Born in Bohemia
Alphonse Mucha is born in Ivančice, a town in the Bohemian country of South Moravia (in present day Czech Republic) under Austrian control. With fierce Germanization of Czech culture on the rise, it’s a pressure cooker of nationalistic identity.
Kicked out of high school, Mucha decides to become an artist
Due to poor performance, Mucha is expelled from the secondary school he’s attending on a choral scholarship. That same year, the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague rejects him, saying “find yourself another profession where you'll be more useful.”
Nevertheless, on seeing a baroque fresco in a Moravian church — and realizing you can actually making a living through art — he vows to become a professional artist.
Mucha starts as an apprentice set painter in Vienna but he’s laid off when the Ring Theatre — one of his main clients — burns down. He returns to Moravia and starts painting portraits of local society figures. Count Karl Khuen-Belasi gives him his first commission and becomes his first patron.
Studies in Munich
Count Khuen-Belasi sponsors Mucha’s training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, he continues to contribute to satirical magazines like Fantaz and Krokodil back in Moravia.
Studies in Paris
With the bills still footed by Count Khuen-Belasi, Mucha studies first at the Académie Julian (where he crosses paths with Paul Sérusier and the Nabis) then at Académie Colarossi.
Both schools strive to provide students with an alternative to the conservative education of the École des Beaux Arts.
Returns to freelancing
When Count Khuen-Belasi’s sponsorship runs dry, Mucha has to leave the Académie Colarossi. He pays the bills illustrating for various French and Czech publishers, and moves into a new studio above Madame Charlotte Caron’s Crémerie, a cafe frequented by the likes Paul Gauguin, Stanisław Wyspiański and the August Strindberg, where artists can pay for food with paintings.
Illustrates Sarah Bernhardt for the first time
As a regular contributor to Le Costume au théâtre et à la ville, an eight-page periodical featuring drawings of theatre costumes, Mucha draws Sarah Bernhardt (as Cleopatra) for the first time.
Gets a new studio, a new camera and a new approach
Mucha moves in to a new studio with Paul Gauguin, down the street from the Crémerie. That same year, he buys his first camera and photography becomes an integral part of his process, his key to capturing the specificities in his subject’s poses.
Mucha and his models improvise during shoots, and he’d base later illustrations on the photos he took, rather than the other way around, becoming the first poster artist to work directly from photography.
Mucha’s big break
On December 26, 1894, Sarah Bernhardt was in desperate need of a new poster for her play Gismonda, whose initial run had just been prolonged. It had to be ready for January 1. She called her publisher Lemercier but because of the holidays, none of the firm’s usual artists were available — well, none except Mucha, who happened to be at the firm correcting proofs for a friend.
The larger-than-life poster that would make icons of them both appeared on the streets of Paris New Year’s Day, and was an immediate hit. Bernhardt ordered 4,000 copies of the poster, and signed Mucha to a six-year contract.
A banner year
He (and his lucrative contract with Sarah Bernhardt) are taken on by Imprimerie Champenois, one of the most important printer’s of the time, and he moves into a new frond-filled, light-drenched studio at No.6 rue du Val-de-Grâce.
This year alone, he produces some of his most iconic work, including “The Seasons,” “Zodiac” and the poster for Job cigarettes. Over the next eight years, he would produce upwards of 100 posters for Champenois.
Mucha goes global
Imprimerie Champenois plasters Mucha’s work all over whatever it can — calendars, postcards, menus and more — and licences his designs to companies throughout Europe and North America. He has his first solo exhibition, with a preface written by Sarah Bernhardt, and over the next two years, his work will be shown in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, London and New York.
For the Exposition universelle of 1900, Mucha is commissioned to design the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion. During his research trips through the Balkans, he first gets the idea for Slav Epic.
Back in Paris, he branches out into jewellery making and interior design with Alphonse Fouquet, designing pieces as well as a new boutique which gives a place of pride to a pair of peacocks, the unofficial mascots of art nouveau.
Writes the book on art nouveau
Mucha publishes Document décoratifs, an encyclopedia of his designs for posters, illustrations, jewellery and more. The book becomes a mix-and-match art nouveau style guide, and is taught in schools across France and abroad.
Fundraises in the U.S.
Mucha’s first trip to the States is front-page news, and, over the next five years, he travels back and forth across the pond in search of a benefactor to fund Slav Epic. He teaches classes — known as cours Mucha — at the New York School of Applied Design for Women and the Art Institute in Chicago.
Begins his epic
Returning to Moravia, Mucha devotes himself completely to Slav Epic, and completes his first three — of an eventual 20 — canvases by 1912.
Brands a new nation
Czechoslovakia declares its independence from the Austro-Hunarian empire in 1918, and Mucha designs the sovereign state’s first postage stamps and bank notes.
Wins big with the Freemasons
After a longstanding association with Freemasonry that began in Paris in 1898, Mucha is elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Czech Supreme Council of Freemasons.
Finishes his epic
Mucha completes that final three canvases of Slav Epic.
Mucha’s final stand for Czechoslovakia
Back in Prague, Mucha catches pneumonia in the fall of 1938 and his work slows down. His Masonic activities, on top of being simply being Slavic, make him a target of the gestapo when the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia in 1939.
He’s betrayed by a collaborator, arrested and questioned for days before being released. His health takes a turn for the worse, and Alphonse Mucha, reluctant poster boy for the art nouveau movement, dies on July 14, 1939, 10 days before his 79th birthday.