Alphonse Mucha: Biography & Art

Instructor: Amber Chiozza

Amber has taught Art History, Humanities, and Art Appreciation, and has a master's degree in Book Arts and Printmaking.

Alphonse Mucha was a Czech artist who is famous for a classic style: Art Nouveau. He is best known today for his theater posters, as well as his paintings of Slavic nationalism. In this lesson, you will learn about his life and highly decorative style.

Decorative Style of Alphonse Mucha

Many people define art as paintings hung on the wall or sculptures sitting in museums. This was not the case with the work of Alphonse Mucha. Much of his work was decorative, and he was celebrated throughout his career as much for his magazine covers, decorative murals, and jewelry as he was for his works on canvas. He redefined the design of the poster, using elegant line, signature female forms, and highly ornate borders. He contributed much to the style of Art Nouveau with his use of plants, flowers, and curved lines in bold, elongated designs.

Beginnings as an Artist

Alphonse Mucha was born in Southern Moravia in 1860. He began creating at a very young age, and much of his childhood inspiration came from his involvement in the Catholic Church, looking at the art decorating the churches. This pushed him towards a career as an artist. Unable to jump into this career due to finances, he worked as a clerk for the courthouse and found work on the side illustrating for minor publications. He kept his eyes open for more rewarding artistic opportunities, and this opportunity came at the age of 19 when he was offered an apprenticeship in Vienna to paint scenery for a theater company.

Mucha's Years in Paris

In 1887, Alphonse Mucha moved to Paris. He began his education at Académie Julian, honing his skills by drawing and painting nude models. All the while, he continued his work as an illustrator, regularly contributing to magazines. In 1894, the publisher Lemercier gave him the opportunity to illustrate the performance of the famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt. This led to his most famous early work, a poster for her portrayal of Gismonda.

Alphonse Mucha. Gismonda. 1894.
Mucha - Gismonda

While creating this poster, Mucha elongated the design and added new decorative elements that had not yet been seen. The delicate colors also departed from the norm for graphic works, but this palette became part of his signature style. Lemercier's art director did not approve of the design, but Sarah Bernhardt loved the poster, as did the people of Paris. This gave him instant popularity and success. Bernhardt signed a six-year contract with Mucha, during which time he was responsible for designing her costumes, posters, and set scenery.

Alphonse Mucha. The Seasons. 1896.
Alphonse Mucha. The Seasons. 1896.

Shortly after signing the contract with Bernhardt, Mucha signed a contract with the printer Champenois. This company printed many of his decorative works, including The Seasons, a series of decorative panels. This exhibited Mucha's entrance into more ornamental work since the panels were sold for personal use as decorations for walls and screens within homes. Mucha's work contributed to a style in Paris at first called 'le style Mucha.' This style of work became known as Art Nouveau, which included jewelry, graphic art, interior design, and even furniture. Art Nouveau was about art not being secluded to only painting and sculpture, but also to elevate everyday objects such as mirrors and furniture to a similar level of craftsmanship.

Alphonse Mucha. The Slav Epic cycle No.1: The Slavs in Their Original Homeland. 1912.
Alphonse Mucha. Slav Epic. 1912.

The Slav Epic

Despite his success in Paris, as well as the United States, Mucha decided to move to Prague in 1910 where he began his major series, the Slav Epic. This series of paintings depicted the history of the Slav people, the natives in his home country. The series, when completed, included twenty large-scale paintings on canvas. The first of these paintings, The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, began the story of the Slavic tribe. To reflect the plight of the Slavic people, Alphonse Mucha portrayed two people from this tribe towards the bottom of the painting, looking helpless and afraid. He also painted a mystical figure on the right, offering peace and prosperity for the future of the Slavic people. He used much of his signature style here with the elegant, dramatic poses and folds on the figures and soft, pastel colors.

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