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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy - Attractions of the past

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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

Attractions of the past



In October 1868, at age 24, Munkácsy arrived in Düsseldorf. The natural beauty of the town attracted painters, and its colony of artists at that time was as large as that of Munich. The special style of the Academy, referred to as the “school of Düsseldorf,” also was a draw, characterized by a more natural and simple portrayal of reality compared to styles at the classic academies. In addition, a dominating feature was the portrayal of multi-colour-tinged psychological representations, best expressed by the multi-figure genre paintings.

Knaus amicably accepted the young painter and undertook his education. The first genre Munkácsy painted here was the Yawning apprentice, which shows a yawning apprentice just rising from bed and stretching himself. The work, which was unfortunately destroyed and is known only from reproductions, well demonstrates the effect of the German genre painting, telling anecdotes and jokes. The study of the head of the yawning apprentice (picture No. 34.) was prepared from the painting. The head, free of adornments and idealization, represents the haggard face of a fatigued young man, one who perhaps has emerged from the less cheerful memories of his youth. The preparation of the picture, perhaps, gave impetus to the young painter who – as is clear from his letters – was dissatisfied with himself and feverishly looked for further direction.

At this time, Munkácsy formulated the idea of Condemned cell (picture No. 28.). He prepared a sketch of the picture and showed it to his teacher.  Knaus felt, however, that his young student was not sufficiently prepared for the realization of such a task and tried to dissuade him from continuing the work.  This infuriated and exasperated Munkácsy, and – perhaps in addition to his desire to prove himself – motivated him to paint the picture.  With the burden of financial problems, due largely to the costs of models, Munkácsy asked for money from Antal Ligeti who, as so many times before, helped him.

During his period of work on Condemned cell (picture No. 28.), Munkácsy travelled to Munich, where he again saw the works of the French realist, Courbet. After returning to Düsseldorf, he finished the Condemned cell (picture No. 28.) in autumn of 1869. The picture is the elaboration of the highwayman’s theme, which was well known and popular at the time and which the painter had dealt with earlier: poor young boys escaping the military draft to the puszta and hiding, living according to their own laws and robbing wealthy men. Only the poor village people sympathized with them, though sympathy grew after the suppression of the war of independence of 1848-1849, when many young men joined the highwaymen to avoid enlistment in the Habsburg imperial army or reprisals. Thus, the painting’s theme included political references, and garnered public attention and interest.

The painting’s greatest success, however, was the method of the theme’s elaboration. The highwayman, condemned to death and sitting in the dark prison, is surrounded by village people who are surprised and shocked, their emotions expressed by their miens, gestures, movements. The variety of the psychological representation, the contrast of the dark and light colours, and the graphic representation of the spiritual struggle of the highwayman had great effect, both on the professional art community and the general public.  This method of representation, rich in emotion, was unusual in paintings of that period; it, along with Munkácsy’s skillful use of realism, brought him success. In his letters he proudly wrote that the behaviour of the art dealers changed and everyone, even the most critical professors, became much more pleasant to him.

íHe HeBüszkén The final picture also received the approval of Knaus: he encouraged the painter to send it to the gallery of the most dignified exhibition in Europe, the Salon of Paris, which Munkácsy did in 1870. He happily wrote to his main supporter, Antal Ligeti: “I just received a telegram from Paris, informing me that the jury awarded one of the gold medals to my painting…” The professional success was accompanied by a financial one, too, when the Condemned cell (picture No. 28.) was purchased directly from the atelier by an American billionaire collector, William P. Wilstack. Later the picture went from his widow to the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and then, via purchase a hundred years later, to Hungary.

As a result of the attention and award for the Condemned Cell (Picture No. 28.), Mukacsy, at age 26, became the most recognized painter in Paris.  The art dealer of Paris, Goupil, immediately visited him in Düsseldorf, where he purchased a number of Munkácsy’s paintings and ordered more. He was the first to encourage Munkácsy to move to Paris. However, the Prussian-French war broke out in the summer of 1870, and the city became full of German soldiers, French prisoners of war, and Belgian and German refugees.  Under the influence of the war-time atmosphere, Munkácsy painted Linen shredders (Picture No. 44.), the central figure of which is a tired soldier who tells his experiences to the girls and women making lint and knitting for the wounded men.

After completing the picture, Munkácsy was approached by a French aristocrat, Baron De Marches and his wife. Through a good friend of the couple, László Paál, they got acquainted with each other at a dinner organized by a French colonel. The pleasant evening was followed by many meetings also in Düsseldorf, and Munkácsy promised to visit them.

In January, 1871, Munkácsy arrived in Paris and, as he had promised, contacted the De Marches couple. They found an atelier for Munkácsy, helped him in everyday matters, and invited him – with the war still underway – to their castle near Luxemburg, in Colpach. Although Munkácsy did not have financial troubles, as his contract with the art dealer Goupil was still in place, he nevertheless anguished about other’s expectations of him, and whether he could repeat the success of the Condemned cell (Picture No. 28.). His state of mind is well reflected by the lines he wrote to his patron: “Oh, I think much it is much more difficult to maintain the grounded reputation, than to gain it [...] to prolong the accidental luck for a whole life [...] I have to devote all my energies to that. Thus, I will do that, because the terrible thoughts of decline are standing in front of me as a gigantic monster really disturbing sometimes even my dreams." His lack of self-assurance and skepticism of his own talent were exacerbated by Goupil’s criticizism of Returning home of the drunkard husband (Picture No. 41.), which Munkácsy painted for him but then, largely because of his criticism, destroyed.

With Munkácsy in his catastrophic state of mind, Baron De Marches tried to help the artist by inviting him to his estate in Colpach. Here, however, his condition became so much worse that he attempted suicide by jumping from one of the upstairs windows. However, his wounds were not serious, so he quickly recovered. The quiet environment and the affectionate solicitude slowly rekindled his passion for life and creative instinct and, in the course of 1872-73, he painted more pictures. At that time he finished the Farewell and the Churning woman (Picture No. 48.). Both of them are intimate genre paintings of two figures, lyrical in tone, painted with somber colours of realism. The force of character painting, the real strength of his art, are the best expressed by the main figure of the Churning woman (Picture No. 48.)  The face of the woman, her look and tired bearing, and the wretched environment, rouse the feeling of hopelessness and despair.

In 1873, five of Munkácsy’s works were exhibited at the World Expo of Vienna. In the fall of that year, at the invitation of his friend László Paál, Munkácsy travelled to Barbizon, famous for its colony of artists. Here he painted the Woman carrying faggots (Picture No. 60) which reflects, in its lyrical realism and intimate view of nature, the influence of the great master and greatest artist of the colony, Jean-François Millet.

In Colpach, Munkácsy began to paint his multi-figured pictures. In the Nightly vagabonds (Picture No. 92.), the characters – big-city vagabonds appearing at early dawn and the city’s poor watching them – could have been based on those from his very difficult youth. He finished the picture that year and, in 1874, was working on the Pawn office, also a genre of many figures.  The hopeless situation of impoverished city have-nots is well represented by the multi-colour-tinged character painting. The final version went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, but was later sold. Its completion was preceded by a number of excellent studies which can be treated as independent pictures, for instance, Mother with child (Picture No. 51.), Man in gown (Picture No. 56.), and Before the Alms-box (Picture No. 55.). The model of a number of his paintings, such as the Girl at the well (Picture No. 62.), was one of the maid servants of the house of De Marches.

The year 1873 also brought an important change for Munkácsy: his patron, Baron De Marches, died. His widow, Cecile Papier, continued to support the painter, especially in difficult times. Since first becoming acquainted in 1871, she and Munkácsy were bound by warm friendship. In the second half of 1873, he wrote intimate letters to Cecile and, after the mourning time, he married her on August 5, 1874. The young married couple went on a long honeymoon.  They spent some weeks in Switzerland, and later in Northern Italy. From Venice through Vienna, they travelled to Budapest, where they were received with great celebration. They received numerous invitations for visits, but hurried to Békéscsaba, because Munkácsy missed painting. His uncle and tutor, István Reök, offered him a small studio.

Upon their arrival, Munkácsy immediately went to work. His wife remembered this as follows: ”The first two weeks in  Csaba served for us for a good relaxation. [...] But Miska began to work feverishly. He almost finished two landscapes, these were enough to pay the costs of our journey. After that he began to paint studies to his next great painting." These pictures are mentioned in the literature as Maizefield (Picture No. 61.), the Hero of the village (Picture No. 70.), and the Dusty Road.

The Dusty Road is known in two versions; we do not know which was completed in 1874 versus later. The basic motive of both is the spectacle of the dust-cloud whirled up by a cart and of the sunlight filtering through it. On the DustyRoad I.(Picture No. 161.), the cart, horses and their drivers are more concretely delineated, and can be seen more prominently. In Dusty Road II. (Picture No. 162.), the whole picture becomes a pink-and-yellow vision, an atmospheric wonder that recalls the memory of pictures of the English artist, William Turner (1775-1851). The two paintings occupy a unique and special place in the lifework of the artist, since Munkácsy never painted other pictures similar to them. Their existence proves that the painter was thinking about the problems of light. With the two paintings, he approached plain air solutions and impressionism, expressing air and light effects, but from which he separated himself both in writing and in words.


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