Alfons Mucha at 160: Art Nouveau pioneer who left Paris for Prague to achieve the Slav Epic

Alfons Mucha with Slav Epic

Czech artist Alfons Mucha, perhaps best known worldwide for his oft-imitated Art Nouveau posters, was born 160 years ago this Friday. He showed an exceptional talent for drawing from an early age, and went on to find fame and fortune in Vienna and Paris, before settling in Prague. There, he turned his paintbrush to the Slav Epic, a gift to the city – and indeed the Czech nation – that took him nearly two decades to complete.

Alfons Mucha came from humble origins but seemed destined, determined, to achieve greatness. In fact, had it not been for Leoš Janáček, the later renowned composer, Mucha may have made his mark on the world through his music, rather than painting.

Alfons Mucha | Photo: SiefkinDR,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The two Czech cultural icons met as schoolboys after Mucha joined the choir of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno, about a half day’s journey by foot from the southern Moravian village of his birth, notes art historian Karel Srp, chief curator of Gallery of the City of Prague.

“They were classmates at the church school. Mucha had a beautiful voice, which he lost when going through puberty. Still, he was an exceptional musical talent and played guitar beautifully all his life.

“When he was 17, he and Janáček applied for a music scholarship in Prague, but there was only one spot… So, he began turning his attention to the fine arts. But Mucha would always find patrons, and thanks to one he was later able to study at the arts academy in Munich.”

Despite Mucha showing such promise, his father was not convinced he could make a living as an artist, his daughter in law, the late Scottish composer Geraldine Mucha, recalled in an interview for Radio Prague International.

Geraldine Mucha,  photo: archive of Radio Prague International

“His father got him a job in the local court, and he was supposed to enter the names of the little thieves in the ledger. He got terribly bored and did wonderful calligraphic entries and little sketches of the criminals – and of course his career at the court came to an abrupt end!”

After finding odd jobs doing decorative painting in Moravia, in 1879, Mucha moved to Vienna to work for a theatrical design company. Drawing had been his principle hobby since childhood, and his talent caught the eye of an Austrian nobleman’s man. Geraldine Mucha again:

“So, there he was in Vienna – he never saved any money, all his life – and he was on his way home and went into an inn and started drawing people sitting there. And the agent of a local aristocrat who was looking for somebody to paint murals in his new dining room saw this young man drawing.

“Mucha took up the job but had no idea how to do it and the paint all peeled off, of course. He had to consult a house painter. But nothing deterred him, you see. And of course this aristocrat realised that he had uncovered a talent!”

That aristocrat was so impressed with the murals Mucha painted he agreed to sponsor his formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied four years. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Photo: Kateřina Srbková

Mucha went on to make a fortune from the commercial Art Nouveau work he developed in Paris, often featuring beautiful young women in flowing robes, which adorned everything from champagne bottles to packs of biscuits.

After twenty years in Paris, and a long lucrative collaboration with the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha moved to Prague in 1910, a determined Czech patriot, and began work on his enduring masterpiece, the massive canvases of the Slav Epic.

The World According to Mucha, a stylised documentary by Roman Vávra, is due for cinematic release in October, its premiere ahead of Mucha's 160th birthday delayed by the coronavirus. The director is promising a fascinating look into the mind of his hero and his artistic legacy, drawing on a treasure trove of unpublished correspondence and diaries, and interviews with those he inspired.