Vlaho Bukovac was born on July 4, 1855 in Cavtat.
Bukovac’s grandfather, the Italian seaman, Giuseppe Fagioni, taking refuge from a storm in the Cavtat harbor on one occasion, decided to stay there. He bought a small house and married Ane Kličan. The youngest of their children, Agostino, later made additions to his father’s house where he lived with his wife, Marija Perić, and his children: Jozo, Vlaho, Ane and Gjorgje.
Bukovac spent his youth far away from his family home. At only eleven years of age, he left with his uncle, Frano, for New York.
Shortly after their arrival in America, Bukovac’s uncle unexpectedly died. His uncle’s wife, Bukovac’s aunt by marriage, instead of sending him to school, sent him to a juvenile reform school on Heart’s Island.
Four years later, Bukovac returned from New York to Cavtat. So as not to be a burden to his parents, the fifteen-year-old Bukovac decided to earn his living on the open sea. After a short nautical training, he left as a sailor on the boat, “Osmi dubrovački,” which was traveling to Istanbul-Liverpool-Odessa. Bukovac’s life as a sailor was soon brought to an end by a dangerous fall into the hold of the ship. During the time of his convalescence in Cavtat Bukovac began the first wall paintings in his parents house and news spread through the town that Bukovac was a talented painter.
Soon after his recovery, Bukovac decided to seek his fortune in the world again. In 1873 he left for Peru with his brother, Jozo. There he successfully earned money painting train cars, but after just one year, he left for California in search of better work. In San Francisco, he began his “amateur” career in painting, as well as his first lessons in art. He painted portraits by commission, and the positive critiques he received encouraged him to return to Europe to study painting formally.
During his short time in Cavtat, Bukovac prepared for his artistic training by painting portraits of his family. In 1877, under the influence of the Dubrovnik poet, Medo Pucić, he changed his last name, Fagioni, to the Croatian, Bukovac.
The Paris Period (1877 – 1893)
With the help of Medo Pucić in 1877, Bukovac set off for Paris. Thanks to the small painted study, “Hand,” he was accepted at the École des Beaux Arts in the already overfull class of Alexandre Cabanel. He made such quick progress in painting that just the following year, in 1878, he exhibited at one of the most important international exhibitions – the Paris Salon. For the next fifteen years, until 1893, Bukovac would exhibit various paintings, especially nudes, portraits and Montenegrin motifs.
With the passage of time, Bukovac became well-known as an excellent portraitist. During his time as a student, and later, when established in Paris, he made several trips to paint portraits in Cavtat, Cetinje, Korčula, Split, Zadar. Beginning in 1886, thanks to a relationship with the English art dealers, the Vicars brothers, he made several visits to England, and left a great number of portraits there.
The landscapes and views painted in the forest of Fontainebleau, Montmartre or at home in Cavtat and the surrounding countryside form an interesting contrast to the academic compositions that otherwise characterized Bukovac’s Paris phase.
In 1892 Vlaho Bukovac married the young Jelica Pitarević from Dubrovnik, which whom he had four children, his son Ago and daughters, Ivanka, Jelica and Marija.
The Zagreb Period (1893 – 1898)
With his arrival in Zagreb in 1893, Bukovac became the central figure and founder of a Croatian art scene. He was the initiator of artistic events and, by influencing a generation of young artists, participated in the creation of the foundations of Modern Art in Croatia.
Young artists such as Bela Čikoš Sesija, Oton Iveković, Ivan Tišov, Robert Frangeš, Rudolf Valdec and Robert Auer, who had been studying art in Munich, Stuttgart and Vienna, returned to Zagreb so that they could work with Bukovac. Allowing them the freedom of personal expression, but directing them to the importance of painting in nature, a characteristic that they all shared, he urged them to use a lightened palette and impressed the importance of color on them– thus they were known as the “Colorful Zagreb School.”
In 1896, the majority of those artists, with Bukovac as their leader, exhibited in the Millennial Exhibition in Budapest. Upon the close of the Exhibition, the iron skeleton of the Croatian Pavilion of History and Art, which had been built specially for the Exhibition, was transported to Zagreb. Moving the building was due largely to the efforts of the artists. It served as the basis of Zagreb’s first Art Pavilion.
Bukovac’s Zagreb phase, apart from exceptional portraits, is also characterized by the large compositions, “Dubravka” and “Long Live the King,” which he painted for the Golden Hall of the government’s department for religion and education, the monumental ceremonial curtain, “Glory to Them,” for the Croatian National Theater and “Gundulić’s Dream” for Bishop Strossmayer’s Art Gallery.
In 1897 Bukovac roused the younger artists to secede from the conceptually-outdated Society of Art and founded the Society of Croatian Artists, in keeping with the spirit of the time. In 1898 this society organized a large exhibition, the “Croatian Salon,” which was the first representative presentation of Croatian Artists in the Art Pavilion.
In the same year, directly before the opening of the Croatian Salon, as a result of a culmination of disagreements with Izidor Kršnjavi, a disappointed Bukovac left Zagreb and retreated to his birthplace of Cavtat.
The Cavtat Period (1898 – 1902)
Bukovac remained in Cavtat for four years. He painted views of the landscapes of Cavtat and Dubrovnik, as well as portraits of friends and family. He painted a diorama, “The Tomb of Christ” for the parish church of St. Nikola – a large scene staggered in recessive planes which is still used today during Easter week in the sanctuary of the church. Bukovac also painted the ceiling of the Bonda theater in Dubrovnik.
In 1900, Bukovac exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and in 1901 at the Venice Biennial for the second time.
In peaceful Cavtat, he began to miss working and socializing with other artists and so decided to set off again into the world, this time with his family. In 1902 he left for Vienna where he had a large solo exhibition.
The Prague Period (1903 – 1922)
During his short stay in Vienna, Bukovac received an invitation from Prague to fill an open position as professor at the Academy of Fine Arts. He spent the last twenty years of his life in Prague dedicating himself to pedagogical work, spending most summers in Cavtat, the place of his birth. He had his first solo exhibition in Prague in 1915.
During the First World War, Bukovac wrote his autobiography, published under the name Moj život in 1918 in Zagreb.
He visited Cavtat for the last time in 1920.
He died on April 23, 1922 in Prague. His funeral procession was conducted with the greatest honors and he was buried in his native Cavtat.