Alphonse Mucha: 150 years Anniversary

Alphonse Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, Moravia, which is near the city of Brno in the modern Czech Republic. It was a small town, and for all intents and purposes life was closer to the 18th than the 19th century. Though Mucha is supposed to have started drawing before he was walking, his early years were spent as a choirboy and amateur musician. It wasn’t until he finished high school (needing two extra years to accomplish that onerous task) that he came to realize that living people were responsible for some of the art he admired in the local churches. That epiphany made him determined to become a painter, despite his father’s efforts in securing him “respectable” employment as a clerk in the local court.

Like every aspiring artist of the day, Mucha ended up in Paris in 1887. He was a little older than many of his fellows, but he had come further in both distance and time. A chance encounter in Moravia had provided him with a patron who was willing to fund his studies. After two years in Munich and some time devoted to painting murals for his patron, he was sent off to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian. After two years the supporting funds were discontinued and Alphonse Mucha was set adrift in a Paris that he would soon transform. At the time, however, he was a 27 year old with no money and no prospects – the proverbial starving artist.

Alphonse Mucha - Meditation
Meditation c.1886

For five years he played the part to perfection. Living above a Cremerie that catered to art students, drawing illustrations for popular (ie. low-paying) magazines, getting deathly ill and living on lentils and borrowed money, Mucha met all the criteria. It was everything an artist’s life was supposed to be. Some success, some failure. Friends abounded and art flourished. It was the height of Impressionism and the beginnings of the Symbolists and Decadents. He shared a studio with Gauguin for a bit after his first trip to the south seas. Mucha gave impromptu art lessons in the Cremerie and helped start a traditional artists ball, Bal des Quat’z Arts. All the while he was formulating his own theories and precepts of what he wanted his art to be.

Alphonse Mucha - Moet & ChandonOn January 1, 1895, he presented his new style to the citizens of Paris. Called upon over the Christmas holidays to created a poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s play, Gismonda, he put his precepts to the test. The poster, at left, was the declaration of his new art. Spurning the bright colors and the more squarish shape of the more popular poster artists, the near life-size design was a sensation.

Art Nouveau (“New Art” in French) can trace its beginnings to about this time. Based on precepts akin to William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement in England, the attempt was to eradicate the dividing line between art and audience. Everything could and should be art. Burne-Jones designed wallpaper, Hector Guimard designed metro stations, and Mucha designed champagne advertising (at right) and stage sets. Each country had its own name for the new approach and artists of incredible skill and vision flocked to the movement. .

Overnight, Mucha’s name became a household word and, though his name is often used synonymously with the new movement in art, he disavowed the connection. Like Sinatra, he merely did it “my way.” His way was based on a strong composition, sensuous curves derived from nature, refined decorative elements and natural colors. The Art Nouveau precepts were used, too, but never at the expense of his vision. Bernhardt signed him to a six year contract to design her posters and sets and costumes for her plays. Mucha was an overnight success at the age of 34, after seven years of hard work in Paris.

Alphonse Mucha - IlseeCommissions poured in. By 1898, he had moved to a new studio, illustrated Ilsee, Princess de Tripoli (see image at left), had his first one-man show and had begun publishing graphics with Champenois, a new printer anxious to promote his work with postcards and panneaux – sets of four large images around a central theme (four seasons, four times of day, four flowers, etc. – see below for Stars). Most of these sets were created for the collector market and printed on silk.

Alphonse Mucha - bustThere was a World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and Mucha designed the Bosnia-Hercegovina Pavilion. He partnered with goldsmith Georges Fouquet in the creation of jewelry based on his designs. The bronze, Nature (at right) is from this time period. He also published Documents Decoratifs and announced Figures Decoratives. Documents Decoratifs was his attempt to pass his artistic theories on to the next generation. In actuality, it provided a set of blueprints to Mucha’s style and his imitators wasted no time in applying them.

His fame spread around the world and several trips to America and resulted in covers and illustrations in a variety of U.S. magazines. Portraiture was also commissioned from U.S. patrons. At the end of the decade he was prepared to begin what he considered his life’s work.

Alphonse Mucha - Slav Epic photographMucha was always a patriot of his Czech homeland and considered his success a triumph for the Czech people as much as for himself. In 1909 he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Lord Mayor’s Hall in Prague. He also began to plan out “The Slav Epic” – a series of great paintings chronicling major events in the Slav nation. Financing was provided by Charles Crane, a Chicago millionaire. Mucha had hoped to complete the task in five or six years, but instead it embraced 18 years of his life. Twenty massive (about 24 x 30 feet) canvasses were created and presented to the city of Prague in 1928. Covering the history of the Slavic people from prehistory to the nineteenth century, they represented Mucha’s hopes and dreams for his homeland. In 1919 the first eleven canvases were completed and exhibited in Prague, and America where they received a much warmer welcome.

History hasn’t been kind to either Mucha or to the Czechs – as the current unrest in the area at the turn of this century shows. Mucha’s bequest to his country was received with unkindly cold shoulders. The geopolitical world ten years after World War I was very different from the one in which Mucha had begun his project. Moravia was now a part of a new nation, Czechoslovakia (Mucha offered to help the new country by designing its postage stamps and bank notes). The art world was just as changed. And just as the proponents of “Modern Art” cast their slings and arrows at the oh-so 19th century style, varying political groups brought out their personal arsenals of vitriolic prejudice in damning one aspect or other of Mucha’s work. The public seemed to appreciate them, but political agendas seldom give much weight to public opinion. Only recently have they been made available again. They are on permanent display in the castle at Morovsky Krumlov. Brian Yoder of the Art Renewal Center saw them when he visited the Czech Republic in 2001 (he says they are quite remarkable!). He says “the castle has certainly seen better days and the location is not ideal (for example it is unheated in the winter and is closed to the public during those months).” But at least the public, the appreciative and constant public, can view these masterpieces again.

Alphonse Mucha - The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1861) 1914

The rest of Mucha’s life was spent almost as an anachronism. His work was still beautiful and popular, it just was no longer “new” – a heinous crime in the eyes of the critics. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, he was still influential enough to be one of the first people they arrested. He returned home after a Gestapo questioning session and died shortly thereafter on July 14, 1939.

above – Stars: The Moon, The Evening Star, The Polestar, The Morning Star -1902

Obecni Dum


Stuart Davis


On December 7, 1892, Stuart Davis was born to two Philadelphia artists. His mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, was a prominent sculptor who exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His father, Edward Wyatt Davis, was a newspaper art editor who employed many of the period’s great American Realists– John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. In the company of his parents and their famous artist friends, the young Davis grew up surrounded by art.

At the age of 16, Davis dropped out of high school to study with Robert Henri at the artist’s school in New York City. His parents weren’t the least bit worried over his decision, as they were close friends of Henri and could not have thought of a more experienced mentor for their son. For the next three years, Davis remained at Henri’s school, where he learned above all, to capture “life in the raw.” Under the direction of artist John Sloan, the teenage Davis gained additional experience as an illustrator for the socialist weekly, The Masses.

In 1913, he was invited to participate and attend the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show). Davis later recalled that he was “enormously excited by the show” and was deeply affected by the post-Impressionist works by Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Matisse that were on display. Upon his return from the exhibition, the young artist vowed to become a “modern” artist.

After the Armory Show, Davis redeveloped his style by loosening up his brushwork and perspective. Shortly after, he held his first solo-exhibition which was then followed by a string of shows at the Whitney Studio Club. In 1922, he became a member of the Modern Artists of America. As an established, “modern” artist, Davis gained entrance into the circles of the New York avant-garde. Over the years, he became close friends with abstract painters Charles Demuth, Arshile Gorky, John Graham and the poet William Carlos Williams.

In 1927, Davis encountered a crossroads in his career when he mounted an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table. The Eggbeater Series, was then debuted at the Valentine Gallery. Upon the success of the show, benefactor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney urged Davis to travel to Paris. With her financial help, he was able to go abroad for a year with his girlfriend Bessie Chosak. Once in Paris, he found a studio in the Montparnasse district, painted many Paris street scenes, and married Bessie Chosak.

In 1929, Davis returned from Paris to a changed New York. His mentor Robert Henri had passed away that year and the Great Depression was at hand. Amidst these hardships, his wife, Bessie Chosak Davis, died in 1934 from an infection that was brought on by a botched abortion.

Like many Americans of his time, Davis also suffered financially from the Great Depression. When President Roosevelt announced the debut of the first federally supported art program in 1933, Davis was one of the first artists to sign up. Between 1933-39, he completed several government commissioned murals under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), the Federal Art Project (FAP), and the Works Progress Administration (WAP). With the financial support of the government, Davis was able to continue his exploration in formalism and American subject matter.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he taught at the Art Students League and at the New School for Social Research to supplement his income and promote his ideas on art theory. By the 1950s, Stuart Davis was already a fixed icon in American art. He was enjoying international success and married his second wife, Roselle Springer, who would later give birth to his only child, George Earle. Together, Davis and his wife would frequent local jazz nightclubs. Davis, a longtime fan of jazz and swing music, drew inspiration from the genres and was even friends with famous musicians, such as Duke Ellington.

Stuart Davis continued to enjoy success as an artist well into his later years. He received honors as a representative of the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and 1954. In addition, he was awarded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum International Award in both 1958 and 1960. On June 24, 1964, he died suddenly from a stroke, leaving behind a legacy of paintings and a reputation as one of America’s first modernists.


When the teenage Stuart Davis first moved to New York City, his talent in the American Realist tradition was exceptional. Robert Henri praised his work, and he was often compared to his colleague, Thomas Hart Benton, who was five years older than he. However, Davis’ artistic direction took a different course after he witnessed the Armory Show of 1913. From this point forward, it can be said that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton became lifelong rivals, artists of polar opposites. Whereas Benton became famous as a leader of the Regionalist movement, Davis would go on to paint abstract paintings and become a forefather of the Pop Art movement.

Davis’ shift to abstraction was not an immediate one. He took time in his quest to become a “modern” artist. He explored both Post-Impressionist and Fauvist canvases. It was not until the 1920s that Davis first began to truly research the European techniques of abstraction and Synthetic Cubism. The crown of Davis’ attempts to master Cubism occured during 1927 and 1928, when he mounted an eggbeater, electric fan, and a rubber glove to a table. He then called the Eggbeater Series and the paintings that followed, his “formula pictures,” claiming that the formula involved stripping down his observations of nature to their very core. In doing so, he could paint the same subject matter over and over again, with triumph.

For Davis, every object played an important role in perceiving the modern world, right down to the eggbeaters, gas pumps, matchbooks, and billboards used and seen in everyday life. His subjects come right out of the Jazz nightclubs that he visited and the metropolitan streets of New York City that he enjoyed. Even the specific language of American life during the 1940s and 1950s comes through in his paintings. Phrases such as “The Mellow Pad” and “Swing Landscape” are apt titles for his compositions of squiggly lines and flashy colors.

By painting the jargon and images of American life, Davis was one of the rare painters of the 20th century who successfully transformed a European style of painting (Cubism) into something truly American. However, by the time the Abstract Expressionists took the New York art world by storm in the 1950s, Davis’ art struggled to maintain its modernist edge. Another decade would pass before Davis’ visionary presence would be cemented in art history. In the1960s, artists of the Pop Art movement admired his attention to mass culture. Long before painters such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha, Davis was painting soap boxes, billboards and gas pumps with a tongue-in-cheek wit that was ahead of his time.