Alphonse Mucha

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Sep 14, 2022

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Alfons Maria Mucha (; Ivančice, July 24, 1860 - Prague, July 14, 1939) was a Czech painter, sculptor and publicist. His name is often Frenchicized as Alphonse Mucha. He was one of the most important artists of Art Nouveau.

Youth and adolescence

Alfons Maria Mucha was born on July 24, 1860, in Ivančice, Moravia (a region in today's Czech Republic, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The son of a court usher, Ondřej Mucha (1825-1891), and his second wife Amálie Malá (1822-1880), a woman of humble origin but great intelligence, Alfons revealed his artistic vocation from a very young age, which manifested itself in his many drawings of the reality around him: flowers, horses, and monkeys were all subjects that captured his fervent attention, thus becoming recurrent in his very early graphic production.

A decisive impetus, in any case, was provided by the religious training he received at the initiative of his mother, a devout practicing Catholic. The young Mucha, in fact, spent several years at the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Ivančice, where he was an acolyte and chorister; it was his talent for singing that enabled him, at the age of eleven, to move on to the choir of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in the city of Brno, where he also completed his secondary studies at the Slovanské Gymnasium. In Brno the young Alfons grew up in the patriotic milieu that was part of the Czech national revival movement, from which he drew his love for the Moravian civilization and its traditions; the ecclesiastical environment also left deep traces on his imagination, enlivened by the imposing bulk of cathedrals, the penetrating aroma of incense, the sound of bells, and generally by impressions that accompanied him throughout his life and marked his artistic production particularly intensely.

In the fall of 1878, on the advice of Josef Zelený, Mucha applied for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague; not being admitted (it was even suggested that he choose a "different profession"), he moved to Vienna when he was only nineteen years old, where he worked for the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt company as a painter for theater sets.

For a boy who had barely made it beyond Prague, a city that was indeed picturesque but still deeply provincial, Vienna must have seemed imposing, almost majestic. The city, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had, among other things, just been revolutionized by a vast urban redevelopment plan, culminating in the opening of a monumental thoroughfare demarcating the perimeter of the city center, the Ringstrasse, circumscribed by elegant buildings in neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and neoclassical styles.

Mucha, in short, landed in a metropolis full of initiatives and ferment, and here he divided his time between strenuous work and the leisure and frequentations granted by a big city; he met Hans Makart, and took an active part in the intense and lively cultural life, enlivened by the museums, concert halls and above all by the shows that were performed in the various existing theaters, which he visited assiduously having free and unlimited admissions provided to him by the theater company.

Mucha remained in Vienna for a full two years. A tragic event, however, ended his Viennese sojourn: a violent fire broke out in the Ringtheater on December 8, 1881, which killed at least 449 people and totally devastated the structure. Following this tragedy, the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt company found itself facing a deep crisis, which led Mucha to be fired for reasons of corporate reorganization.

Disillusioned, Mucha, after staying briefly in Vienna, decided to rely on fate, taking a train at the Franz Josef station and going as far as his savings would allow. In this way he landed in Mikulov, a Moravian town where he established himself as a portrait painter. Here he worked hard and the quality of his work caught the attention of Count Karl Khuen-Belasi, who commissioned him to decorate his castles in Emmahof, Moravia, and the Tyrolean town of Candegg. Enthusiastic about the success of Mucha's decorative enterprise, Belasi became its munificent patron, playing a decisive role in its fortunes. The count's library, in fact, was endless, and it was here that Mucha was able to devour books on Delacroix, Doré, Daubigny and Meissonier; Belasi also enabled him to develop his own artistic inclinations, even taking him with him on a training trip to Italy.

Thanks to the Count's authoritative influence, in September 1885 Mucha was able to enter the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, one of the oldest and most prestigious in all of Germany. Mucha acquired a great figurative culture there and began to acquire personal taste orientations; equally formative was the company of some university colleagues of Czech nationality who together with him, following the fashion of secret associations, founded the "Škréta society," with distinctly patriotic aims. Among the various works of art created during the Munich period, in addition to the drawings published in the Palette (the association's magazine), is the altarpiece depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius.

A Bohemian in Paris

Feeling now mature artistically, and thanks to the financial supports of Count Belasi, Mucha moved with his friend Karel Vítězslav Mašek to Paris to pursue his academic studies at the Académie Julian. Paris, in addition to being an artistically cosmopolitan city (the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity and progress, was under construction in those very years), was home to a tight-knit Bohemian community, which Mucha frequented assiduously; Mucha's French friends included Paul Gauguin, Camille Claudel, and Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin, his teacher at the Académie Colarossi (where he passed in the fall of 1888), from whom he drew his love of Japanese art.

The artist's livelihood was still tied to the Count's financial aid, which, however, ceased unexpectedly in early 1889. Mucha, then 28 years old, found himself working as an illustrator for various advertising magazines to earn a living; in this way he gradually came to acquire fame in the French art world. Among the first to recognize his talent was Henri Boullerier, editor of the weekly Le Petit Français Illustré, for which Mucha became the regular illustrator. His collaboration with Boullerier procured him another important commission, this time from Charles Seignobos, who gave him the task of depicting the work Scènes et épisodes de l'histoire d'Allemagne. This was a very scalding commission, as the German people had always been very hostile toward Czech and Slavic civilization; in spite of this, Mucha managed to overcome his own gasps of indignation, recognizing in this commission the first, inestimable recognition of his art.

With the consolidation of his fame, Mucha also achieved considerable financial well-being. His early savings were spent on the purchase of a pump organ and a camera, which he used to photograph himself, friends (Gauguin, who lived in his own building, was portrayed several times) and noteworthy events, such as the funeral of President Marie François Sadi Carnot, who was assassinated in 1894 by an Italian anarchist.

The star of Art Nouveau

It was one person, in particular, who radically changed Mucha's life: it was actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom he portrayed in 1894 in an advertising poster for Victorien Sardou's play Gismonda. The finesse of the drawing convinced the "divine Sarah" to enter into a six-year contract with Mucha (from 1895 to 1900), during which he designed posters, theater sets, costumes and jewelry, while also occasionally working as an artistic consultant. Gismonda was promptly followed by six more theatrical posters, to be considered part of a completed cycle: La Dame aux Camèlias (1896), Lorenzaccio (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Médée (1898), Hamlet (1899) and Tosca (1899).

The cooperative relationship between Mucha and Bernhardt was mutually beneficial. On the one hand, the "divine Sarah," thanks to Mucha's posters, was finally able to rise to superstar status, long before that term was coined by the Hollywood industry; on the other hand, Mucha - in addition to interweaving with Bernhardt a friendship that bound them for life - was able to accumulate social prestige and grow professionally. The great fame he now acquired also brought him a contract with the lithographer Ferdinand Champenois in 1896, thanks to which he achieved a certain economic solidity that enabled him to move into an elegant mansion on the rue du Val-de-Grâce. The far-sighted promotion strategy concerted by Champenois, among other things, did not take long to procure Mucha new and prestigious commissions: using Mucha's advertising posters were industries such as Nestlé, Moët & Chandon, JOB, Ruinart, Perfecta and Waverley.

In 1898, Mucha also joined Freemasonry, an association whose members included former patron Eduard Khuen-Belasi. Mucha proved to be very sensitive to Masonic influence, which can be felt in many of his works, and especially in Pater, an illustrated volume published in Paris on December 20, 1899. The result of a need for elevation and spiritual impetus, the Pater depicts the seven stages of prayer, understood as a transition from the darkness of ignorance to an ideal state of spirituality. The work was highly praised both by the creator, who considered it one of his greatest achievements, and by critics:

Meanwhile, while working on the Pater project, in the spring of 1899 Mucha received a highly complex commission from the Austro-Hungarian government, which commissioned him to decorate the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the upcoming Exposition universelle. Bosnia, a territory where a large Slavic community lived, although part of the Ottoman Empire since 1878 was de facto a colonial territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; on this occasion, too, Mucha had to appease his patriotic spirit and produce frescoes that earned him a silver medal at the Exposition universelle, where he was also present with drawings, ornamental graphic works, sketches and jewelry designed for Georges Fouquet. Fouquet was a renowned French goldsmith who also entrusted the artist with the interior and exterior decoration of his own jewelry store in rue Royale, Paris; the result was an extravagant jewel box that, because of its fresh, innovative, almost theatrical style, is considered one of the most significant expressions of Art Nouveau furniture.

The American Interlude

In the spring of 1904 Mucha embarked on the ocean liner La Lorraine, bound for New York. It was his desire, in fact, to get away from France and fame to try to pursue his ideals:

When he landed in New York, Mucha was welcomed as a world celebrity by the American people, who had already gotten to know and appreciate his posters during Bernhardt's tours of the United States. There he stayed only three months; however, Mucha between 1905 and 1910 returned to America four times, including in the company of his wife, Maria Chytilova, whom he married on February 10, 1906, in Prague. The couple's first daughter, Jaroslava, was born in New York three years after the wedding, in 1909.

The fruits of his American sojourn were not long in coming: thanks to his work as a portrait painter, in fact, Mucha amassed a substantial sum of money, enough to finance the execution of a cycle of patriotic paintings, the so-called Slavic Epic, a project he had been cherishing for some time. In the meantime, he taught in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and decorated the interior of the new German Theater with a series of allegorical paintings, an idea that received much acclaim from audiences and critics. The theater, unfortunately, remained open for only one symphony season, only to be converted into a movie theater and finally demolished in 1929.

The Slavic Epic

Meanwhile, the Slavic Epic project was gradually beginning to take shape, thanks in part to the financial aid of wealthy American businessman Charles Richard Crane, who shared Mucha's patriotic impetus and his intentions to "produce something truly beautiful, not for criticism, but for the betterment of the Slavic soul."

Mucha devoted himself with total dedication to the Slavic Epic beginning in 1911. The cycle comprised as many as twenty very large paintings capable of covering the entire panorama of the historical events of the Slavic peoples; to execute these gigantic canvases the artist rented a studio and apartment in Zbiroh Castle in West Bohemia. In order to give the works as much historical accuracy as possible, Mucha devoured several books on the subject, did not hesitate to consult with various scholars of Slavic history (including Ernest Denis and Nikodim Kondakov), and visited the depicted places himself, traveling assiduously to Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Poland, and Russia, so as to study the customs and traditions of the local peoples.

The twenty Slavic Epic canvases were finally ready in 1928 and in the same year were donated to the city of Prague, so as to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak republic. The cycle aroused bitter controversy from critics, who-in addition to despising the style of the works, judged to be mere unfashionable academicism-accused Mucha of being the bearer of a nationalism that no longer made sense after Czechoslovakia's independence in 1918.

These were very dark years. A sense of deep disquiet swirled in Czechoslovakia, which was threatened by Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the spread of growing pro-Nazi sentiment in the Sudetenland. Fearing the outbreak of a new war, Mucha - now 76 years old - embarked on a new project: the creation of a triptych depicting The Age of Reason, The Age of Love, and The Age of Wisdom, so as to celebrate the sense of unity and peace in humankind. This work, however, never saw the light of day due to his ever-advancing physical decline.

What Mucha most feared, however, came true: in fact, on March 15, 1939, he witnessed the occupation of Czechoslovak territory by Nazi troops. Because of his roaring patriotic spirit, Mucha was promptly arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to interrogation: he was not imprisoned, but both his health and his spirit were now broken.

Alfons Mucha finally died in Prague on July 14, 1939, cut down by a lung infection; huge crowds attended the funeral, which ended with the laying of the body in the Vyšehrad cemetery, where he is still buried.


Mucha's name is inextricably linked to his posters, a symbol of art's presence on the streets. Being posted on city bulletin boards, in fact, the posters made heavy use of bright colors and round typefaces, so as to combat the grayness of the industrial suburbs.Mucha also joined this artistic vein, designing posters advertising beer, bicycles, soap, chocolate, cigarette papers, and laundry powder.

In this sense, Mucha's advertising posters follow a common configuration. The name of the product is announced discreetly, through the use of a single inscription, accompanied by an adjective: the rest of the poster, of an unprecedented vertical format, is instead filled with a system of floral and ornamental motifs consisting of buds, tendrils, symbols and arabesques, at the center of which stands out a comely, bewitching, graceful female figure. The viewer's gaze, being captured by the woman's beauty, would then inevitably also fall on the product she holds up, which further reaffirms the existence of the advertised good.

The entire composition, in short, revolves around the effigy female figure, who generally wears an elegant draped robe and has very thick hair.Mucha very often played with the hair of the young goddesses, who were depicted with their hair free, tousled by the wind, or stylized to the point of becoming arabesque friezes. Sometimes, to further emphasize his own mulieval figures, Mucha adorned them with lavish jewelry.

Finally, the preciousness of the ensemble is emphasized by the polychromy of the maidens' ornaments and the warmly charged background of golden hues, suggesting a luxurious and decadent atmosphere, perfectly in tune with the canons of Art Nouveau and the fin de siècle spirit.


Mucha, in addition to being an accomplished graphic artist, also tried his hand at photography. Indeed, his career collimates perfectly with the meteoric development of cameras, which - following the introduction of gelatin-silver bromide prints - became accessible to more and more people.

His earliest photographs date from his time in Munich and Vienna, during which, presumably using his grandfather's camera, he could often be found photographing the urban scenery visible from his apartment, or alternately portraying his friends. He did not acquire a personal camera until the 1890s, while working as an illustrator: over the years, however, he appears to have operated as many as six different cameras.

Mucha's photographic activity in Paris can be divided into two periods. Photographs from the first period (1890-1896), during which Mucha lived in rue de la Grande-Chaumière, mainly depict the interiors of his studio, or occasional models, including his friend Paul Gauguin. Conspicuous is the amount of self-portraits dating from these years, which he executed numerous, even with the help of a remote control system he devised; in these pictures Mucha is often portrayed wearing the rubashka, a traditional Russian dress, so as to reiterate his Slavic patriotism.

The second period began with Mucha's move to rue du Val de Grâce: during these years he found himself taking photographs almost every day, spontaneously filming his models so as to obtain sketches for eventual use in paintings or posters. His interest in photography even led him to meet in 1895 the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who in that very year had invented the cinematograph.

Although Mucha nurtured a fervent interest in photography for a great many years, he never joined any photographic group; he was, however, an enthusiastic self-taught photographer, and it was independently that he learned how best to handle light conditions, capture time and several other fundamental components of the photographic art.

The redemption of the female figure

In Western culture, the conception of women and the related concept of ideal femininity begin to undergo a transformation during the Belle Époque, in the decades between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In this sense, it is indicative to consider the changing representations of women in art within Western society during that period, considering that art is often a good indicator of the social norms of a certain era: in general, artistic depictions of perfect femininity have to a good extent helped to describe common expectations concerning women. For example, much of nineteenth-century art reflected notions of idealized and subservient femininity: at that time there was a kind of "cult of domesticity" associated with the female role. The subordinate role imposed on wives and daughters by Western society depended on and was also a consequence of the relationship between femininity and purity perceived by common thinking. The "modest maiden," a common theme depicted by nineteenth-century artists, reflected these social notions: an elegant, submissive, and sexually repressed woman was shown; she was usually fully clothed and often depicted lying down or passively positioned.

However, the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century saw a first but fundamental reversal, both in the social field and, consequently, in the art world, which was always alert to perceive these changes. Art begins to provide a more progressive concept of ideal femininity, describing a process that will see women move closer to a better status from a social point of view.

Undoubtedly, Alphonse Mucha's work captures the essence of this early evolution and can be seen as a social commentary towards that era, indicative of the transition to modernity: his work accompanies the transition from the image of the "modest maiden" to that of the "new woman." The painter's stylistic portraits of female subjects embody the symbolic birth of the "femme nouvelle," the woman of the new century, progressive, elitist and modern, less and less a passive subject of obedience and docility. The representation of the female subject "according to Mucha's style" takes on, in each case, different or even contrasting nuances from the point of view of communicative intent: stylistic and representational exaltation takes on different characterizations and meanings, that is, a relatively unified plane of the signifier does not correspond to a single and concordant plane of meaning. To describe this concept, it is very useful to consider some particular artifacts of the Czech artist, circumscribed to the last six years of the 1800s.

First, Mucha depicts women as socially empowered, participants in masculine activities, and very much present in the public sphere. In this sense, it is useful to say that women's emancipation in his art comes through the inclusion of women in advertisements for commercial products that once typically represented masculinity, as if to symbolize female irruption into male activities. Some ads show women drinking alcohol, e.g., Lefèvre-Utile Champagne Biscuits (the poster depicts, in the corner of an elegant salon, two young ladies as they flirt with a real gentleman: flower in his buttonhole, white gloves and top hat, ready to go to the opera. One of the two ladies stares fixedly at the young man without giving a glance at the large box of champagne cookies and several bottles arranged on a side table. The word "flirt," in fact, an expression in vogue recently imported from France, had been used by the cookie factory owner as a name for one of his types of cookies. In Waverley Cycles (1898), a poster commissioned by the American industry of the same name, a woman is depicted on a bicycle. The drawing, with very fine strokes, barely shows us the handlebars but features an authentic Mucha-style maiden portrayed in an athletic stance holding a laurel wreath, symbolizing the victories of Waverley products, very solid bicycles, while the anvil represents manufacturing strength, quality craftsmanship. The artifact is very different from any other bicycle advertisement of the period, often corresponding to the cliché of the cyclist depicted in the midst of nature, and can rely heavily on the immediate impact of its symbolism. JOB (1896) - 'JOB' is a trademark of the Joseph Bardou Company, a manufacturer of cigarette papers - is perhaps one of Mucha's best-known advertising posters, with numerous editions subsequently published in a variety of formats for international markets. Mucha drew the female figure in a prominent position against a background on which several monograms of "JOB" can be seen. Holding a lit cigarette, the woman tilts her head sensually backward and the rising smoke forms an arabesque, intertwined with her hair and the company logo. The action of smoking was something unusual for the female sex, an aspect considered almost "deviant" during much of the 19th century. Yet, in the work, a lady openly enjoys a cigarette, expressing an emotion similar to sexual pleasure, arising from an activity formerly associated with male virility: the modern woman seems to convey a sense of obtained social authority, master of her destiny, far from accepting a mournful future imposed upon her.

In the artifacts in which the advertising function is lessened, Mucha's lush art more markedly operates a celebration of the feminine as a lavish and flamboyant spectacle of exuberant beauty. It becomes emblematic to cite Mucha's first decorative panel, namely that of "The Seasons" (1896), a series of four rectangular-format panels that depicted the four seasons personified through female figures. As in the earlier posters - Gismonda, JOB - there is no lack of a background as a decorative element dominated by a female figure characterized by suggestive gestures, but unlike these, in defining the seasons, the expressive function

The artist aspired to express the passage of time and the richness of nature. The message, therefore, no longer has a utilitarian value, but becomes pure scenography, a spectacular representation of women: in Mucha, an art understood as an advertising tool, linked to the product, and an art as an aesthetic expression, luxuriant ornament, freer, untied from materialistic purposes, coexist. These two aspects, with their ambiguities and differences, meant that Mucha's paintings were able to effectively illuminate the first steps toward women's equality in Western society, so his work transcends beyond the world of art: his works are a testament to the cultural change of the early 20th century and can be seen as challenging traditional notions of subordinate women and promoting their inclusion in modern society.


  1. Alphonse Mucha
  2. Alfons Mucha
  3. ^ New Town, Frommers Eastern Europe, p. 244. Retrieved 8 October 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Sato.
  5. ^ a b Husslein-Arco et al., p. 70.
  6. ^ Husslein-Arco et al., p. 65.
  7. 1 2 Alphonse Mucha // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  8. a et b Ellridge, p. 18.
  9. Tomoko Sato, Mucha, Slovaquie, Taschen, 95 p. (ISBN 9783836550109), p. 15-16
  10. Mémoires d'un éléphant blanc sur Gallica.

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