Alphonse Mucha’s art is an art of seduction. His graceful women, streaming hair, delicate colours and decorative style add up to an unashamed act of temptation.
Alphonse Mucha, one of the most important decorative artists, was born in on 24th July 1860 in Invančice, Bohemia, at a time when his country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, struggling hard against the Habsburg policy of Germanization to maintain its own identity, language and customs. He died shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo on 14th July 1939.
Although one might assume he started drawing before he could walk, he never thought that he would become a painter, despite having amazed everyone with his talent from his early childhood. The decision to devote his life to painting came to his mind one afternoon, when his young companion took him into the local church where the great old Baroque master Umlauf was working on a fresco. The master’s work made a deep, lasting impression onto him. Mucha was keen to dedicate himself to the serious study of art. He applied to the Art Academy in Prague, receiving rather unenthusiastic advice from professor Lhota: ”Young man, there are many painters but little money. I would advise you to find yourself another profession where you can get on better!”. What good luck for Bohemia, France, America – for the whole world - that Mucha refused to give up. At the age of twenty – one, in 1881, he joined Messrs Kautsky – Brioschi - Burghardt, the Vienna theatrical scenery makers. After two years in Vienna, however, when a fire engulfed the Ring Theatre, the firm had little option but to dismiss their most recently arrived member of staff. He returned to Bohemia, where he was offered work restoring some family portraits and decorating with frescoes rooms of Count Karl Khuen’s castle. It was obvious that this young artist had talent which needed to be properly explored and developed. The Count send Alphonse to Munich at his own expense, where, in 1885, he began his first course of academic studies. In 1887-8 he enrolled in the Académie Julian and Colarossi, Paris - still being supported by Count Karl. A year later, however, a shocking letter arrived – the Count no longer wished to act as Mucha’s patron (he believed that his continuing financial patronage would leave Mucha ill-prepared for the realities of life), which caused many wretched months for him. He searched for whatever work he could possibly find, drawing for the publisher Levy and for the less fashionable journals and periodicals. He also sent some drawing to Prague. Finally he was noticed by Monsieur H. Bourrelier, the young enthusiastic talent – spotter, who helped him get back into circulation. Mucha’s first firm recognition as an artist came when he was asked to illustrate a book of fairy tales – Les Contes des Grand – mėres (1896), by X. Marmier, which brought him a very favourable critics’ response. The drawings referred to above, sent to his native country in the years of terrible deprivation, finally met with admiration and he was asked to illustrate an epic poem The Adamits (describing episodes of Czech history). His work became increasingly prestigious – illustrations for magazines such as La Vie Parisienne, Le Monde Illustré, an offer to produce a calendar for the publishers Lorrilleux, published in 1892. At this time, he sketched both Sarah Bernhardt and Sardau, unaware at that time how important a role they would have in his future life. His proudest accomplishment of this period was his contribution to Charles Seignobos’ Sc`enes et episodes de l’histoire d’Allemagne. Mucha energetically plunged himself into this project - he had always been attracted to the idea of historical paintings. While completing the project, he became dangerously ill. As a result, his drawings could not be finished by the deadline. Again, he became desperately penniless, but Fate intervened once again to rescue him from his despair. He accepted an offer from his friend, leaving home for Christmas, to complete some unfinished work at The Lemercier printing house - a firm, which earned its name printing calendars, decorative menus, leaflets and some posters. On the afternoon of St. Stephen’s Day 1894 the telephone rang… the manager of the Thé’tre de Renaissance was on the end of the line, asking whether anyone was available to design a poster – Sarah Bernhardt, their leading actress and household theatrical name in Paris, has expressed her unhappiness with a poster which had been produced for her forthcoming play Gismonda. Most of the skilled draughtsmen were away for the entire holiday, so, as a last resort, Mucha was asked whether he might consider trying his hand at designing a poster… Panneaux (decorative panels, produced in a narrow, elongated format, rather like posters, but without any text, printed on silk or satin cloth or on SQ paper - Mucha’s first panneaux were representations of the four seasons), posters for Lorenzaccio, the famous poster Monaco Monte-Carlo, Princess Hyacinth, or superb Job posters lithographs followed, also book illustrations – Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli, Rama or Clio, or the national masterpiece “The Slav Epic”, embracing 18 years of his life, included twenty massive (about 24 x 30 ft) canvasses, covering the history of the Slavic people from prehistory to the 19th century, handed to the city of Prague in 1928.
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