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Like many of his countrymen, the young Bukovac had a strong desire to escape the limited career opportunities of the Dalmatian coast and seek his fortune elsewhere. His uncle Frano had already emigrated to America, and asked young Vlaho to join him in New York in 1867. It’s at this point that Bukovac’s biography begins to resemble something out of a Charles Dickens novel. His uncle soon died and his aunt re-married almost immediately, leaving Bukovac in the hands of a wicked step-uncle who wanted him out of the house. Bukovac was packed off to a grim home for young delinquents, and only escaped when his talent for drawing attracted the attention of staff members – who quickly realized that he should never have been sent there in the first place.
Returning to Cavtat in 1871 Bukovac started training as a merchant seaman, a career that ended abruptly when he fell through a tap-door on board ship and suffered severe concussion. Convalescing at home he set out painting the walls of his parents house with fanciful scenes of gardens and animals – these faithfully-restored murals can still be seen at the Bukovac House in Cavtat (see below). Bukovac’s wanderlust soon returned and in 1877 he set off with his brother to Peru, where he got a job painting the interiors of railway carriages. Moving on to San Francisco he worked in a café, painting portraits of middle-class gentlefolk in his spare time.
Returning home in 1877, Bukovac was taken up by local art enthusiasts who were willing to finance a period of study in Paris. He spent the next five years in the French capital, emerging with a solid reputation as an accomplished painter of society portraits and semi-nudes. His La Grande Iza, a portrayal of a fictional courtesan, was the sensation of the Paris Salon of 1882, and he was immediately taken up by Paris and London art dealers eager to promote him as a painter of mildly erotic boudoir scenes.
However it was as a portraitist that Bukovac was most in demand, spending several months as painter-in-residence at the homes of rich English industrialists near Leeds and Liverpool. Back in Croatia by the mid 1890s, Bukovac became a leading light in the Zagreb art scene, agitating for the construction of a national Art Pavilion (which still survives) and painting interiors for both the University Library and the National Theatre. However he was never on good terms with the other Croatian painters of the day, and the offer of a teaching post in Prague 1903 provided him with an escape route from the backstabbing world of Croatia’s cultural elite. Solidly appreciated by the Czechs, Bukovac remained in Prague until his death in 1922.
Best place to get to grips with Bukovac’s work is the Bukovac House in Cavtat, which occupies the lovingly restored stone house in which the painter grew up. All aspects of his career are covered: the family portraits are particularly adorable and touching, whilst the melodramatic canvases inspired by Dante’s inferno reveal the wilder, romantic side of Bukovac’s ever-fertile imagination. Bukovac House (Kuća Bukovac)
Bukovčeva 5, tel. 020 47 86 46, www.kuca-bukovac.hr.