František Kupka 1871—1957

L’Homme et la Terre 1904–1905

Gouache, paper

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Comprising a total of 105 artworks (54 drawings of 400 x 600 mm, 51 drawings of approximately 350 x 500 mm) this series constitutes the most extensive and undoubtedly most valuable collection of Kupka’s illustrations. Not only is it remarkably coherent and extensive, it is especially significant with respect to the modernity of the individual illustrations, some of which anticipate Kupka’s abstract work. Illustrations for LHomme et la Terre (The Earth and its Inhabitants 1905–1908) were created following an order placed by Élisée Reclus (1830–1905), author of the six-volume history of mankind. His final scientific work, subsequently completed by his nephew Paul Reclus (1858–1941), is a critical endeavour at compiling a comprehensive history of mankind from its prehistoric beginnings to the present, infused with an awareness of e.g. environmental issues and animal rights.

Élisée Reclus

The unambiguous shift from positivism to a consideration of the historical and political context, like the accentuation of social visions, foreshadowed the emergence of geopolitical theories. The scientific work of Élisée Reclus, one of the most prominent figures of the French militant anarchist movement, must be seen from this perspective. František Kupka, who came from the same anarchist circles, created for Reclus – by mutual agreement – an atypical body of ironic and satirical works, one which stands in stark contrast with illustrations common at the time. Their shared political convictions and the artist’s idiosyncratic qualities as a caricaturist were presumably one of the main reasons why Reclus chose Kupka over better-known artists with similar beliefs, including e.g. Maxmilien Luce, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen and Théo van Rysselberghe. Reclus specifically wished to avoid his work being illustrated in a conventional manner, which Kupka managed to achieve by refraining from capturing the literal meaning of his text.

Élisée Reclus, LHomme et la Terre, 1905-1908

Kupka worked on the series for approximately five years (1904–1908). The first drawings were made at the same time as his famous pieces for LAssiette au beurre, while the last were finished just before his first abstract sketches. Thus, the early hallmarks of abstraction are already in plain sight, especially in the background of some sheets. Kupka delivered the first illustrations, along with an advertising poster, in December 1904. The publishing house paid the artist one hundred and fifty francs for the frontispiece, seventy francs for each title page and forty francs per vignette. Although František Kupka had previously acquired some experience with illustrations for satirical magazines, his collaboration with Élisée Reclus was inherently more difficult, as he first had to tackle the encyclopaedic scope of the work. For study reasons, he visited selected scientific institutions and attended university lectures, devising a working method subsequently applied to his future assignments. Kupka’s illustrations constitute a synthesis of various artistic styles while also recycling his own older work, including e.g. the title page of Le Salariat, a brochure by anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin. While the influence of Théophil Alexandre Steinlen is palpable in drawings featuring social themes, photographs as well as the artist’s own sketches play a significant role. Kupka did not always manage to avoid the vocabulary of conventional historical painting, relying on this tool when composing drawings with more complex narratives. However, most of his drawings highlight Reclus’ own vitalist thinking. Reclus, much like Kupka himself, perceived history as a liberation of man taking place thanks to progress, thus ennobling and connecting mankind with the energy of the universe. 

About the artist

Following his studies at fine arts academies in Prague and Vienna, František Kupka launched his Paris career in 1896 as a skilled fashion magazine illustrator. However, as a result of his growing affinity towards the anarchist movement, by the turn of the century he was producing drawings which were largely political and satirical in nature. While three of his series (Money, Religion and Peace), created for the satirical magazine LAssiette au beurre between 1901 and 1904, reached international critical acclaim, he also contributed to other periodicals, including the humour magazine Le Rire, the anarchist newspaper Les Temps nouveaux, the pictorial revue LIllustration, the Art Nouveau journal Cocorico and the satirical weekly Le Canard sauvage. Simultaneously, since approximately 1899, he began to publish his socio-critical and esoteric prints including e.g. The Fools, Resistance – Black Idol and The Way of Silence, which reflected his anarchistic political convictions and spiritist experiments (and incidentally brought him close to Alfons Mucha). In 1904–1905, he illustrated the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus’ LHomme et la Terre (The Earth and its Inhabitants), a masterwork presenting the author's notions and deep knowledge of the physical and spiritual principles of the creation, composition and existence of the universe and of mankind, interwoven in an abstract manner which brought him very close to reflections on the nature of abstraction itself. Although he initially resisted the term abstraction, around 1910 Kupka concluded that an artist as creator in fact shares much with the hypothetical Creator himself: he stands before a blank canvas, filling it with random as well as causative elements – coloured points, planes or other forms – whose interplay produces associations and emotions, i.e. utilizes a similar principle as the creation of the world itself or the creation of music in a world of sound. Orphism, the term coined by Apollinaire for this particular kind of abstract reasoning, differed significantly from the concept of abstraction as derived from analytical cubism; in fact, it was its very opposite: a synthetic concept, true artistic creation, as contemplated by Kupka and his friends from the Puteaux Group. At the Paris Autumn Salon of 1912, Kupka was one of the first painters to exhibit purely abstract pieces, including Amorpha Fugue in Two Colours and Warm Chromatics. Although his works were met with more or less negative critical reception, as is usually the case in similar instances, Kupka was not discouraged from further developing his abstract thinking. While he was not initially considered a pioneering figure of abstraction, he did achieve some recognition among French and international gallery owners of the interwar period, e.g. due to his membership in the Abstraction – Création international association of artists and thanks to several exhibitions featuring purely abstract variations and painting series (his first solo exhibition was held at the Povolozki Gallery at 13, rue Bonaparte in 1922, his last before the war was a joint exhibition with Alfons Mucha at the Jeu de Paume in 1937). Kupka did not live to see his first great postwar retrospective at the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris in 1958; he died in Puteaux on 24 June 1957. Kupka is widely recognized as one of the three key founders of the international abstract art movement. He is also the best known – and most expensive – Czech painter in history.

Exhibition history

Kupka – Waldes. Malíř a jeho sběratel, Rudolfinum Gallery, Prague, 7. 12. 1999 – 9. 1. 2000.

Vers des temps nouveaux : Kupka, oeuvres graphiques, 1894–1912, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 25. 6. – 6. 10. 2002.

National Museum of China, Beijing, 2005.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2006.

National Museum of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, 2006.

Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand, 2006.

Člověk a Země, Zámecký pivovar, Litomyšl, 2007.

František Kupka, Pionnier de LAbstraction, Grand Palais, Paris, 21. 3. – 30. 7. 2018.

František Kupka: Člověk a Země, Aleš South Bohemian Gallery, Hluboká nad Vltavou, 10. 6. – 7. 10. 2018.

František Kupka, National Gallery in Prague, 7. 9. 2018 – 20. 1. 2019.

František Kupka, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, 2019.


Elisée Reclus, LHomme et la Terre, Bibliotheque universelle, Paris, 1905–1908. Volumes 1–6.

Pierre Brullé; Marketa Theinhardt; Petr Wittlich; Marie-Pierre Salé, Vers des temps nouveaux: Kupka, Oeuvres graphiques 1894–1912, RMN, Paris 2002.

Pavel Chalupa, Antoine Marés, Les artistes tchèques en France, Pour la Tchécoslovaquie, hommage à un pays inexistant; Za Československo, pocta neexistující zemi, Prague 2016, pp. 46–49.

BRULLÉ, Pierre; LÉAL, Brigitte; THEINHARDT, Markéta. KUPKA: Pionnier de l’abstraction. Catalogue d’exposition. Réunion des musées nationaux, 2018. ISBN 2711863913.

PRAVDOVÁ, Anna; THEINHARDT, Markéta, ed. František Kupka 1871–1957. V Praze: Národní galerie v Praze ve spolupráci s Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais a Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, 2018. ISBN 978-80-7035-689-0.


Collection of Jindřich Waldes.

National Gallery in Prague restitution 1995.

Private collection, Czech Republic.

Pro arte, acquired in 2013.