Alfons Maria Mucha (1860–1939), known as the artist Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist. He lived and worked in Paris during the Art Nouveau period. Apart from the fantastic Alphonse Mucha drawings, he is famous for his stylized and decorative theatrical posters.
He totally changed the concept that a poster can only be used for advertising. He enhanced poster painting into an art form. As an artist, he also created many artworks to tell the “Slavic culture’s story.”
But you’ll understand his work better if you know more about Alphonse Mucha as a person and artist. In this article, we’ll briefly examine his life story and also determine how his life story influenced some of his paintings and posters.
Alphonse Mucha as Child and Young Man
Artist Alphonse Mucha was born 24 July 1860 in a small town in southern Moravia. At that stage, Moravia was a province of the Austrian Empire. (Currently, it is a region of the Czech Republic.) He was one of six children, and their family lived very modestly.
He started to draw ever since he was a young boy, and a local merchant was so impressed by amazing Alphonse Mucha’s drawings that he provided him with drawing paper, which was a luxury at the time.
From his pre-school days, he drew exclusively with his left hand, and his stubbornness to write with his left hand when at school caused him a lot of trouble and punishment.
He was also an alto singer and violin player. His music talent enabled him to continue his studies after completing Volksschule. His music teacher sent him to the choirmaster of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, who sent him to the choirmaster of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. He was admitted as a chorister there, and the choir funded his studies at the Gymnasium in Brno. However, when his voice broke, he gave up his chorister position and played as a violinist during masses.
Mucha’s Artistic Career Started
Mucha got involved in Czech nationalistic, patriotic rallies by designing flyers and posters for them. To be more involved with creative arts, he also found a job designing theatrical scenery and decorations. In 1880, when he was 19, Mucha went to Vienna and got employed as an apprentice scenery painter by a company that created sets for Vienna theaters.
In Vienna, he “discovered” museums, churches, and theaters and the work of Hans Makart, who created murals for palaces and government buildings in Vienna.
Mucha Became Known as an Artist
In 1881 a fire destroyed the Ringtheater, which had been his firm’s major client. Mucha moved to Mikulov in southern Moravia and began making portraits, decorative art, and tombstone lettering. His work was highly appreciated, and he was commissioned by a local nobleman, Count Eduard Khuen Belasi, to paint a series of murals for his residence and his ancestral home. During that time, Belasi took Mucha to see art in Venice, Florence, Milan, and Munich.
The Count enrolled Mucha at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. However, art historians are not sure whether he studied at the Munich Academy as there is no record of his enrollment. But during that time, he became friends with other Slavic artists, and they founded a Czech students’ club providing political illustrations to nationalist publications in Prague.
But he realized he could not stay in Munich anymore due to political reasons. The Bavarian authorities were putting more and more restrictions upon foreign students.
Mucha Moved to Paris
With Count Belasi’s financial support, he moved to Paris in 1887, where he enrolled in the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. Finally, at the end of 1889, Count Belasi ended his subsidies to Macha.
Mucha decided to start a career as an illustrator for magazines. He provided illustrations for quite a few magazines to earn a regular income. This income enabled him to buy his first camera, which used glass-plate negatives. He often used this camera to compose his drawings.
Mucha, Sarah Bernhardt and Printed Posters
IN 1894, he started to work for the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. He met Bernhardt when she urgently needed a poster for the play “Gismonda.” His poster was so successful that she offered him a six-year contract to create posters for her productions.
Apart from the posters, he also designed theatrical programs, sets, costumes, and jewelry for Bernhardt. In addition, Bernhardt set aside several printed posters of each play to sell to collectors.
The success of the Bernhardt posters brought him many commissions from companies such as JOB cigarette papers, Ruinart Champagne, Lefèvre-Utile biscuits, Nestlé baby food, and Idéal Chocolate, and many more.
With Champenois, he created a new type of poster – a decorative panel. His decorative panels were posters without text and were created and used only for decoration. The first series was “The Seasons” in 1896. The series depicts four different women in decorative floral settings representing the seasons of the year.
Visits to the United States to Find Funding for His Dream Project
In 1904, Mucha went to New York for his first visit to the United States. He intended to find funding for his grand project, “The Slav Epic.” Instead, he met Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy, passionate Slavophile businessman. He shared Mucha’s idea to create a series of paintings depicting Slavic history. Crane became Mucha’s most important patron.
Mucha returned to Paris to complete his commissions but visited the United States four more times. His wife, Marie, whom he had married in Prague in 1906, accompanied him on his last trip to the U.S. He became a visiting professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fulfillment of his Childhood Dream – “Slav Epic”
Mucha always had the dream of being a history painter. He wanted to show the accomplishments of the Slavic people of Europe, so he planned the “Slav Epic” between 1908 and 1909. He received a commission in 1909 to paint murals on the interior of the new city hall of Prague. He accepted the commission and returned to his country of birth.
In 1910 he was also commissioned to decorate the Prague mayor’s reception room. For Lord Mayor’s Hall, he created a series of large-scale murals. The murals depict figures in heroic poses, representing the Slavic contributions to European history over the centuries. In addition, the murals send a patriotic message.
After the Lord Mayor’s Hall was completed, he began with the “Slav Epic,” a series of large paintings showing the achievements of the Slavic peoples over time.
The financial and other assistance from Charles Crane made this whole project possible. The series consists of twenty paintings, and ten masterpieces are devoted to the history of the Czechs. And the other ten to other Slavic people, including the Russians, Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, and Bulgarians.
In 1939 he contracted pneumonia and died on 14 July. It was ten days before his 79th birthday and a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Alphonse Mucha had a childhood dream to use his visual art talent to share with the rest of Europe Slavic history and its impact on Western European culture. He achieved this goal. But apart from his dream, he contributed to the Western art scene in many ways. Nowadays, he is revered as the father of Art Nouveau. And he is the artist who converted the concept of a poster from being only used for advertising to a specific art form.