The city of Paris in the time of the Belle Epoque: a city of elegance, frivolity and sophistication, spiced with a hint of naughtiness. That period's most fashionable decorative artist was a man whose life seems totally different from the work that made him famous. Alphonse Mucha, whose delicately sensuous style represents the grace of French Art Nouveau, was a Moravian, born in 1860, next to the local jail in the south Moravian town of Ivancice, practically a stone's throw from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Mucha travelled from provincial obscurity to international fame. It was his conviction that his life had been shaped by the direct intervention of Fate. At three crucial stages in his life, his future was determined by chance encounters--in a country church, a small market town and a Paris printing shop.
Childhood and the early years as an aspiring artist
He was the youngest son of a court usher. Mucha was dominated in his youth by the two forces that were the inspiration for his art: religion and nationalism. He was born at the border with the German-speaking Austria, in a region where the Czech language and traditions competed with the German neighbors. Although throughout his life his favored associates were fellow-Slavs, the Germans and the German art and culture played a significant part throughout his life. But eventually he rejected the adulation of Paris and New York in order to dedicate his art and twenty-five years of his life to "The Slav Epic" for the Czech people.
Always deeply religious and convinced of the occult workings of the supernatural in daily life, his first aesthetic experiences had sprung from church ritual and music. Perhaps the most significant encounter in his life also took place in a church. Returning home from the mostly German-speaking town Brünn (Brno), the capital of Moravia, he chanced to visit the church at Usti nad Orlici, which was being frescoed by the German painter Umlauf. Never before had he realized that there were such people as living artists, and now he decided to also become one.
An application to the Prague Academy was refused, and Mucha left home to become an apprentice painter in Vienna. He also took some drawing classes there. In 1881, the financial problems of his employers left him without work and without money. In the summer of that year he arrived at the small town of Mikulov. Here his sketches, displayed by a friendly bookseller, were brought to the attention of the local landowner, the German Count Carl Khuen. Mucha received his first important commissions from the Count, and for nearly two years worked at his castle, restoring family portraits and decorating the dining room with classically inspired murals.
Study years in Munich and Paris
A similar commission came from the Count's brother, at whose castle in the Tyrol Mucha's work attracted the attention of the German painter Wilhelm Kray. It was through Kray's encouragement and the Count's support that Mucha, in 1885, arrived in Munich for his first formal art training. On leaving Munich after two years of study, the Count suggested to Mucha to continue his studies in Paris. It was there that Mucha first came into contact with the latest art movements.
The abrupt termination of his allowance in 1899 resulted in two years of the artist's traditional lot--starvation in an attic. He was saved from this by his growing reputation as a skilled and dependable illustrator. Initially his work was for cheaper journals like "Le Petit Illustre", but then he received a commission to illustrate Xavier Marmier's fairy tales "Les Contes des grand-meres". These illustrations brought him the first public recognition. Slowly, during the next four years, Mucha consolidated his growing reputation with increasingly prestigious commissions.
The unique "Mucha style" is born: Sarah Bernhardt's "Gismonda"
The third crucial intervention of fate produced the style so essentially his own. In the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1894, Mucha was correcting proofs for a friend at a printing shop when Sarah Bernhardt, unhappy with the poster for her new production, "Gismonda" by Sardoun, telephoned demanding another poster to be ready for billing on New Year's Day. For want of another immediately available artist, Mucha was offered the job and produced a poster so radically new in design that from the moment it appeared on the billboards it became a collector's piece, and Mucha was catapulted to immediate fame.
It is difficult to appreciate the impact of Mucha's "Gismonda", in many ways the most impressive poster he ever produced. In 1905 its distinctive shape, muted coloring and exquisitively simplified draughtsmanship were completely novel. The poster's obvious merit, together with the publicity value of anything or anybody connected with Berhnardt, ensured that within a week Mucha was the most talked about artist in Paris.
As a result of "Gismonda" Mucha signed a six-year contract with Bernhardt, during which he designed nine outstanding posters for her.
Within eighteen months of "Gismonda", Mucha held his first one-man show at the Salon des Cents in the galleries of the influential La Plume magazine. Over four hundred items were displayed, two thirds completed within the last two years. They ranged from religio-historical illustrations to his latest "panneaux"--posters, without text, printed on quality paper, and sold in considerable quantities for framing or display in private houses and shops.
To Mucha, art was essentially concerned with the propagation of ideas that would contribute to the spiritual evolution of the human spirit. Mucha denied any description of his work as "Art Nouveau", protesting that art was eternal and it could never be new.
Mucha was a friendly, gregarious, attractive and generous man, and during his Paris apprenticeship met many other artists. For some months he shared his studio with Gaugin.
The high points of Mucha's artistic work
Toward the end of 1896 he moved to a larger studio, in order to have room to complete one of his most interesting and successful commissions, "Ilsee". Published in 1897 by Piazza, "Ilsee-the Princess of Trieste" was a bibliographical rarity from the day of its publication and has always retained its value. It is Mucha's most successful illustrated book, displaying his mastery of design on every page. It is unquestionable a masterpiece.
Between 1896 and 1902 Mucha achieved his maximum graphic output. It was during this period that his best work was produced: the early "panneaux", the superb "Job" posters of 1896 and in 1898, "Zodiac", the poster for Moet & Chandon's "Dry Imperial" of 1899, the forerunner of all evocatively glamorous travel posters "Monaco-Monte-Carlo" (1897), "Ilsee", "Documents decorativs" (1902) and all but one of the Bernhardt posters. But already in the gorgeous "La Plume" and "Primavere" of 1899 a certain hardening of his style can be noticed.
Mucha comes to America, but is disappointed
Between 1904 and 1912 Mucha spent most of his time in America. His reasons for visiting here were simple--money. In 1903 he had met the young Czech girl that he was to marry, but had not managed to accumulate savings in Paris in spite of his high earnings. Sarah Bernhardt's vivid account of the profitability of her first American tour and his friendship with Baroness de Rothschild gave him inspiration. Moreover, he was now determined to establish a new reputation as a serious painter and portraitist.
On arriving in America, however, his hopes were soon dashed. New York welcomed him as enthusiastically as Paris. Two full pages in New York Times and countless social invitations welcomed his arrival. But the Mucha that America demanded was the Mucha of the posters, the type of work that he had decided to abandon.
During his years in America, Mucha's main source of income was from teaching, in New York and Chicago. He secured several commissions for portraits, but painting in oil was a medium he found time-consuming, although he greatly enjoyed it. A task that also took much of his time was the complete decoration of the German Theater in New York. His graphic output in the United States was limited, and much of it for magazines like Hearst's.
"The Slav Epic"--20 vast frescoes depicting history and mythology
The most momentous result of Mucha's American stay was the support of the millionaire Charles R. Crane, who agreed to finance Mucha's one ambition, "The Slav Epic". In 1909 he was commissioned to decorate the Mayor's Reception Room in Prague's Town Hall. In this task he felt that he was enjoying his art to its proper end--the celebration of the spirit of the Czech people. He produced a triumphantly theatrical fresco which even today when national-heroic art is little appreciated by the art establishment, cannot fail to impress. "The Slav Epic", twenty vast panels in tempera and oil depicting incidents from Slav history and mythology, was completed between 1912 and 1928. It was executed with all the technical skill and mastery of composition we always find in from Mucha's work.
Among the afficionados, Mucha's name was never forgotten. But it was an exhibition at he Bibliotheque Forney in Paris in 1966 that again drew general attention to this superb decorative artist. Since then his work has been among the most sought after of any Art Nouveau artist, and his posters and "panneaux" continue to be internationally very popular.
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.
Nr. 82, Spring 2002