Vaclav Vytlacil was born to Czechoslovakian parents in 1892 in New York City. Living in Chicago as a youth, he took classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, returning to New York when he was 20. From 1913 to 1916, he enjoyed a scholarship from the Art Students League, and worked with John C. Johansen (a portraitist whose expressive style resembled that of John Singer Sargent), and Anders Zorn.
He accepted a teaching position at the Minneapolis School of Art in 1916, remaining there until 1921. This enabled him to travel to Europe to study Cézannes paintings and works of the Old Masters. He traveled to Paris, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, and Munich seeking the works of Titian, Cranach, Rembrandt, Veronese, and Holbein, which gave him new perspective. Vytlacil studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, settling there in 1921. Fellow students were Ernest Thurn and Worth Ryder, who introduced him to famous abstractionist Hans Hofmann. He worked with Hofmann from about 1922 to 1926, as a student and teaching assistant.
During the summer of 1928, after returning to the United States, Vytlacil gave lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, on modern European art. Soon thereafter, he became a member of the Art Students League faculty. After one year, he returned to Europe and successfully persuaded Hofmann to teach at the League as well. He spent about six years in Europe, studying the works of Matisse, Picasso, and Dufy. In 1935, he returned to New York and became a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936. He later had teaching posts at Queens College in New York; the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California; Black Mountain College in North Carolina; and the Art Students League.
His paintings exhibit a clear inclination toward modernism. His still lives and interiors from the 1920s indicate an understanding of the art of Cézanne. In the 1930s, his works displayed two very different kinds of art at the same time. His cityscapes and landscapes combine Cubist-inspired spatial concerns with an expressionistic approach to line and color. Vytlacil also used old wood, metal, cork, and string in constructions, influenced by his friend and former student, Rupert Turnbull. He eventually ceased creating constructions as he considered them too limiting. The spatial challenges of painting were still his preference. During the 1940s and 1950s, his works indicated a sense of spontaneity not felt in his earlier work.
He married Elizabeth Foster in Florence, Italy, in 1927 and they lived and worked in Positano, Italy for extended periods of time. Later on, they divided their time between homes in Sparkill, New York and Chilmark, Massachusetts, where Vyt, as he was affectionately called, taught at the Martha's Vineyard Art Association beginning in 1941. He was associated with the Old Sculpin Group and often exhibited his works in its galleries on the island.
He was honored with solo shows at The Carnegie Institute, Montclair Art Museum, Phillips Memorial Gallery, Krasner Gallery, University of Notre Dame, Rochester Art Gallery, and others.
Vytlacils works are included in collections at the Art Students League in New York City; the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; the Dalton School in New York; the University of Notre Dame Art Gallery in South Bend, Indiana; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.
Vaclav Vytlacil died in 1984, at age 92.