Czech painter Alphonse Mucha exerted a profound influence on the Art Nouveau style at the turn of the 20th century. His posters, graphics, calendars, illustrations and decorative panel designs were the beginning of a trend that would use decorative art for mass consumption.
Mucha was born in Ivancice in South Moravia in 1860, the son of a local court usher. As a young man, he found work as a clerk, but also dabbled in the arts by designing stage sets for theatre productions. After being turned down at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he accepted a position as a scenery painter for a theatrical supplier in Vienna in 1879. In December 1881, the artist found himself without work when Vienna’s great Ring Theatre burned down. He traveled to Mikulov and earned a steady income by painting portraits of the townspeople and working for the community theatre.
The wealthy Count Khuen Belasi of Emmahof commissioned Alphonse Mucho to paint a series of frescoes for the dining room at his castle near Hrusovany. He took an interest in the artist and funded his tuition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1885, and then at the Academie Julien in Paris. In return for the Count’s generosity, Mucho spent his spare time painting a series of frescoes on the castle walls.
In 1889, Count Khuen discontinued his financial assistance for the young artist’s education without explanation, leaving him penniless and at a loss. Nonetheless, a destitute Alphonse soon found work illustrating for ‘Le Petit Parisien Illustre’, a magazine that produced short stories. He also created weekly covers for another magazine, La Vie Populaire, and illustrated a book of fairy tales for Xavier Marmier. Some of his magazine illustrations were exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Francais in 1894, and at the Galerie de la Bodiniere in 1897.
In 1890, Alphonse Mucha moved to a studio above Madame Charlotte's cremerie at rue de la Grande Chaumiere. His illustrations of popular actress Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, published in a theatre magazine ‘Le Costume’, gained him recognition. The artist got his break in December 1894 when he was commissioned to design a promotional graphic for Bernhardt’s play, ‘Gismonda’. Bernhardt recognized Mucha’s talent and soon tied him into a contract for five years to produce stage and costume designs as well as posters. The one poster which was unveiled to the public on January 1st, 1895 was an instant hit with the public and caused people in the art world to take notice.
In 1897, Alphonse Mucha had two major exhibitions - the first in February at the Galerie de la Bodiniere and the second in May at the Salon de Cent. While he was busier than ever producing posters, magazine covers, calendars and book covers, the artist still found time to teach.
Mucha was commissioned to design the Bosnia-Hercegovina Pavilion for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900. International fame propelled him all over the world including America, where he contributed illustrations in a variety of U.S. magazines.
In 1909, he would begin what he believed to be his life’s most important work; "The Slav Epic" - a series of magnificent paintings chronicling major events in the Slav nation. The project took eighteen years to complete. Twenty massive canvasses were presented to the city of Prague in 1928. Because of the unrest in Moravia, The Slav Epic paintings were not well received in his homeland. After World War I, Moravia became part of Czechoslovakia. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, Alphonse Mucha was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. He returned home and died shortly thereafter on July 14, 1939.