Vaclav Brozik - one of the last great painters of historical themes

In this week's Czechs in History, we return to the second half of the nineteenth century, to the time when the Czech nation was still only dreaming about its own statehood. But its aspirations in the fields of art and science were then already taking on a more concrete form - represented, for example, by the construction of the magnificent buildings of the National Theatre and the National Museum in Prague. One of the personalities who left a distinctive mark on this period was painter Vaclav Brozik, the best-known representative of the style of Czech historicism.

Vaclav Brozik was born in 1851 in the village of Zelezny Hamr near Pilsen to a poor family of seven children. Three years later the Broziks moved to the outskirts of Prague. Young Vaclav became an apprentice lithographer but all he was interested in was painting. Art historian Nadezda Blazickova-Horova is a specialist on the life and work of Vaclav Brozik.

"Brozik's life is a story of perseverance, hard work and strong will. He managed to fulfil his dream to become a painter of large, famous canvases - something unimaginable and unattainable for a poor village boy. Of course, beside a great talent and strong will, he needed a bit of good luck. In his case it was sponsors. His first sponsor was Prague brewer Pavel Vnoucek. Brozik sang in a church choir with Vnoucek's son who introduced Brozik to his father. Mr Vnoucek liked Brozik's work and tried to help him."

Pavel Vnoucek had personal ties with the director of the Prague Academy of Arts and showed him Brozik's works. Brozik's talent proved to be so remarkable that he would have been accepted to the Academy straight away, had he not lacked the necessary education. Pavel Vnoucek offered a helping hand again, finding and financing a private tutor for young Brozik. So in 1868 Vaclav Brozik finally entered the Prague Academy of Arts at the age of seventeen. At the age of twenty he celebrated his first success in the dream city of artists - Paris.

"After his short studies at the Academy, Brozik stayed for a while in the German cities of Dresden and Munich and studied painting. But Paris was really his dream. There we see another example of his perseverance. When Brozik left for Paris in 1876, he did not know a word of French and all he brought with him was two letters of recommendation. In spite of all that, in two years he became recognised and acclaimed - he was awarded a gold medal at the Salon de Paris. A year later Brozik married the daughter of a rich businessman and art-dealer Charles Sedelmayer and entered the circles of the Parisian financial aristocracy."

Marriage solved financial matters for Brozik and he could finally devote himself fully to painting. After all, that was all he was interested in. Only when he drew or painted, he felt happy. As soon as there was enough daylight in the morning, Brozik would go up to his studio and spend the whole day painting.

During the 1890s Brozik developed his style of historical painting even further, studying old Dutch Masters in the Netherlands. At that time he painted some of his best-known canvases, such as "Columbus" and "Emperor Rudolph II and his Alchemist". Brozik's paintings were exhibited not only in Paris, Vienna and Munich, but also in the United States and Canada. In 1883 Vaclav Brozik finished his monumental painting "Jan Hus before the Council of Constance". The painting, which is displayed in Prague's historic Town Hall, remains for Czechs one of the most cherished works of art.

Brozik's works are part of the interior of other remarkable monuments - the National Museum and the National Theatre in Prague. Vaclav Brozik belongs to an artistic generation dubbed the "generation of the National Theatre", together with artists Vojtech Hynais, Mikolas Ales and Frantisek Zenisek.

However, in the late 1880s and 1890s historical themes were no longer so popular - the popularity of historicism had culminated in the 1860s. Historian Vit Vlnas says the Czech nation was already self-confident enough and no longer had to look back to its past.

"Brozik was very well-known in the nineteenth century as a leading representative of historicism, as a man who interpreted the nation's history on his great canvases that were on a European level. But this kind of Brozik's art came relatively late. His greatest things were displayed in the 1880s and 1890s but the great era of historicism in European art was the 1850s or 1860s. That is why Brozik's art was interpreted at the beginning of the twentieth century as a little bit out of date."

In 1893 Brozik returned to Prague to become professor at the Prague Academy. From that year he divided his time between Prague, where he taught, and Paris, where his family was based. His family would come to Prague in winter and Brozik travelled to France to spend the summer holidays there.

In 1896 Vaclav Brozik was elected one of the "Forty Immortals" of the French Academy and a year later he was raised to peerage by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef I.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Vaclav Brozik was the most famous Czech artist in Europe. However, he remained faithful to his style of historic paintings - only towards the end of his life turning to landscapes and portraits of peasants - at a time when modern Czech artists, such as Alfons Mucha or Frantisek Kupka, were gaining acclaim in Paris.

Although seriously ill, Vaclav Brozik continued to work very hard, neglecting his illness. In 1900 Brozik had to give up painting and returned to Bohemia for the last time. At Christmas he left for Paris, never to come back.

Vaclav Brozik, a hard-working, passionate and prolific artist, one of the last representatives of European historical painting, died in Paris in 1901, a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday. A member of the French Academy, the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences, professor at the Prague Academy of Arts, and bearer of the Cross of the Legion of Honour, Czech artist Vaclav Brozik was buried at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.