Love story in pictures: Alphonse Mucha and Marie Chytilová
exquisite female forms depicted by the glorious Alfonse Mucha
are the most recognisable feature of his style referred to as the Mucha style. The King of Art Nouveau,
a painter who caused a sensation,
a creator of the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt’s stage images
, a designer of her decorations — Mucha,
unlike a number of his colleagues,
knew how hard it was to pluck the fruit of his popularity. The women in his life were not numerous,
and he was quite tight-lipped about his love affairs.
Though being the leading master of the style that glorified La Belle Dame, the artist was in no hurry to tie a wedding knot despite a great many opportunities. The famous La Femme Muchas were an inspiration for poets and writers. His devoted admirers hunted for every new showbill by Mucha (and if they could not buy it, they would tear it off an advertising column). Postcards, posters, lithographs, calendars with exquisite beauties sold thousands of copies.
Mucha created his masterpieces mainly on the basis of the photographs of his sitters. It was faster and easier, because a single day of work in the studio enabled the artist to capture a model in several poses. If we compare the photographs with the paintings, we can quite definitely say that Mucha’s works were very complimentary to the women who posed for them. A face did not matter much — the image of the future subject was born exclusively in the imagination of the artist, and the photographs served only as a draft of the composition and the depicted pose. The beauties surrounded Alfonse Mucha, but his heart was closed. Until 43 years old, he lived not so much as an ascetic, but he could not find anything in the French women that would be in tune with his Slavic soul.
The celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt in the lily headwear designed by Alfonse Mucha
Sarah Bernhardt as Melissande
Auguste Rodin during his Slovakia trip. 1902. Auguste Rodin and Alfonse Mucha are walking in the front, behind them, the artists Miloš Jiránek, Josef Mařatka, and Joža Uprka. Museum of Czech Literature, Prague.
In 1902, Alfonse Mucha accompanied his friend Auguste Rodin to Slovakia where Rodin had a grand exhibition. In the National Theatre of Prague, a gala night was held to welcome the celebrated sculptor. There did they meet first — he, Alfonse Mucha, a brilliant Belle Époque master, and she, Marie Chytilová, a yet-to-be artist, who was studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. While the eyes of the whole audience were riveted on Rodin, Marie was eyeing the painter whose pictures she admired.
Their second meeting took place a year later, in Paris, where Marie had arrived with her relatives. Her uncle, the famous Czech art historian Karel Chytil, had agreed to support his niece’s idea of taking the master’s art lessons (at that time, Mucha was teaching at the Académie Colarossi). A miracle did happen — Mucha fell in love with her. In the mornings, he could see his Maruška (the tender name he used to call her by) at Academy classes, and the rest of the day they would spend together. Mucha’s soul sang with happiness: he had found his Belle Dame, and his dreams of "a Czech heart, a Czech maiden" had come true. His other "women at arm’s length" were now history: his 20-year-old housekeeper and model Louise; the charming Jeanne Freund-Dechamps, a wealthy paints manufacturer’s daughter; and the delicate Berthe de Lalande with whom he had had a leisurely liaison for eight years.
Marie Chytilová in Mucha’s studio in rue du Val-de-Grâce, Paris. 1903
Photo by Alphonse Mucha. Getty Museum
They had to put off their marriage, because in 1904, Mucha armed himself with letters of introduction from Baroness de Rothschild and set off to win America (and to improve his finances). His work for theatres and in advertising was no longer enough for him. He wanted to "leave the advertising racecourse" for more serious artistic subjects. In America, he hoped to find funds for his grand project The Slav Epic, which he had conceived as early as in 1900. In this, he succeeded: he was supported by Charles Crane, a businessman and philanthropist, and besides, a passionate Slavophile. Mucha was introduced to him at a Pan-Slavic banquet in New York City.
Mucha’s self-portrait in an embroidered Russian shirt (
1899) is one of his best-known and commonly reproduced self-portraits. A curious fact is told by Yevgeny Demenok
: the shirt was presented to Mucha by his Russian painter friend David Widhopff,
born in Odessa,
in the South of the Russian . Despite his Jewish origins,
Widhopff was a dedicated supporter of Pan-Slavism,
the idea that Mucha was so enthusiastic about. For both artists,
this present symbolised national unity,
which Mucha later expressed in his famous series The Slav Epic
In May 1904, Mucha returned to Paris, but left for the USA again in January 1905. He regularly wrote to his fiancée, and confessed in his letters that once, at the age of 16, he had been in love, but a disease claimed the girl’s life. "My angel, how grateful I am for your letter … Spring has come into my soul, flowers have blossomed … So happy I am — and want to burst into tears, sing, hug the world." He wrote to Maruška how he felt for her, and she returned the love.
Alfonse Mucha and Marie Chytilová on their wedding day. 1906. From:
Alfonse Mucha and his beloved Maruška got married on 10 June 1906 in Prague. The wedding ceremony took place in the Chapel of St. Rochus of Strahov Monastery. He was 46, she 23. The artist himself made a design of his bride’s wedding ring.
The wedding present to Maruška was an exquisite necklace. Of course, this piece of jewellery was designed by Mucha, too. The jeweller who made it in 1906 was Jan Rechner from Prague. The golden thing is decorated with amulets in the form of pendants made of semi-precious stones, with horseshoe clusters, and with three doves that symbolise love and marriage.
The couple spent their honeymoon in a small village of Pec in the Šumava mountains, and then went to America. Alfonse Mucha needed a new market to sell his art. Now and then, there were times of no financial success — indeed, Maruška did not marry money. In the new location, her husband, with great determination, was trying to organise his affairs as efficiently as possible. For one term, he became a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, then he worked at the Philadelphia School of Art. The artist taught illustration and design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women, and besides, had a number of commissions (such as decorating the interior of the German Theatre of New York: he produced five ornate panel pictures, designed the stage curtain, and painted murals. There, in New York City, Alfonse and Marie had their daughter Jaroslava (1909—1986), who would become an artist.
Maruška and little Jaroslava. Photo from
"How beautiful and gratifying it is to live for someone! Before I met you,
I had only had one sacred thing — our homeland,
I have set an altar for you,
and worship you both…"
Alfonse Mucha, a letter to Marie Chytilová
At last, Mucha’s dream of returning to his native Czechia and getting down to his ambitious artistic project were coming true. In 1909, he was offered a commission to paint murals on the interior of the new city hall of Prague, and in February 1910, Charles Crane agreed to fund The Slav Epic. The series was supposed to consist of twenty huge paintings, half devoted to the history of the Czechs, and ten to other Slavic peoples and milestones in their history. So, the decision was made, and Mucha, his wife, and their daughter returned to Europe.
For the work of such a scale, Mucha needed a studio not big, but enormous. Intensive searching resulted in renting a building that suited his purpose. It was the Zbiroh Castle, located between Prague and Plzeň. The Muchas moved there in 1911. Originally an old fortress, the Zbiroh Castle was later rebuilt by an eccentric German magnate, and now had a look of a group of New buildings. The most important thing was that the place had halls spacious enough for the pieces of canvas bought by Mucha and measured six by eight metres (the largest size possible). As early as in December 1912, the city of Prague received the first pictures of the cycle, Slavs in their Original Homeland, The Celebration of Svantovit, and The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Moravia.
Alfonse Mucha working on The Slav Epic. 1920
After moving to Zbiroh, Mucha and his household made their home in the rooms at the rear of the castle, and the happy family life began. The daily rhythm was coordinated with the time when Mucha was working on the project. Maruška proved to be a practical woman, and managed the household firmly and confidently.
Alfonse Mucha’s photo of his wife (Getty Museum)
The painter’s wife placed orders and received commissions, bargained on prices, hired assistants and models, was in charge of the props and costumes used for staged photographs — and never ever threw anything away.
Alfonse Mucha. Portrait of Maruška, the artist’s wife. 1917
The models for The Slav Epic, during the 14 years of its creation, were all the local people. Like it had been in Paris, Mucha would start his working day by getting up at five in the morning. The work on the scaffolding would take 9 to 10 hours, with short breaks.
The models for the fighting figures in
The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy. 1911—1912. Photo by Alfonse Mucha. © Mucha Trust. From:
A photo preview from the Getty Museum website
Alfonse Mucha, costumed as Jan Hus, posing for a photo
His family was actively involved in the process. Now and then, the father asked his daughter to pose for him, so that he could catch a posture, an aspect angle of the arm or the head. Needless to say, Maruška, his wife and muse, was the model for a great many female characters of The Slav Epic.
The painter foresaw that his enormous canvases would have to be transported rolled up, so he used egg paints as more durable. Sometimes, he went on journeys to scout for locations to be painted. To this end, he visited Croatia and Russia. And in Versailles, he studied the principles of hanging and lighting large pictures.
Alfonse Mucha’s photographs taken in Moscow in 1913. Preview photos
from the Getty Museum collection
Every year, Mucha took his family to Paris. He and his wife strolled about the sites dear to them both. There, he saw Sarah Bernhardt and heard traditional portions of taunting remarks from his colleagues who could not understand why his artistic focus had so drastically changed. In 1915, in Prague, the Muchas had their second child, the son Jiří (1915—1991).
Marie Muchová with her children Jaroslava and Jiří. Zbiroh, Bohemia. Photo by Alfonse Mucha. 1919. Getty Museum.
Jaroslava in her childhood did some ballet dancing, but then, little by little, got involved in her father’s project. First she would sit for him, then was entrusted to mix paints and hand them to him, to line out the backgrounds and make rough drawings of them, to paint not very important areas on the canvases. Years later, after World War II, Jaroslava took an active part in restoring The Slav Epic canvases.
Alfonse Mucha. Jaroslava and Jiří, the artist’s children. 1919
this picture by Mucha disorientated the master’s admirers: it made them believe that the painter had not one,
but two daughters,
or even three children — two daughters and a son. In fact,
the children portrayed are his elder child,
and his son Jiří. In the early 20th century,
there was a fashion of dressing little boys in frocks and allowing their hair to grow long. It seemed quite funny to people of later generations,
so a lot of them were sure that the painting depicted two girls. Another thing that added to the general misapprehension was the son’s name Jiří (
equivalent to the English George). In its Czech form,
it has no gender indication.
Alfonse Mucha with his family
The artist’s son,
screenwriter and translator Jiří Mucha remembers
, "…my father got married very late. So my growing up and the formation of my personality,
and thus getting to know my father were taking place when he was far over sixty. I did not view him as the father in the full sense of this word — rather a figure,
‘a most serious philosophy institute' that educated the child in a somewhat unconventional way. For my father,
the process of education was something absolutely rational,
so any primitive methods like beating or other punishments were rejected. <…> …once,
when I was half a year or one year old,
I was crying inconsolably. My father seated me down beside him near the easel,
and tried to persuade me to stop crying. Of course,
I wailed on,
and on. That made my mum and nanny feel so helpless that they started crying,
but my father kept explaining to me patiently that I should not. And that was typical of how our relations developed." Perhaps,
the father wanted his son to be an artist: in the portrait,
the boy was ‘given' paintbrushes. However,
it was not him,
but the daughter who became one,
and Jiří Mucha dedicated all his life to promoting his father’s oeuvre,
and wrote his biography. Does the public side of the family’s life differ much from what was going on behind the scenes? By the way,
Jiří's own life was far from serene: there were rumours of his drinking binges,
and of his illegitimate daughter. However,
that is another story.
The main thing is that Alphonse himself treated all his projects, whether the artistic or family ones, with equal earnestness and patience. Throughout the years of World War I, when Austria was at war with France, he was persistently working. Wartime economic problems made it difficult to get canvases as large as he needed: the factory that manufactured them had been bombed out. Besides, it was quite a task to get eggs for the paints. However, Maruška seemed tireless striving to help her family oppose the everyday challenges. The war ended, but Mucha’s work went on. He welcomed the newly-created Czechoslovak Republic, and designed new Czechoslovak banknotes, charging not a farthing for the job. On the 10 korun note, he placed the portrait of his daughter Jaroslava, and the 100 korun note bore the image of the daughter of Charles Crane, Mucha’s sponsor and benefactor.
The Slav Epic series was completed in 1928, in the year of the Czechoslovak Republic’s tenth anniversary. There is a rare shot of the period when The Slav Epic was being created. The piece of filming gives us an opportinity to see the charismatic and imposing painter, and one of the scenes shows him against a canvas of his grand series.
In March 1939, the Nazis occupied Prague. Alfonse Mucha, famous for his patriotic views, was listed as an enemy of the Third Reich. The 78-year-old artist went through several arrests and interrogations. It ruined the aged master’s health, ill enough as it is. Once, while interrogated, Mucha caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. Still, his fortune was kind to him once more in his life: not in a cold cell did he die, but in his own bed, with his beloved Maruška staying by him till he drew his last breath.
Alphonse Mucha. Portrait of Maruška, the artist’s wife. 1908
Alfonse Mucha’s family history is not over. Largely,
it is related to the master’s oeuvre. "I always say that my Czech grandmother must have had some Scottish blood because she never threw anything away," believes John Mucha,
the artist’s grandson,
and the founder of the Alfonse Mucha’s Foundation
. The Foundation’s broad collection numbers about 3,000 artworks,
of which drawings and pastels make a significant part. Besides,
there are about 4,000 photographs. Due to John’s efforts, the Mucha Museum appeared in Prague
. In recent years,
John Mucha has been mentioned in connection with the controversy about displaying The Slav Epic
the artist’s grandson (
sometimes in the company of his wife and children) is present at the opening ceremonies of exhibitions organised by the Foundation.
Title illustration: a collage of Alphonse Mucha’s Self-Portrait (1899) and Portrait of Maruška, the artist’s wife (1917)