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Alphonse Mucha was a Czech artist whose paintings, illustrations, advertisements, postcards and designs helped to build the foundations of the Art Nouveau movement. This biography captures the key moments in his rise to fame and academic approval.
Mucha was brought up in the Czech region of Moravia and right from childhood was an enthuastic illustrator. He was born in the town of Ivancice. The region has, at times, been a part of the greater Austrian Empire. Whilst wishing to concentrate on developing his drawing skills, he found that his ability in music would actually help to keep him on a path within several highly respected schools and colleges. Besides his education, Alphonse was quickly into the rhythm of working life, picking up as many different artistic tasks and commissions as he could get. He would then start to look further afield beyond his area of childhood in order to develop his career and also add new sources of inspiration into his work.
He found that splitting his time between Moravia and the highly cultural city of Vienna was the best way of balancing his career and family life at this early point. As his studies came to an end, Mucha would take up various artistic roles in order to develop his skills and experience, plus bring in a nominal wage to help him get by, day-to-day. Working in various theatres helped the artist to make some local connections and also to make his mind up that this was the industry in which he wanted to pursue a career. The artist would soon realise that his ambitions could not be met to the fullest in Moravia, and so he relocated to Vienna, which had a strong international reputation for the arts at that time. Misfortune ended his spell in Vienna earlier than the artist would have liked, but his luck was to change upon returning to Moravia, when receiving a commission for mural work in Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov's castle. His employer was delighted with some of the work that Alphonse produced in this role, and agreed to pay for him to study at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.
Several years later, and it was now time for Mucha to try his luck in the artistic hub of Europe, as it was then - Paris. He continued to balance his studies with illustrative work that helped to finance this period. He learnt new ideas and techniques at the prestigious Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi. His big break would occur in 1887 when a commission, much by a chance meeting, would suddenly bring his name into the public conscience. He promised to deliver a theatrical advertisement within the fortnight in order to promote a new play which starred the well known actress, Sarah Bernhardt. She was to become a key figure in a series of adverts that followed soon after the success of this first commission for Gismonda. They would actually put together a contract which tied the two together for many more projects over a period of six years.
From this point onwards, for the rest of his time living in Paris, Mucha would receive huge numbers of commissions for a variety of different tasks, including book illustrations, paintings, posters plus many more advertisements similar to Gismonda. By now his work was being termed "Mucha style" but that would later be amended to Art Nouveau as other artists would take his work into new directions. Whilst he rejected any of these labels, he was very happy to take advantange of his raised profile that provided both financial security as well as the feeling that his career had truly taken off at last. This era was responsible for the style that most remember the artist for but later years involved a new direction away from these female portraits and marked a shift in his career.
Mucha was now finally able to commence his series of history paintings that were devoted to his people, the Slavs. The work was to become particularly important because of the persecution that they received from the German Third Reich in the lead up to WWII. Thankfully, the series was completed much earlier than that and also was able to be protected and preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from. His early preparatory work was completed between 1908 and 1909 before the project found a willing funder a year later. The project required the artist to return to his former home after so many years in Paris but he was willing to do this in order to complete something that had dominated his thinking for so many years. Prior to his monumental series of murals was a commission to decorate a hall in Prague which signalled his move towards a new artistic direction.
Now, with that complete, Mucha could focus on his slavic murals, half of which focused on the achievements of the Czech people, with the rest covering other offshoots of the Slavic race. These huge paintings stretched to six metres by eight metres and he produced 20 in total. This ambitious project required a specially prepped studio in order to logistically handle such artworks. He found a castle suitable for this, with its tall walls and open spaces. He remained in Zbiroh Castle until 1928 and grew to see the place as a home, rather than just a studio as first intended. A great amount of work was done by Mucha for this series, including travelling to a number of countries in the name of research as well as hiring many models. He produced series of drawings that he would then develop into paintings once he had returned home. The final series was completed in 1928. He then donated the entire group of artworks to the city of Prague and it is currently displayed at the National Gallery in Prague. Whilst this work was continuing he also took on a number of other smaller commissions, suggesting that he might have been able to complete the murals earlier if he had worked exclusively on them.
The Third Reich in Germany was to torment the artist at around the start of WWII having threatened Czechoslovakia and continued its persecution of his people - the slavs. As a public figure with a passion for his background, Mucha became a key target to them and was eventually arrested and interrogated. This incident seemed to impact his health and he died soon after from pneumonia. This is yet another case of this regime's negative treatment of artists in that region, with others being derided for their relatively modern styles, such as Klee, Kirchner and Marc. With hindsight, it is perhaps not such a bad thing that Mucha passed away just before the outbreak of war and avoided witnessing the horrors that soon followed. Despite public restrictions being in place at the time, there was a huge crowd who attended his funeral to mark the end of a significant life in the history of his nation and European art more generally.
Mucha's artistic legacy is probably now as strong as it ever has been. Exhibitions of his work across Europe are now commonplace, and are generally well received by the public. Much of his work is very accessible to the occasional art fan, whilst those more knowledgeable would be interested in his contributions to the Art Nouveau movement. The Alphonse Mucha Foundation also continue to promote his work worldwide. In terms of individual works, his Slav Epic series has made the biggest impact and retains a great historical value to the Slavic race. Few illustrators can claim to have become as famous as Mucha, with perhaps only Warhol having surpassed him. His technical work with female portraits also puts him on a par with some of the British artists involved in the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movement.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.