Hungarian (formal)French (Fr)English (United Kingdom)Deutsch (DE-CH-AT)

The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy - Hardships of youth

  • PDF
  • Print
  • E-mail
Article Index
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

Hardships of youth


Mihály Munkácsy was born as Mihály Lieb on February 20, 1844 in the town of Munkács, which was in, at that time, the Hungarian Kingdom. The family was of Bavarian origin; his father, Leó Mihály Lieb, was a governmental salt officer, and his mother, Cecília Reök, came from a gentry’s family. The artist began to use the Munkácsy name in 1863, but did not adopt it officially until 1868.

The young Miska was four years old when the storm of the European revolutions arrived in Hungary and later to Munkács. The family first went to Miskolc and later to his mother’s relatives in Cserépváralja to escape from the invading Russians. In his memoirs the painter recalls how dangerous the route was. They were stopped by the kozaks who had found only the mother and five children in the cart, and so let them go.

In Cserépváralja he spent happy times with his four siblings, and later wrote with nostalgia about the playing, childish fun and beautiful countryside. This idyllic life, however, quickly came to an end at age six, when his mother died. His father’s new wife did not want raise children, so Munkácsy and his siblings were given to various relatives in different parts of the country.

Little Mihály was taken in 1851 by his mother’s uncle, István Reök, a lawyer living in Békéscsaba who had left the capital to escape the reprisals after the fight for freedom. It was difficult for him to find work but he nonetheless agreed to raise his nephew. Despite his efforts, however, he could not give the parental love the small boy needed. He rigorously disciplined the child, who did not learn very well. The following year, Munkácsy’s father died.

During the years in Békéscsaba, the child received consolation and affection from his aunt, Jakabné Steiner, who had taken care of Giza, the boy’s younger sister. He spent many happy hours with a family who lived near the Steiners, the Vidovszkys. The Vidovszky boys became his playmates and, later, his friends. But once again, this relatively happy period soon came to an end: the Steiners were attacked by robbers, who beat his aunt so severely that she died of the injuries. Not long after this horrible event Jakab Steiner left Békéscsaba.

This event was a turning point in the life and career of the young Munkácsy, who later wrote of it: “Once [my Uncle] told me: - ‘My son, I cannot afford to provide for your education any more. Anyhow, nowadays it is much better if somebody is an independent, diligent craftsman... Don’t you want to be a joiner?’"

As a 10-year-old child, Munkácsy did not fully understand what this meant for him, so at first he happily accepted the recommendation and, in 1854, István sent him to learn the joinery craft. Although his uncle paid more than usual to the joiner Mihály Langi to ensure better care and training for the child, the master did not meet his oblgations and the boy endured difficult years ahead. He worked fourteen hours a day, yet got almost nothing to eat. His greatest pain, however, was that he could not learn the joinery craft. We know from his recollections that, despite these difficult times, the boy was not angry with his uncle; indeed, they maintained good relations for the rest of Munkácsy’s life.

In 1858, Munkácsy received the master document in joinery and went to work in Arad, where again he fell into very difficult circumstances. He was employed by a joiner, Albrecht, but he earned only enough for his accommodations, and nothing was left for food.  The youth became seriously ill due to inadequate nourishment. In 1860, he returned to his uncle who, at that time, lived in Gyula.

During his convalescence in his uncle’s home, the Munkácsy boy drew a great deal. His works were greatly appreciated by his uncle, who contacted a local professor of drawing and the painter of the Vienna Academy, Karl Fischer. Through him, Munkácsy became acquainted with Elek Szamossy (1826-1888), a wandering portrait painter with an Academic diploma who found Munkácsy talented, and so took him as a student.

During the next year and a half, Szamossy taught the boy not only the basics of drawing and painting, but also history, literature, and mythology. They travelled all over the country together, visiting Count Zselinszky in Arad, the art collector Zsigmond Ormos in Buziás, and the family of Count Karácsony in Beodra. These years proved to be very important for the intellectual development of the young Munkácsy.

In 1863, he returned to Békéscsaba. There he painted his first oil paintings, the Feather pulling woman and the Letter reading. Szamossy, his teacher and parental patron who followed his development, believed that the young assistant should continue his studies.

In 1863, with the commendation of Szamossy, Munkácsy went to Pest where he contacted Pál Harsányi (1806-1883), Secretary of the National Association of Fine Arts, and Antal Ligeti (1823-1890), Director of the Art Gallery of the National Museum. Ligeti supported him as a friend and teacher, and encouraged him to copy the illustrations in the papers, mainly the folk genre paintings of Mihály Szemlér (1833-1904) and Károly Lotz (1833-1904). Thus, young Munkácsy gained his first technical painting skills through two masters of folk genre who worked in the emotional and pictorial aspects of classic Romanticism, with Lotz as the more romantic influence, and Szemlér the more humorous. Munkácsy’s works of that time – the Fabling soldier, the Maize puffing and the Wicked of the village – represent these influences well.

In 1864, at age 20, Munkácsy went to Pécs and prepared the portraits of his still living relatives, Irén Reök (picture no. 4), Gabriella Reök (picture no. 5), and Sarolta. In 1865, with the support of his patrons and a scholarship from the Association of Fine Arts, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His professor was Karl Rahl (1812-1865), whom he deeply respected. He was, however, most influenced by The Magician, by the German artist Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910), and by the paintings and friendship of János Jankó (1833-1896), Biedermeier folk genre painter. A half year later, after the death of Rahl, he had to leave the Vienna Academy as he was unable to pay the higher tuition fee. Nonetheless, his skills in creating composition developed a great deal during this short period of time. This is well demonstrated by Reading in the village (picture no. 15) and, even more remarkably, by Easter watering (picture no. 12), with its dynamic composition and robust humour, which were unusual in Hungarian folk genre paintings.

In 1866 he came to Pest to treat a severe eye illness. Thanks to the successful therapy of Ignác Hirschler (1823-1891), an eye specialist, the young artist recovered quickly. To express his gratitude and as a payment, he gave the doctor Kettle spilled (picture no. 22).

In November 1866 – again with the support of Antal Ligeti – he enrolled at the Academy in Munich. His teacher was the Hungarian Sándor Wágner (1838-1919), but a professor of the Academy, Wilhelm Kaulbach (1805-1874), and a landscape painter, Eduard Schleich (1812-1874), made the greatest impression on him. Of Munkácsy’s works here, the Flood (picture no. 23) was the most outstanding due to its portrayal of diverse characters. In the composition of Watering and especially Storm in the puszta (picture no. 24), we can see how Munkácsy used the contrasts of dark and light colours to express the atmosphere.

During his studies in Munich, Munkácsy travelled to Pest where he received a commission from the Editor-in-Chief of  Vasárnapi Újság, Viktor Szokoly (1835-1913), in October 1867, to prepare illustrations for Honvédalbum (Album of Soldiers), which was  intended to evoke the memory of the 1848-49 revolution and fight for freedom. Munkácsy prepared three drawings: Battlefield of Isaszeg (picture no. 20), Transport of prisoners and Recruitment of new soldiers. The latter was painted in a second version of the title, Recruitment (picture no. 75).

1867 brought a crucial changed to Munkácsy’s life: he received a scholarship which led him to Paris and the World Expo, where he got acquainted with the works of the French realistic painters, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).  After returning to Munich, he left the Academy and became friends with the German realistic painter, Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) and, inspired by him, decided to go  to Düsseldorf to continue his studies.

For years, Munkácsy had been longing to go to Düsseldorf because of Ludwig Knaus, the Professor of the Academy of the city. As noted above, in Vienna, Munkácsy saw Knaus’ painting, The Magician, portraying a card sharper in the middle of a small group. According to his friends, Munkácsy he was impressed by the work, in particular most likely, the emotional diversity and technical quality.


Munkácsy Alapítvány a facebookon