A painter, illustrator and muralist whose name is prominently associated with Art Nouveau*, Alphonse Mucha created work with strong composition and color and sensuous curves derived from nature. Using this style, he began earning widespread attention in the 1890s for his illustration work including posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Although his name is linked to Art Nouveau, a style meaning 'new art' in French, he avoided that discussion by saying he was merely painting in a way that was unique and natural to him.
Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, Moravia, which is near the city of Brno in the modern Czech Republic. When he finished high school, he became determined to become a painter, despite his father's efforts in securing him "respectable" employment as a clerk in the local court.
Mucha went to Paris in 1887, thanks to a patron in Moravia who paid for his studies. After two years in Munich and some time devoted to painting murals for his patron, he went to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian*. After two years the patron stopped supporting him, and Alphonse Mucha was a 27 year old with no money and seemingly little future in Paris.
For five years he lived the 'Bohemian' lifestyle of a struggling artist. He borrowed money, got a few low-paying commissions for artwork, and became deathly ill from an unhealthy diet. For a period he shared a studio with Paul Gaughin and traveled to the South Seas. He also gave a few art lessons and strove to find his own unique style in an era dominated by the new styles of Impressionism* and Symbolism*.
Beginning 1895, he presented his revolutionary approach to poster stylistic design, which was flowing lines and soft colors as opposed to traditional bright colors and sharp, geometric delineation. Commissioned in December 1895 to create a poster for Sarah Bernhardt's play, Gismonda, he did a near life-size image of her that was a design sensation. Pleased with Mucha's work, Bernhardt signed him to a six-year contract to design her promotional posters.
From that time, his reputation and financial success were insured. By 1898, he had a new studio, had his first one-man show and had numerous illustration commissions. He worked with a printmaker, who enthusiastically promoted his postcards, posters, etc.
In 1900, Mucha designed the Bosnia-Hercegovina Pavilion for the Paris World's Fair and also partnered with goldsmith Georges Fouquet in jewelry design. He published writing with accompanying illustrations about his art theories, and many took advantage of these visuals by copying his style.
His popularity and increasing name association with Art Nouveau led to international travel including several extended trips to the United States where he did magazine illustration work, portrait commissions and teaching. In the spring of 1904, he made his first trip to America, visiting New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, and the next year he had one-man exhibition tours of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. In 1907, he married Maruska Chytilová in Prague, and he and his wife went to America where he gave art lessons in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and in 1908 filled a decoration commission for the new German Theatre in New York. In 1909, the couple's daughter, Jaroslava, was born in New York City.
However, Alphonse Mucha ever remained the committed citizen of his homeland of Czechoslovakia, and did a series of murals for the Lord Mayor's Hall in Prague and also a series of paintings of the country's history, The Slav Epic, financed by Charles Crane, a wealthy man from Chicago whom he had met in 1904 through introduction by Baroness Rothchild. This project, a gift to the city of Prague, took eighteen years to complete and was composed of twenty paintings on canvas, each about 24 x 30 feet. In 1919, the paintings were also exhibited in America, where it was said they were more warmly received than in their homeland. Before returning to Prague, that year, Mucha spent time as a teacher at the New York School of Applied Design for Women* and was included in the American Art Annual, the predecessor to Who's Who in American Art.
The life of Alphonse Mucha, like so many Europeans and Americans of his era, was greatly affected by the World Wars. When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Germans at the beginning of World War II, he was one of the first citizens arrested because of his strong nationalistic expressions. He died on July 14, 1939, shortly after being released.