licensed Mucha’s work throughout Europe and North America.
In 1896, Job cigarette papers commissioned Mucha to create a poster for them. At this time smoking was a male activity and so putting a “sensual woman” on the poster gave “the product a sense of illicit glamour” (17). The following year Mucha had his first solo exhibition; he showed 107 works at the Galerie de la Bodinière, and the introduction in the exhibition’s program was by Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha had his second solo exhibition that year at one of the Salon des Cents that was held at the offices of La Plume; this exhibition had 448 pieces. Over the next two years he had exhibits in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, Brussels, London, New York, and more.
Mucha was increasingly popular and was making pretty much everything at this time (in addition to Champenois putting his work on even more). He was painting, creating posters, advertisements, illustrations for books. He was beginning to design jewelry (which we will touch on next week), carpets, wallpaper, and theater sets. He also had a completely new style, “frequently featur[ing] beautiful young women in flowing, vaguely Neoclassical-looking robes, often surrounded by flowers which sometimes formed halos behind their heads” (18). He also used pastels when most people did not. This new style was called, simply, The Mucha Style, but became known as Art Nouveau, “new art”.
Mucha, however, didn’t really want to be associated with Art Nouveau. The style he’d created was so often copied and was so far from what he was trying to do. Mucha said that his paintings were “entirely a product of himself and Czech art” and that “art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and nothing more” (19). The art he became so known for was his commercial work; he wanted to concentrate on artistic, important works.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for today. We’re at roughly the halfway point of Mucha’s life. He’s become world-known for the new style he created. His popularity is only growing. Next week will be the rest of Mucha’s life, the big projects he did and, really, his life’s work, that artistic, important work. I’ll also talk about what happened to Mucha’s work and popularity after his death. So. Till next time.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 – Mucha Foundation Timeline
18, 19 – Alphonse Mucha