About CZ
Facts about the Czech Republic
Famous historical figures


Jan Zrzavý

photo: Jan Zrzavý (wikimedia.com)


Jan Zrzavý was a leading  graphic artist, illustrator and scenographer, a significant personality of Czech modern art and a principal representative of the avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century.  He founded an artistic group named Sursum, and was a member of the Mánes, Tvrdošíjní (Obstinates), Umělecká beseda and Hollar (Czech Graphic Association) artistic associations. He was a mysterious, solitary artist with his own melancholic world, rarely open to anybody else. The mystery communicated through his creations is the reason why he is often called the “painter of dreams”.

Jan Zrzavý was born on 5th November 1890 in Okrouhlice near Havlíčkův Brod (map). He was skilled in many areas, including painting, literature (he wrote poems) and dramatic art, and decided to direct his professional career to the visual arts. He studied at the UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague for two years before being expelled. After that, he made four attempts to enrol at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague without success. Therefore he studied privately, choosing significant Czech painters (Karel Reisner, Vladimír Županský, František Ženíšek).

Jan Zrzavý was influenced by many world-famous artists and many artistic styles. He found inspiration from Italian Renaissance masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Rafael, and he was learning from Medieval Gothic paintings (e.g. Magdalene; he was intrigued by the work of  Munch, Seurat and Gauguin). At the beginning, he inclined towards fading secession symbolism and impressionism, for example in his paintings Údolí smutku (Valley of Sorrow) or Nokturno (Nocturno). Even at that time his creations strongly indicate lyrism, which became a distinctive feature of his unique expression in his later works as well. There is a marginal influence of cubism seen in, for example, Zátiší s konvalinkami (Still life with Lily of the Valley) and Meditace (Meditation).

After the First World War artist’s abstracting, poetic style with plain volumes and shapes, soft contours and not overartistic colouring became even more visible (Girlfriend). During the next period of his artistic development he focused his effort on landscapes, in particular in Venice, Bretagne and Bohemia (Camaret; Venetia; two variants – day and night – of the Venetian temple San Marco and Ostravské haldy (Ostrava Slug Heaps). Their initial impulses can be seen traced in his travels to Italy, Belgium and France. During the Second World War his landscape paintings featured fatality and baladic motifs (Via Appia). Nevertheless, besides the motif of death there was hope as well – as in Benátské zátiší (Venetian still life). He developed the strongly lyrical style arising from his imagination also in the period after the Second World War. During that time, the paintings Biton, Studna v Karlachových sadech (Well in Karlach Park), Lodi v Le Fret (Ships in Le Fret), Červená bárka (Red Boat) or Bretaňský přístav (Port in Brittany) were created. His artistic career is distinctive with repeating specific motifs (namely the motif of Cleopatra or Brittany).

Besides abundant paintings, Jan Zrzavý was also a distinctive illustrator. You can find his creations in many books. Perhaps the most famous are his illustrations in Mácha’s Máj (May) and in Karel Jaromír Erben’s Kytice (The Garland). In addition, he produced stage settings – for example, for operas performed at the stage of the National Theatre and the Estates Theatre in Prague (Mozart – Idomeneus, Verdi – Rigoletto, Debussy –The Prodigal Son, Dvořák – Armida).

After the war he became an associate professor at Palacký University of Olomouc, Department of Visual Art at the Faculty of Philosophy, teaching painting and composition. In 1965 he was honoured with the National Artist title. In 1972 he published a book of his memories simply called Jan Zrzavý vzpomíná (Jan Zrzavý recollecting).

Despite his poor health, Jan Zrzavý died at the age of 86, on 12th October 1977 in Prague. Two years earlier he had bequeathed his artistic works (over 100 paintings and 1,500 drawings) to the National Gallery. He was buried at the cemetery in Krucemburk in his native Vysočina region, where he had lived for a long time.

Author: Romana Kuncová
Added: 23.09.2010

Related articles

Famous historical figures

Emil Zátopek

The Czech sporting elite includes numerous famous personalities whose achievements during the Olympic...

Famous historical figures

Tomáš Baťa

Tomáš Baťa, a Czechoslovak born in Zlín (the region of Moravia), is considered to be one of the world...

Famous historical figures

Saint Wenceslas

(probably 907 – probably 935)

Famous historical figures

Czech travellers – part 2

Every nation has its famous personalities, whose names universally evoke adventure, exotic countries...

Most favourite

History of Czech fine art

What happened in the realm of fine art at the very beginning of the Czech…


The Czech Republic is a landlocked country located in moderate geographical…

The most significant current discoveries

During the last decade, Czech science has made many revolutionary discoveries…

Czech language

The Czech language belongs to the group of West Slavic languages. From another…