The Life and Art of Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha self portrait
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Alphonse Maria Mucha (1860-1939) is without doubt the Czech artist best known abroad. His career is a live illustration of the legend of a poor boy who made his fortune.

At the age of nineteen he became fascinated by the theatre in Vienna and the stage remained for him either a direct or covert inspiration for the rest of his life.

There he met for the first time the actress of whom he could not guess that thirteen years later, she would bring him to the height of fame. The actress was Sarah Bernhart, "the divine Sarah", who then came to Vienna for a guest performance.

At the close of 1894 Mucha designed the first poster for her theatre. The huge success of this theatre poster helped Sarah (who was then in her fifties) close a contract concerning a six-year cooperation with the artist, then a man of thirty-five. At once Paris was full of stories about the semi-savage genius whom the actress had met on her tour through the Hungarian puszta, about the gypsy whom she kept hidden in the subterranean halls of her fairy-like palace, and of a vast number of other, similarly nonsensical tales. 

The artist had to challenge these fables again and again and eventually Sarah Bernhart herself published a statement to the effect that Mr. Mucha was a respectable artist (being a graduate of the Munich Academy), by origin and opinion a Czech born in Moravia.

At the time when he suddenly became famous Mucha was already fairly well known through his five year stay in Paris as a skillful and diligent illustrator among the local publishers. Had the unexpected, sudden glory not led him away from this path, we would most probably hardly know of him at present. Yet capricious Paris could always value momentary success. 

Posters that differed from the common average by their calm, beautiful line as well as by their soft shades of color became the prevailing fashion. Not merely theater plays but also liqueurs, biscuits, bicycles, cigarettes, railways or magazines had to be advertised with the help of Mucha's beauties. 

Their charm lay in a sophisticated mixture of innocence and erotic appeal, being at the same time alluring and fairy-like and distant.

In his studio Mucha received the famous men of his time. Luxurious surroundings-palms, oriental fabrics, stylish furniture and an abundance of flowers-created a suggestive atmosphere in which to visit became a vogue.

From the posters Mucha's beauties passed to decorative panneaux which were issued at vast numbers for the decoration of interiors. The artist was delighted to see that his art found through their mediation it's way to households which could never had bought a good picture. He went on drawing series of Seasons, Times of the Day, Precious Stones, Stars, but in his mind he prepared for tasks which he held for more relevant. 

To these belonged the decoration of the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion at the World Exposition and a design of the Pavilion of Man for the same exposition. Yet the task which he considered as the greatest and most honorable was the service of his own nation.

He left Paris and after a brief stay in the United States (1904-1909) he returned to Bohemia to the castle of Zbiroh to work there on a collection of twenty huge paintings entitled The Slavonic Epopee. The last thirty years of his life were devoted to these not particularly fortunate works and to a number of official orders which he was granted by the new Czechoslovak republic.

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