Born in Ivančice, Moravia (the present Czech Republic) in July 1860, Alfons Maria Mucha spent his early years painting theatrical scenery. In the early 1880’s Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov hired Mucha to decorate Hrušovany Emmahof Castle with murals, and was impressed enough that he agreed to sponsor Mucha’s formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1887 Mucha moved to Paris to continue his studies, and during this time he began producing magazine and advertising illustrations. Living above a Cremerie
that catered to art students, Mucha shared a studio with Gauguin after his
first trip to the south seas and gave impromptu art lessons
while struggling for work, yet at the same time he was formulating
his own theories and precepts of what he wanted his art to be.
|Gauguin in Mucha’s studio, 1895|
About Christmas 1894 Mucha was in a print shop that received an urgent request for a poster advertising a new play featuring Sarah Bernhardt at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on the Boulevard Saint-Martin; Mucha volunteered to produce a lithographed poster within two weeks, and on January 1, 1895 his poster for the play Gismonda was posted in the city where it became an immediate attraction. Bernhardt was so satisfied with the success of this first poster that she began a six-year contract with Mucha.
Mucha produced a flurry of paintings, posters, advertisements, and book illustrations, as well as designs for jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theatre sets in what was termed initially The Mucha Style but became known as Art Nouveau (French for “new art”). His works frequently featured beautiful young women in flowing, vaguely Neoclassical robes: in contrast with contemporary illustrators he used pale pastel colors.
An amateur photographer early in his career, Alphonse Mucha used
photographs of carefully posed models to supplement preliminary sketches
for larger works.
Mucha’s style gained international exposure in the 1900 Universal
Exhibition in Paris, where he decorated the Bosnia and Herzegovina
Pavilion and collaborated on the decoration of the the Austrian
Pavilion. His Art Nouveau style was often imitated, yet Mucha attempted
to disassociate himself from it throughout his life; he always insisted
that rather than maintaining any fashionable stylistic form, his
paintings were entirely original and merely a product of Czech art. He
declared that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and
nothing more: hence his frustration at the fame he gained by his
commercial art when he wanted to concentrate on more artistic projects.
Mucha married Maruška Chytilová on June 10,1906 and the couple spent their next 4 years in the U.S., where Mucha expected to earn money to fund several nationalistic projects that he hoped would demonstrate to Czechs that he had not “sold out”. He was assisted by the American millionaire and philanthropist Charles R. Crane, who was known to to help promote revolutions. When Czechoslovakia won its independence after World War I, Mucha designed the new postage stamps, banknotes, and other government documents for the new state.
Mucha also spent many years working on what he considered his life’s masterpiece, The Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej); a series of twenty huge paintings depicting the history of the Czech and the Slavic people in general, which he bestowed to the city of Prague in 1928. But the rising tide of fascism during the late 1930s resulted in Mucha’s works and Slavic nationalism being denounced in the press as ‘reactionary’. When German troops moved into Czechoslovakia during the spring of 1939 Mucha was among the first persons to be arrested by the Gestapo. During his interrogation, the aging artist became ill with pneumonia. Though he was eventually released, he had been weakened by this event and he died in Prague on 14 July 1939 due to lung infection. Alfons Maria Mucha was interred in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery.
At the time of his death, Mucha’s style was already considered outdated, and his son, author Jiří Mucha, devoted much of his own life to writing about him and bringing attention to his art.
In his own country, the new authorities were not interested in Mucha. His Slav Epic was rolled and stored for twenty-five years before being shown in Moravsky Krumlov, and finally in a Mucha museum opened in Prague, managed by his grandson John Mucha.
Mucha’s work has continued to experience periodic revivals of interest for illustrators and artists. Mucha’s distinctive style experienced a strong revival during the 1960s, and is particularly evident in the psychedelic posters of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (the collective name for British artists Michael English and Nigel Waymouth) and Bob Masse.
Mucha’s work is also a strongly acknowledged influence for Stuckist painter Paul Harvey.