How a mission to introduce the world to Bosnia-Herzegovina changed the course of Alphonse Mucha’s life.
Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) was a Czech artist who first made his name crafting fantastical images of beautiful women for advertising campaigns.
Around the time this 1899 poster for Moet champagne was made, Mucha won a well-paid commission to decorate Bosnia-Herzegovina's pavilion at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.
The expo was a showcase of technical achievements and cultures from 40 countries, who built pavilions for the event.
Before the expo opened, Mucha was provided with a rail pass to travel through Bosnia to research his assignment. He later wrote: “I was not only very satisfied with my journey but also amazed. What I had been looking for so hard all this time I found among the Balkan Slavs.”
Mucha, whose homeland was also under Austro-Hungarian control, noted that while describing “the glorious and tragic events in [Bosnia’s] history, I thought of the joys and sorrows of my own country, and of all the Slavs.”
Mucha’s highly paid assignment to introduce Bosnia to some of the 48 million visitors to the Paris Expo was paid for by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was eager to present the Balkan territory as a “model colony.”
Mucha drew from Bosnian fables and history for the large-scale illustrations.
Although Mucha spent much of his working life in Paris, he always considered himself a Czech artist.
Famed actress Sarah Bernhardt described her collaborator friend as "a Czech from Moravia not only by birth and origin, but also by feeling, by conviction, and by patriotism."
A report in the Scientific American magazine noted dryly that the pavilion illustrates “not only the history of [Bosnia], but the progress which is being made in the arts and industries, agriculture, education, railroads, etc.”
During the assignment to illustrate the heritage of his fellow Slavs, Mucha later described a moment of revelation: “It was midnight and there I was all alone in my studio…among my pictures, posters, and panels. I became very excited. I saw my work adorning the salons of the highest society or flattering people of the great world with smiling and ennobled portraits. I saw the books full of legendary scenes, floral garlands, and drawings glorifying the beauty and tenderness of women.
"This was what my time, my precious time, was being spent on, when my nation was left to quench its thirst on ditch water.… As I stood there looking at all these things, I swore a solemn promise that the remainder of my life would be filled exclusively with work for the nation."
After his widely celebrated work in the Paris Expo, which won him the Legion of Honor from the French government, Mucha hunted out a patron to fund the Slav Epic, a giant sequence of paintings depicting the history and mythology of the Slavic race. He began the epic in 1910 when his country was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and finished it in 1928 -- 10 years after Czechoslovakia gained independence.