Born on November 7, 1890, Jan Matulka was a modern artist who painted in all genres and inspired a lineage of equally talented artists. Like the phases of his life, Matulka showed rich diversity in his paintings, at times creating multiple styles in a single day. His obsession for painting won him many students at one stage and distanced him from social life at another. His works range from abstract art to landscape and everything in between.
Jan Matulka was born in the town of Vlachovo Brezi, Bohemia, a part of erstwhile Austria-Hungary and present-day Czech Republic. In the year 1907, Matulka along with his mother Maria, father John and five younger sisters moved to Bronx, New York. Soon, they were left with little money when his father left the family after separating from his mother.
Jan Matulka studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City from the year 1908 till 1917. He met Ludmila ‘Lida’ Jirouskova in 1917 and in 1918 they got married.
As the first recipient of the Joseph Pulitzer National Traveling Scholarship, Matulka had the opportunity of traveling the United States and the Caribbean through the years 1917-1918.
Career as a Painter
In 1919, he collaborated with writer Parker Fillmore and the duo published two books,Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in 1919 andThe Shoemaker’s Apron in 1920.
In December, 1920, he along with Lida visited his ancestral farms in Czechoslovakia. He also visited France, Germany and Paris. The scenery left him se impressed, that he decided to establish a studio in Paris and often frequented between Paris and New York. The influence of Europe, especially the Turi Pole village, is evident from the many works of Jan Matulka that were dedicated to this place.
Around 1925, he introduced stark and jazzy cityscapes to his already diverse painting style which included landscapes and abstract pieces. For a brief period during 1925-26, Katherine Sophie Dreier became his patron. But that did not last long, owing to their petty disagreements and mainly due to Matulka’s lack of social grace. Over the next few years he took up several assignments but none was able to give him stable source of income.
Max Weber and Vaclav Vytlacil helped him bag his first salaried position as a teacher at the Art Students League of New York. Being the only modernist, his classes became an instant hit among the students. Among his studentswere Francis Criss, David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, Burgoyne Diller, I. Rice Pereira, Ester Shemitz and Jacob Burck. In 1932, the conservative faction of the League succeeded in having him removed from the job. With encouragement from his students, he continued private teaching for a short time and eventually it also disbanded. 1932 onwards he adopted one-on-one sessions to teach.
From 1936 onwards, the year when his sister killed herself, his emotional state kept on declining. He became increasingly isolated, socially as well as emotionally. But his passion for painting encouraged him to create more experimental works. Despite getting much acclaim for his exhibitions, he remained withdrawn from the society. His last days were marred by several health-related issues including deafness. After prolonged illness, this great modernist painter died on June 25, 1972 in New York.