The year 1900 was a momentous one for Paris as it staged the Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris (World’s Fair) between April 15th and November 12th. The event was to be a grand celebration of the past century’s achievements and a look forward to the innovations of the new century. The planning had begun in 1892 and it had been fully budgeted by 1896. At this time Alphonse Mucha had already burst on to the Parisian art scene and in 1897 had held a highly successful one-man exhibition at the Galerie de la Bodinière followed by a major show at the Salon des Cent.
Everyone was excited by the forthcoming event and La Plume magazine, a French bi-monthly literary and artistic review, dedicated a special issue to the exhibition and Alphonse Mucha, whose illustration appeared on the cover of the January 1898 edition, and was a ‘hot’ topic within the city’s artistic circle.
Alphonse was inundated with commissions for projects appertaining to the World’s Fair from both local companies and the French government. Some were for posters advertising the event and also the installation of display stands and the design of exhibition halls, which provided him with an opportunity to work with a three-dimensional space.
Beside the peripheral commissions Mucha was tasked with painting the murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a region that had come under the control of Austria-Hungary in 1878 and was one of three pavilions exhibited by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Alphonse Mucha, this was a highly prestigious commission. Mucha transformed the pavilion into a commemoration of the history and the cultural diversity of Bosnia and Herzegovina which pleased the Austro-Hungarian leaders but Mucha would rather have highlighted the Slavic struggle against that vast nation. He could well have thought about that as he planned the murals for the pavilion and maybe he promised himself that in the near future he would tell the real story of the persecution and suffering of the Slav nation and the Slav people. His grand plan would not start until 1911 and it would take him fifteen years to complete. It would be known as The Slav Epic
Georges Fouquet, a prominent Parisian jeweller and jewellery designer had worked together with Alphonse Mucha on a number of jewellery pieces for Fouquet’s stand at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. After the 1900 Paris Exposition, Georges Fouquet who was best known for his Art Nouveau creations opened a new jewellery store at 6 rue Royale in Paris which was right across the street from the famous restaurant, Maxim’s. He approached Mucha to design all aspects of his shop, both exterior and interior, as well as the contents including the furniture, light fittings and show cases.
The centrepiece of the design was two peacocks, which were the traditional symbol of opulence. They were made of bronze and wood with coloured glass decoration. To one side of them was a shell-shaped fountain, with three gargoyles spouting water into basins, surrounding the statue of a nude woman. The shop opened in 1901, but, sadly for Georges, it was at a time when tastes were beginning to change, and the yearning to have Art Nouveau pieces was superseded by people wanting jewellery with more naturalistic patterns. Mucha’s shop designs remained in place until 1923 when it was replaced with more up-to-date fittings.
Realising that Mucha’s designs for the shop’s interior were of importance in art history, most of the original decoration were preserved. In 1941 Fouquet gave each piece of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the Musée Carnavalet completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique. It remains one of the most spectacular examples of Art Nouveau decorative design. It is still on display at the museum.
Alphonse Mucha’s reputation as an artist was now established and he became one of the most popular and successful of Parisian artists. He became inundated with commissions for theatre posters, advertising posters, decorative panels, magazine covers, menus, postcards, calendars. He even started to provide designs for jewellery, cutlery, tableware, fabrics etc which were in so much demand that he conceived the idea of creating a handbook for craftsmen, which would offer all the necessary patterns for creating an Art Nouveau lifestyle. His book, Documents Décoratifs, a style book published in Paris in 1902, was by the Librairie Central des Beaux-Arts, and is an encyclopaedia of his decorative work. The Documents Décoratifs is comprised of 72 exquisite plates of elaborate designs for brooches and other pieces, with swirling arabesques and vegetal forms, with incrustations of enamel and coloured stones. It epitomized everything the Art Deco movement is remembered for: decor, women, flowers, natural forms, structures, jewellery. Alphonse also spent an increasing amount of his time teaching, first at the Académie Colarossi and later, with Whistler, at the Académie Carmen.
In 1902, Alfonse Mucha accompanied his friend Auguste Rodin to Prague on the occasion of Rodin’s exhibition at Jan Kotera’s new Mánes Pavilion in Prague. A gala night was held at the National Theatre of Prague to welcome the renowned sculptor and it was here that Alphonse Mucha first met Marie Chytilová, an aspiring artist, who was studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and who admired the work of Mucha.
A year later whilst visiting Paris with her family, Marie solicited the help of her uncle, the eminent Czech art historian Dr. Karel Chytil, to arrange art classes with Mucha. Alphonse agreed and got Maria to also to take classes at the Académie Calarossi where he was teaching and they spent each of the remaining days of her month-long sojourn together. Love blossomed between the two despite an age difference of twenty-two years. However, despite the intense amour between Alphonse and Marie, he left her in Europe whilst he made his first trip to America thanks to letters of introduction, which he had received from Baroness Salomon de Rothschild. There must have been some great pull which made him abandon Marie and cross the Atlantic, and to find that reason we must go back to when he was painting his murals at the Paris World Fair for the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion and his promise to himself that he would one day complete a series of paintings which would illustrate the Slav fight for independence. He needed financial backing and where better to go to find funds – America.
Alphonse Mucha was by no means an unknown artist in America. In fact, he was a celebrity in the United States as his posters had been widely displayed during Sarah Bernhardt’s annual American tours since 1896. He stayed at a rented studio near Central Park and continued to paint as well as giving interviews and lectures. More importantly, he was able to contact Pan-Slavic organizations with regards to his money-raising idea to support his proposed Slavic Saga series of history paintings. At one of the Pan-Slavic banquets held in his honour he was introduced to Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who was a passionate Slavophile. Crane was enthusiastic with Mucha’s vision for a series of monumental paintings depicting Slavic history, and he became Mucha’s most important patron.
Alphonse returned home to Paris in May 1904, to complete some commissions but in January 1905 he returned to America. During this visit he gives classes, known as the cours Mucha, at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, similar to those he held at Académie Colarossi. He was enjoying life in America and wrote to his folks back in Moravia:
“…You must have been very surprised by my decision to come to America, perhaps even amazed. But in fact, I had been preparing to come here for some time. It had become clear to me that that I would never have time to do the things I wanted to do if I did not get away from the treadmill of Paris, I would be constantly bound to publishers and their whims…in America, I don’t expect to find wealth, comfort, or fame for myself, only the opportunity to do some more useful work…”
On June 10th 1906, forty-five-year-old Alphonse Mucha, and twenty-three-year-old Marie Chytilová married shortly after his return to Prague from New York. Marie was everything Alphonse could have wanted. She was extremely attractive, she was well-educated and well-read, musical, a great lover of art, and from an old Czech family.
She was to become his muse and was incredibly supportive of his art. For their honeymoon, the couple travelled to the highlands of South Bohemia and stayed in the small village of Pec. Once the honeymoon was over the couple travelled to Chicago where Alphonse was given a post as teacher at the Art Institute
Alphonse painted a number of portraits of his wife. One such painting was entitled Portrait of Mucha’s wife, Maruška. Maruška is a diminutive of ‘Marie’.
In 1908 Alphonse also worked on a large decoration project, for the interior of the German Theatre of New York. He was commissioned to produce five large decorative panels, the stage curtain, and decorative elements for the foyer, the corridor, the staircase, and the auditorium. The three large allegorical murals would be depicted in the Art Nouveau style, and would represent Tragedy, Comedy and Truth. In his depiction, Tragedy, the female protagonist is modelled on the lead tragedienne of the Max Reinhardt Theatre, Miss Reichl.
In that same year, 1908, Charles Crane commissioned Mucha to make two separate portraits in a traditional Slavic style of his two daughters, Josephine, and Frances. The painting of Josephine, as the Slav goddess, Slavia, was to mark her marriage to Harold C. Bradley. The portrait was to be incorporated into the interior decoration of a new house that Crane was building for the newlyweds. It was looked upon by critics as his finest work in America.
In fact, ten years later, when Mucha was asked to design the Czechoslovak 100-koruna banknote he once again used her portrait as a model for Slavia.
On March 15th 1909, in New York, Alphonse and Marie hade their first child, a daughter, Jaroslava
That same year (1909) Alphonse was commissioned to design a poster depicting the highly paid prominent American actress, Maude Adams, in her role as Joan of Arc in a translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans). The play was staged on June 22nd for a crowd of around two thousand spectators in a one-night gala performance at Harvard University Stadium. The portrait served as a poster for the event and Alphonse was also responsible for designing the costumes and sets. The painting depicts the medieval heroine, Joan of Arc, gesturing in amazement at the apparition behind her, which was inspiring her to lead French troops into battle. The stylized floral patterns, swirling hair and garments, and flat, graphic quality of the composition was typical of Mucha’s work and he also designed the complementary frame.
In 1909 Alphonse Mucha leaves America satisfied that he had Charles Crane’s financial backing for his grand plan to paint a series of works outlining the Slav struggles. Alphonse rented a studio and apartment in Zbiroh Castle, a 12th century château in West Bohemia. He began by visiting the places he intended to depict in the cycle such as Russia, Poland, and the Balkans, including visits to the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos. He now spent all his free time studying all the books he could find with regards the history of the Slavs and also contacted specialists in the field, such as Ernest Denis who Alfonse meets in Paris in 1911. Ernest Denis was considered to be one of the most highly regarded 20th-century historians of the Slav world in France and who played a major role in the establishment of the Czechoslovak state in 1918. Alphonse’s dream of the Slav Saga series of paintings had now started. For anybody who might look upon Alphonse Mucha as an illustrator and a poster designer, the next three blogs will change that opinion…………………
………………………….to be continued.
Much of the information for this came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation