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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy - A change of style

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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

A change of style



In the winter of 1874, Munkácsy and his wife returned to Paris and rented a luxurious palace under Rue Legendre no. 6, in Parc Monceau. From the cordial letters of the painter to his wife it is apparent that he stayed alternately in Paris and Colpach.  He used the provincial castle with its beautiful park for relaxation, and the palace in Paris for work and social life. The splendor and elegance of receptions every Thursday regularly engaged the press and notables of Paris and Europe.

The marriage undoubtedly brought great changes to his life and influenced his art as well. He tried to support the costly new life in the palace by selling his painting and former pictures and reproductions of his works. In 1877, he wrote to his childhood friend János Vidovszky that furnishing their new home involved so much time and trouble that he could not deal with painting. Sometimes there were difficulties in selling the former pictures. This saddened him and exacerbated his anguish. “I relapse into my nightmares and I frankly say that I am not happy at all," he wrote in 1877 to his wife.

The reason for anguish was, however, not only the fear from existential backsliding. Munkácsy instinctively felt he arrived at a turning point in his art; the new way of life also produced a need for change in the artistic style and theme. This transformation, however, did happen immediately. Among his works from 1875 to 1877, we still see numerous folk genres prepared with the well-known elements of realism – in dark basic tones, albeit perhaps more lyrical. In 1875, he finished the Hero of the village (Picture No. 70) – which he began in Békéscsaba – and completed his genre painting, the Two families (1876). Later he finished the Maiden with tray (Picture No. 89.) (1876), a portrait based on contrasting dark and light colours. The multi-figured genre continued as well. In 1875, he painted the School of Colpach (Picture No. 67.), and in 1877, his lyrical work with a somewhat melancholic tone, Recruiting (Picture No. 75.). Thus, it was not easy to escape the past, though these works also demonstrate that the dramatic power characterizing the Churning woman (Picture No. 48.), the Condemned cell (Picture No. 28.) and even the Nightly vagabonds (Picture No. 92.) considerably weakened.

Munkácsy felt this and took the first steps towards change. In 1875, he painted portraits of his wife. TheIn Hat (Picture No. 76.) and Woman with muff directly preceded the sketches made for In the Atelier  (Picture No. 98.). In the Atelier (Picture No. 98.) was finished in 1876 after some studies, and was the overture of the new style and period. The painting represents his studio, the furniture of which was often admired by his friends and guests. An easel is standing in front of the splendid fireplace, and the artist is standing before it, looking with concern at the painting. Next to him is his wife who views the work as well. Both of them are elegantly dressed, fitting better with the trappings of their environment than with the work.  The interesting part of the picture is the little girl sitting behind the easel and who may be a memory from the past or, according to other interpretations, a pipe-dream of the family. In any case, she has symbolic meaning, as does the composition, representing the end of a period of about 10 years and the beginning of a new one. He presented the painting in 1876 at.

Munkácsy did not paint any other folk genre works after 1878. The most remarkable sign of the change was that his palette became more coloured. He changed the former sombre colour world into one filled with light -- the blues, reds, whites and their shades were in full radiance on the canvases. Beginning in 1877, a new artistic form appeared in his life-work: the civil genre picture, which is referred to in the artistic literature as “salon-pictures.” He painted these for orders, making no secret of their purpose: to cover the maintenance costs of his palace and life filled with receptions and evening parties. Munkácsy’s practical wife, also blessed with very good organizing abilities, presumably was pleased with and attached financial hopes to the new style. However materialistic Cecile was, it likely was not she who hastened the speed and immensity of work required of the artist’s new way of life. Rather, based on correspondence and other sources, it appears Munkácsy, with his permanent fear of impecunity, drove himself.

A 10-year contract beginning in 1878 with Charles (Karl) Sedelmeyer, an art dealer of Paris and of Austrian origin (he had contacted American art collectors the year before) helped solve money problems. Though financially very beneficial, the contract impeded Munkácsy’s artistic development, since it required he adjust the theme and style of his pictures to the demands of the public and art dealers. A number of famous European and American art collectors bought 17 Munkácsy pictures between 1879 and 1882. Most were salon pictures and still lifes; they went immediately after preparation to Sedelmeyer, who resold them at considerable prices.  That is why a significant part of the life-work of the painter – approximately half – can be found in various public and private collections of the world.

The salon pictures show us a colourful and bright world – especially in works between 1877 and 1880.  They represent indoor scenes with the background, in many cases, the elegant studio of Munkácsy. In general, the scenes depict elegantly dressed young women and children, social and family events, piano-playing, the dalliance of young married couples, and children playing with animals.

Munkácsy’s first salon picture is the Paris Interior (Picture No. 91.), made in 1877. This was followed by Before the piano, then The baby’s visitors (Picture No. 95.) and the Afternoon visit.  He painted these in different versions. At that time, another version of the genre picture appeared, one that incorporated landscape. One of the most representative pieces of this is Peacocks, on which the genre element is evident. However, in the Washwomen (Picture No. 173.), and the Walk in the forest (Picture No. 78.), the landscape is even more dominant.

In addition to genre and landscape pictures, Munkácsy also worked on portraits. In addition to excellent ones of his wife, he completed the characteristic Portrait of Charles Sedelmeyer (Picture No. 116.) and the portrait of his friend, László Paál (Picture No. 77.) which, with its particular view -- a rear view half profile – represents with amazing accuracy the friend painter’s sensitive and deeply depressed frame of mind over his serious illness and slow but inexorable departure from this earthly world. 

The landscapes and portraits provided some variety for Munkácsy, but did not fill the emptiness left by the termination of the folk genre. A suitable thematic for the expression of higher feelings, thoughts and symbols was missing.

Munkácsy turned to the writings of the great poets for fertile inspiration. Initially he read Faust of Goethe, for which he made also a sketch. This remained, however, only an idea for a picture, after he saw the Milton study of Thomas B. Maculay (1800-1859). The struggle of the great English poet of the 17th century with blindness, loneliness and death inspired the painter’s creative energies, and his own poor health condition contributed to him finding the theme.

The syphilis he contracted in his youth broke out again, and he became consumed by headaches and nightmares. Even his wife, however, did not recognize his critical condition. In her misunderstanding and his desperate insistence on work, she anguished him with jealousy. It seems from his letters to friends and to his wife that Munkácsy felt ill and lonesome. It is therefore understandable that he turned with interest to the destiny and personal tragedy of Milton. The theme was popular among painters, since E. D. Delacroix (1798-1863, French), François Cautaerts (1810-1881, Belgian), and Soma Orlai Petrich (1822-1880, Hungarian) had already painted it, however, we do not know whether Munkácsy had seen any of these paintings. It was rather his spiritual and emotional state that led him to the theme.

The first sketches were prepared in 1877, but a year went by until the completion of the final version. In the meantime several figure studies were made of the work. Among them, the most successful are Eva (picture No. 86.) and the standing figure of a girl,  Judit (picture No. 85.). However, the most expressive is the Study head of Milton (Picture No. 84.). It shows most perceptively the power and human dignity of a creative man struggling with illness and the fear of death, and the ability to defeat them. The final version of Miltonthe Real (Picture No. 82.) was completed in April, 1878. Hearkening to the multi-figured genre, the painting utilizes shaded and sensitive character-painting, especially in representing characters’ relationships to each other. Eva writes the words of her father, her face showing attention and respect; Judith listens to her father with affection. Rachel plies her needle, however the beauty of the poem – The lost Paradise – has an influence also on her because she, setting aside the sewing and with a gesture, reacts to what she hears. All these are linked to the fine representation of the central character of the poet.

The combination of a serendipitous choice of subject, compositional elegance, shaded character and bright colours encased in a dark base tone brought world success to Munkácsy.  He wanted to give the picture after its completion in April, 1878, to Goupil, with whom he still had a valid contract, but the art dealer did not accept it due to financial difficulties. Sedelmeyer, who had made an offer for the painting during the work phase, accepted it with pleasure and immediately exhibited it at the World Exhibition in Paris. The work achieved tremendous success, winning the gold medal of the exhibition and receiving positive reviews from art critics. Sedelmeyer sold Milton in New York, to Robert Lenox Kennedy, who took the work first to a European tour and later placed it in the library founded by his brother, James Lenox (1800-1880), and is now the New York Public Library, where the painting remains today. In the course of a series of celebrations, Munkácsy received the Vaskorona (Iron Crown) Order and nobility document from the ruler of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, Ferenc József I. 




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