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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy

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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy
Hardships of youth
Attractions of the past
A change of style
Period of Christ paintings
Trip to America and the final drama
All Pages


Mihály Munkácsy is one of the most significant painters of the 19th century. Even today he is regarded as the greatest Hungarian painter by admirers, art historians and collectors of his paintings. Some of his paintings became world sensations as soon as he finished them; he was celebrated by art connoisseurs and the art-loving public of Europe, America and Hungary.

His first significant painting, The Condemned Cell (picture no. 28) (1869-1870) received the gold medal of the Paris Salon. Another, Milton (picture no. 82) (1878), won the gold medal of the World Expo in Paris. His Christ Trilogy was admired by hundreds of thousands of people during its exhibition in Europe and in America. The press at the time followed the artist and reported regularly about his work and success. His works were often purchased immediately from the atelier by wealthy American and European collectors.

Munkácsy’s success continues even today, as his paintings are the most frequently visited works in Hungarian public collections, and are sold at high prices at international art auctions. His good friend, Mihály Zichy, compared Munkácsy’s impact on Hungarian culture to that of the musician Ferenc Liszt, and characterized them as follows: “Both of them [...] acquired great reputation -  The Condemned Cell (picture no. 28), the Christ before Pilate (picture no. 128) and Milton (picture no. 82) remain works of art of imperishable value". From the perspective of posterity, we can say that this and other such predictions proved true.

The outstanding recognition, extraordinary popularity and lasting success of Munkácsy and his works can be partly attributed to the extremes of his life: the depths of struggle and dizzying heights of success; misery and dazzling pomp; depressing solitude and glittering, noisy social life. The joinery apprentice broke out of nameless poverty to become a famous painter, receiving notables of Europe and America in his home. That journey for the artist, however, included much pain and required great effort. He prevailed because of his talent, strength, courage, and his singular focus: creation, with all of its joys and sufferings. He was willing to make any sacrifice to achieve it.

The artist, living only 56 years, nonetheless long captured and fascinated his public. The strength of his early paintings, the simplicity of his vision, the tragic drama of his Christ paintings, the bright colours, airiness of his genre paintings, the elegance of his monumental works won over the connoisseurs and art collectors spoiled by other sensations. The richness of emotions was perhaps their most unique quality of his paintings, from compositions about simple stories to those analyzing great questions of human life.

Munkácsy established the Munkácsy Prize (1883) -- an award of six thousand francs per year -- to help ensure the continued development of artists studying in Paris who had previously acquired basic training. Personally participating in the decision-making process, Munkácsy regarded as most important the development of drawing skill. His only condition was that only finished paintings could be entered, since an artist’s drawing skill cannot be fully determined from sketches. The notice for the prize was announced by the Hungarian National Fine Arts Association in spring every year, and two or three young artists awarded the prize. The Munkácsy Award, established in 1950, is a continuation of this tradition and is given every year to a meritorious artist or an individual working in the field of art.

Munkácsy trained many students, partly at his own cost and partly through their mentors. The most famous among them is József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927) who, however, turned against the school of his master in 1889.  Also, László Mednyánszky (1852-1919) spent weeks training with Munkácsy, but also chose another artistic approach. Among the followers of Munkácsy’s style are László Pataky (1857-1912), Imre Révész (1859-1945) and Sándor Bihari (1855-1906), who deeply respected him and regarded him as their master. Though not his direct students, Gyula Rudnay (1878-1957) and János Tornyai (1869-1936) are considered proponents of Munkácsy’s approach, emerging in the 20th century.


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