Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Jan Matulka became a leading Modernist, working with Stuart Davis to find a new genre of Cubism based on distortion of forms. His body of work ranged from traditional to abstract, reflecting the changes in the art world of 20th century America.
In 1907, Matulka came to the Bronx, New York where he spent much of his early twenties in poverty. From 1908 to 1917, he studied at the National Academy of Design, and in 1917, received the first Pulitzer traveling scholarship with which he traveled and painted in the Southwest and Florida. His work from this period showed a movement towards abstraction, replacing his earlier focus on realism.
In 1919, Matulka went abroad to Paris, where he was greatly influenced by Cubism. Around this time, he also traveled extensively back to his birthplace in Czechoslovakia. Although his first important one-man exhibition was at The Art Center, New York in 1926, he didn’t return to the States until one year later, on a scholarship from the National Academy.
From 1929 to 1931, he taught at the Art Students League where he inspired emerging Modernists such as David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, and Irene Rice Pereira. Matulka also did satiric illustrations for the Communist magazine "New Masses," where he expressed his sympathy for the working classes. Although his position was soon eliminated by conservative faculty members, his paintings were included in a showing at the Art Students League in 1931, along with Stuart Davis, John Graham and Arshile Gorky.
In the late 1930s, Jan Matulka became a mural artist at the Federal Art Project under the WPA. He had his final important solo exhibition at ACA Gallery in 1944, yet continued to paint until his death in New York City nearly thirty years later.