ALPHONSE MUCHA

1860 – 1939

Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, Moravia, which is near the city of Brno in the modern Czech Republic. It was a small town, and for all intents and purposes life was closer to the 18th than the 19th century. Though Mucha began drawing at an early age, his early years were spent as a choirboy and amateur musician. It wasn't until he finished high school (needing two extra years to accomplish that onerous task) that he came to realize that living people were responsible for some of the art he admired in the local churches. That epiphany made him determined to become a painter, despite his father's efforts in securing him "respectable" employment as a clerk in the local court.

 

Like every aspiring artist of the day, Mucha ended up in Paris in 1887. He was a little older than many of his fellows, but he had come further in both distance and time. A chance encounter in Moravia had provided him with a patron who was willing to fund his studies. After two years in Munich and some time devoted to painting murals for his patron, he was sent off to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian. After two years the supporting funds were discontinued, and Alphonse Mucha was set adrift in a Paris that he would soon transform. At the time, he was a 27-year-old with no money and no prospects.

 

He came to live above a Cremerie that catered to art students, drawing illustrations for popular magazines.  It was the height of Impressionism and the beginnings of the Symbolists and Decadents. He shared a studio with Gauguin for a bit after his first trip to the south seas. Mucha gave impromptu art lessons in the Cremerie and helped start a traditional artists ball, Bal des Quat'z Arts. All the while he was formulating his own theories and precepts of what he wanted his art to be.

 

On January 1, 1895, he presented his new style to the citizens of Paris. Called upon over the Christmas holidays to create a poster for Sarah Bernhardt's play, Gismonda, he put his precepts to the test. The poster was the declaration of his new art. Spurning the bright colors and the more squarish shape of the more popular poster artists, the near life-size design was a sensation.

 

Art Nouveau ("New Art" in French) can trace its beginnings to about this time. Based on precepts akin to William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement in England, the attempt was to eradicate the dividing line between art and audience. Everything could and should be art. Each country had its own name for the new approach and artists of incredible skill and vision flocked to the movement. Overnight, Mucha's name became a household word, and though his name is often used synonymously with the new movement in art, he disavowed the connection. His original style way was based on strong compositions, sensuous curves derived from nature, refined decorative elements and natural colors. The Art Nouveau precepts were used, too, but never at the expense of his vision. Bernhardt signed him to a six-year contract to design her posters, sets and costumes for her plays. Mucha was a success at age 34, after seven years of hard work in Paris, and the commission offers abounded.

 

By 1898, he had moved to a new studio, had his first one-man show and had begun publishing his work.  Champenois, a new printer anxious to promote his work, created several large images focused on a around a central theme (four seasons, four times of day, four flowers, etc. - see below for Stars).

 

There was a World's Fair in Paris in 1900 and Mucha designed the Bosnia-Hercegovina Pavilion. He partnered with goldsmith Georges Fouquet in the creation of jewelry based on his designs. He also published Documents Decoratifs and announced Figures Decoratives. Documents Decoratifs was his attempt to pass his artistic theories on to the next generation. In actuality, it provided a set of blueprints to Mucha's style and his imitators wasted no time in applying them.

 

His fame spread around the world and several trips to America resulted in covers and illustrations in a variety of U.S. magazines. Portraiture was also commissioned from U.S. patrons. At the end of the decade he was prepared to begin what he considered his life's work.

 

Mucha was always a patriot of his Czech homeland and considered his success a triumph for the Czech people as much as for himself. In 1909 he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Lord Mayor's Hall in Prague. He also began to plan out "The Slav Epic" - a series of great paintings chronicling major events in the Slav nation. Financing was provided by Charles Crane, a Chicago millionaire. Mucha had hoped to complete the task in five or six years, but instead it embraced 18 years of his life. Twenty massive (about 24 x 30 feet) canvasses were created and presented to the city of Prague in 1928. Covering the history of the Slavic people from prehistory to the nineteenth century, they represented Mucha's hopes and dreams for his homeland. In 1919 the first eleven canvases were completed and exhibited in Prague, and America where they received a much warmer welcome.

 

Mucha’s work can be found in numerous prestigious collections including the Louvre. Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York among others.

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