The artist I am looking at today is a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist, who spent the first part of his artistic life living in Paris during the Art Nouveau period and where he became best known for his stylized and decorative theatrical and advertising posters. This was all to change when, at the age of 43, he returned to his homeland of the Bohemia-Moravia region in Austria where he dedicated himself to completing a series of twenty monumental paintings, known as The Slav Epic, which pictorially portrayed the history of the Slavic people. I will talk about that great series in the later blogs but for today let me tell you about the early life of Alphonse Marie Mucha and his wonderful illustrative work.
Alphonse Maria Mucha was born on July 24th 1860 in the small town of Ivančice in the southern Moravia region, which is now the Czech Republic, but then was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father Ondřej Mucha was an usher at the Ivančice courthouse and his mother Amálie was the daughter of a miller. Alphonse was the eldest of five children. He had three sisters, Anna, Andéla and Antoine and one brother, August. He also had two stepsisters from his father’s first marriage. Alphonse was gifted musically. He was an alto singer and also a talented violinist. He also enjoyed drawing.
One of his earliest works is entitled Crucifixion which he completed around the age of eight. It can be seen from the depiction that the young boy was influenced by the Catholic Church and its teachings. As a young boy he was inspired by the Catholic rituals and later in life he recalled attending church for the Easter celebrations:
“…I used to kneel for hours as an acolyte in front of Christ’s grave. It was in a dark alcove covered with flowers heavy with intoxicating fragrance and wax candles were burning quietly all round with a sort of sacred light which illuminated from below the martyred body of Christ, life-size, hanging from the wall in utmost sadness… How I loved to kneel there with my hands clasped in prayer. No-one in front of me, only the wooden Christ hanging from the wall, no-one who would see me shutting my eyes and thinking of God-knows-what and imagining that I am kneeling on the edge of a mysterious unknown figure…”
After primary school he was to move into secondary schooling but this had to be paid for and his parents just did not have the funds as they were already paying for the education of his two stepsisters. However, as he was such a good musician his music teacher arranged for him to meet to Pavel Křížkovský, the choirmaster of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, who was impressed with Alphonse. Alphonse’s family had hoped that through Křížkovský, their son would be able to become a member of the choir and with this would come a monastery scholarship which would pay for his secondary education. Unfortunately for Alphonse, Křížkovský was not able to admit him and get him funding as he had already attained sponsorship for another musician. However, Křížkovský arranged for twelve-year-old Alphonse to be interviewed by the deputy choirmaster of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, Leoš Janáček, who admitted him as a cathedral chorister and funded his studies as a boarder at the Gymnázium Slovanské, the high school in Brno. Alas, nature took its course and eventually the teenager’s voice broke and he had to leave the choir but instead played the violin during the church services.
Although it was due to his musical talents that Alphonse was able to complete his schooling he still believed in a possible artistic future and he set about gaining employment as a theatrical scene designer. The next step for him was to gain some formal artistic tuition and so, in 1878, aged eighteen, he applied to enrol on a course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but was rejected. They harshly advised him to follow a different career path. In 1880, aged 19, he travelled to Vienna, which at the time was looked upon as the political and cultural capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here Alphonse was taken on as an apprentice scenery painter for the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt painting workshop, which produced stage scenery and theatre curtains, a company which made sets for Vienna theatres. Vienna to Alphonse was like a breath of fresh air and he enrolled at some of the city’s art classes..
Now living in this large city, Alphonse was able to visit art galleries and theatres, tickets to which were given to him by his employer. During his visit to the galleries, he came across the works of Hans Makart, the renowned 19th-century Austrian academic history painter, designer, decorator, who was famed for his monumental works of portraiture. Like many artists in the late nineteenth century, Alphonse began to experiment with photography as an aid to his artwork.
In 1881, just a year after he arrived in Vienna, fate once again stepped into Alphonse Mucha’s life when a fire destroyed the Ring Theatre, which was the main customer of the firm he worked for. Within the series of theatre fires in the 19th century, the catastrophe at the Ring Theatre in Vienna was the worst because of at least 450 fatalities. There are several crucial points, which led to a disaster in this extent: The fire was not reported immediately, the people in the theatre were not informed in time, the emergency lighting was not working, the architectural structure of the building made the way out long and complicated, and the theatre staff was unable to cope with this case of emergency.
Alphonse was now made redundant and had to decide whether to remain in Vienna or head back home to Ivančice. In the end, he did neither but took a train through Austria and into Moravia. By the time he arrived at Mikulov in southern Moravia his money had run out and he had to alight from the train. He needed somewhere to stay in the town but had no money. Fortunately, he was able to “pay” for his board and lodgings by sketching some portraits. His portraiture was seen by Count Eduard Khuen-Belasi, the local landowner and he was so impressed by the standard of Alphonse’s work that he commissioned him to paint murals for his Hrušovany Emmahof Castle near Hrušovany nad Jeviškou and his Gandegg Castle in the Tyrol, as well as reconstructing the Castle’s portraits and the decorative murals. So amazed with Alphonse’s work, the Count decided to sponsor Alphonse’s formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts for two years. Following the completion of his studies in 1887 the Count arranged for Alphonse to go and study in Paris at Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi.
The Count funded Mucha’s expenses until the end of 1889 at which time the flow of money stopped and it is thought that the Count wanted Alphonse to become independent and survive by his work alone. It was a blow to Alphonse who had for the last three years, no financial worries. He now had to balance his income against expenditure and learnt to survive on a diet of lentils and beans and began to eke out a living by providing illustrations for a variety of magazines and books. However, his hard work paid off and he was soon able to establish himself as a successful and reliable illustrator.
Was it sheer luck, or fate once again, that on December 26th 1894 Alphonse happened to be at Lemercier’s printing works, when Sarah Bernhardt, the star of the Parisian stage, called de Brunhoff, the printer’s agent, with an immediate demand for a new poster for her production of Gismonda. Unfortunately for Lemercier all his regular artists were on holiday and so in an act of desperation he approached Alphonse to produce the poster. The poster was of a long narrow format (216 x 74cms) and the subtle pastel colours and the ‘halo’ effect around the subject’s head were to remain features of Mucha’s posters throughout his life. It was a depiction which oozed both grandeur and solemnity and was in stark contrast to other garish street posters of the time. This Art Nouveau advertising poster was for the four-act comedy, Gismonda, by Victorien Sardou, which was being staged at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Sarah Bernhardt was both director and actor. This poster by Mucha was produced to promote the new production which opened on January 4, 1895. Mucha portrayed Bernardt as an exotic Byzantine noblewoman wearing a splendid dress and an orchid headdress with a palm branch in her hand. This costume was worn in the last act, the climax of the comedy, in which she joined the Easter procession. The Gismonda poster which Alfonse Mucha created was a sensation and it was so popular with the Parisian public that collectors bribed bill stickers to obtain them or simply went out at night and, using razors, cut them down from the hoardings. Bernhardt was delighted with Mucha’s work and continued to use this poster for her American tour in 1896. She offered Mucha a five-year contract to produce stage and costume designs as well as posters.
This Champagne Ruinart poster is one of Mucha’s earliest commissions from the printer and lithographer Ferdinand Champenois and was included in the seminal Exposition d’Affiches Artistiques Françaises & Etrangères Moderns & Retrospectives held in Rheims in November 1896.
JOB cigarette papers poster by Alphonse Mucha (1897)
Alphonse Mucha’s success with the Sarah Bernhardt posters precipitated in many more commissions for advertising posters. He designed posters such as the one for JOB cigarette papers…
…and for Moët-Chandon champagne.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Alphonse Muhca continued to create posters for Ferdinand Champenois, who had his premises at 66 Boulvd. St. Michel, Paris. He signed an exclusive contract with the company to produce commercial and decorative posters. With Gismonda ‘le style Mucha’ was launched. Mucha was established as the preeminent exponent of Parisian Art Nouveau. This 1897 lithograph depicts a beautiful young girl in a sophisticated pink dress with red and blue embroidery. The girl wears pink and red flowers in her dark blonde hair and is surrounded by the heavy floral ornamentation and spirals characteristic of much of Alphonse Mucha’s work. Over the next decade Mucha illustrated posters and decorative panels, books, magazine covers, advertisements, theatre programmes, menu cards, calendars, and postcards many using Champenois as his printer.
Alphonse also designed a calendar which featured a woman’s head around which were the twelve signs of the zodiac in a halo-like disc. The rights for the illustration were sold on to Léon Deschamps, the editor of the arts review La Plume, who brought it out with great success as the magazine’s calendar for 1897. This was Mucha’s first work under his contract with the printer Champenois and was originally designed as an in-house calendar for the company. The majestic beauty of the woman is emphasised by her regal bearing and elaborate jewellery. It became one of Mucha’s most popular designs; at least nine variants of this lithograph are known, including this one which was printed without text to serve as a decorative panel. Between 1896 and 1904 Alphonse Mucha created over one hundred poster designs for Champenois. These prints were sold in various formats, ranging from expensive versions printed on Japanese paper or vellum, to less expensive versions which combined multiple images, to calendars and postcards.
His posters almost always depicted beautiful women in sumptuous settings with their hair generally curling in arabesque forms and filling the frame. In 1897 Alphonse produced a poster for the railway line between Paris and Monaco-Monte-Carlo but it neither showed a train nor any identifiable scene of Monaco or Monte-Carlo. It simply depicted a beautiful young woman in a dream-like pose, surrounded by whirling images of flowers, which implied the turning wheels of a train.
Alphone Mucha’s reputation as an illustrative artist grew and he was invited to exhibit his work in the Salon des Cent exhibition in 1896, and a year later he had a major retrospective in the same gallery exhibiting 448 works. The art magazine La Plume made a special edition devoted to his work, and his exhibition travelled to Vienna, Prague, Munich, Brussels, London, and New York, which boosted his international reputation.
In 1899 Alphonse entered into a collaboration with the jeweller Georges Fouquet to make a bracelet for Sarah Bernhardt in the form of a serpent, made of gold and enamel, similar to the costume jewellery Bernhardt wore in Medea.
The Cascade pendant designed for Fouquet by Mucha in 1900 is in the shape of a waterfall. It is composed of gold, enamel, opals, tiny diamonds, paillons, and a barocco or misshapen pearl.
………………………to be continued
Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation