Who was Alphonse Mucha?

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Alphonse Mucha sitting in a chair Alphonse Mucha sat in front of his famous poster 'Gismonda' © Mucha Trust 2017

Alfons Maria Mucha, known widely as Alphonse Mucha, is the subject of a major exhibition opening 16 June at the Walker Art Gallery. Mucha was the original father of Art Nouveau and his posters and prints are instantly recognizable to most people today. But just who was the man behind the artist?

Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, a small town in what is today’s Czech Republic. At just 12 years old, due to his singing talents, Mucha was presented with a choral scholarship to board at a secondary school in Brno. However, an early academic career was never meant to be and Mucha was eventually expelled from school due to his poor performance.

On his way back to Ivancice, Mucha went to visit a friend and came across a fresco painted in traditional Czech Baroque style by local artist Jan Umlauf. Mucha was so taken by the work and the realization that artists of his own time were able to earn a living through painting that he resolved there and then to become a professional artist.

Following an unsuccessful application to the Prague Academy of Art Mucha became involved in decorative design work for local magazines and theatres. Drawing had been his main hobby since childhood and so he worked as decorative painter in Moravia, mostly painting theatrical scenery.

After a brief spell in Vienna, Mucha returned to Moravia to do freelance decorative and portrait painting work. It's at this point that he caught the eye of Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov who commissioned him to decorate a mural scene in his main residence Emmahof Castle. The Count was so impressed with Mucha's work that he agreed to sponsor Mucha's formal training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Alphonse Mucha (second from left) and friends in his studio in Paris. Alphonse Mucha (second from left) and friends in his studio in Paris © Mucha Trust 2017

Thanks to the Count's continued sponsorship Mucha moved to Paris in 1887, and continued his studies at Académie Julian where he also worked at producing magazine and advertising illustrations.

Around Christmas 1894, Mucha happened to go into a print shop where there was a sudden and unexpected need for a new advertising poster for a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in Paris, at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on the Boulevard Saint-Martin. Mucha volunteered to produce a lithographed poster within two weeks, and on 1 January 1895, the advertisement for the play Gismonda by Victorien Sardou was posted in the city

A detail from Gismonda by Alphonse Mucha A detail from Gismonda by Alphonse Mucha © Mucha Trust 2017.

The poster was a huge success and made Mucha a famous artist overnight. Parisians were so enamored with the work they would go out at night with razors to try and cut the posters down to take home.

Bernhardt was so satisfied with the success of this first poster that she began a six-year contract with Mucha – launching his extremely long and successful career in Paris.

You will be able view Gismonda, the poster that launched Mucha’s career, in our exhibition Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty opening 16 June. Tickets on sale now.

You can find out more about Mucha’s life and view a timeline of his history over at the Mucha Foundation.