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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy - Period of Christ paintings

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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

Period of Christ paintings



During the European tour of  Milton (Picture No. 82.), Munkácsy took the opportunity to visit several great museums in London, Vienna and Munich. At that time he was already occupied by another subject, the selection of which Sedelmeyer was of great help. He had given Munkácsy the book, Life of Jesus, published in 1863 by the French author Ernest Renan (1823-1892). The main feature of the book is that Renan describes Jesus – depriving him of his divine power – as a struggling, suffering man, capable of dying for the truth. The theme was extremely popular at that time; thanks to the book of Renan, we can find among painters who pursued the subject the Russian A. A. Ivanov (1806-1858), the French Gustav Doré (1832-1883) and the Hungarian Mihály Zichy (1827-1906). It is also possible, however that Munkácsy’s idea for the Christ picture originated from the novel, Anna Karenina of Lev Tolstoi (1828-1910), particularly from the scene where Anna and her lover, count Vronszkij, admire the “realistic” Christ picture of a new interpretation of the painter, Mihajlov. The episode from the Tolstoi novel could have come to Sedelmeyer through the Russian artist, M. M. Antokolszkij (1843-1902), who appeared in the environment of Munkácsy and who himself produced a Christ-sculpture of similar interpretation.

Munkácsy made the first sketches in summer 1880, and followed them with numerous figure studies. In his atelier in Paris he worked feverishly on the picture and regularly wrote to Cecile relaxing in Colpach; he reported about the progress of his work, and about his feelings and health condition. His feverish, self-abandon is well described by one of his students and painter-companion, the German Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911): “[…] he run into the work infuriated, with fire. - […] with rolled up shirt-sleeve, he was running to and fro, till finally […] bare-handed he grasped into the paint and formed the picture in more and more wide spots." Munkácsy hired models for the composition; among them, we know of Cesare Leonardi (Jesus) and Nikole Demario (standing Jew). One of his good friends, De Suse, photographed the composed scene in September, 1880.

Notwithstanding Munkácsy’s feverish enthusiasm for working on the painting, he did not complete in time for the opening of the Salon of Paris in spring 1881. He was hindered by sadness and tragic events. His newly-born child died, and fire broke out in their palace in the last phase of the work. The leaders of the Salon were strict, and did not accept the delayed submission of the picture. Sedelmeyer, however, came to the aid of Munkácsy and exhibited the work in his own palace. It was a tremendous success, visited by several thousand people every day. By comparison, the Salon Exhibition was an insignificant event.

In Christ before Pilate (Picture No. 128.), Munkácsy presents a tripartite conflict: the conflict of Christ, Pilate and the accusing Pharisees. The figure of Christ symbolizes the man taking the cross and death for the truth; and Pilate represents the hesitating and influencable power. The moral message manifests in the characterization of the two and of the crowd; the tension and drama between the opponents takes place here. The essence of the scene is interpreted by the figures – accusing, shouting, rejoicing or just watching with sympathy. In contrast to those expressing these various and volatile emotions, the figures of Christ and Pilate appear as a counterpoint – their placement, white clothing, and quiet pose accentuate contrast from the crowd, emphasizing the two main characters on the intellectual battlefield.

The papers published in Paris in May and June featured many appraisals of the painting. Journalists, historians, and clergymen expressed very positive opinions. Even Renan himself expressed his appreciation: “That is my Christ,” he declared. Munkácsy explained that he “wanted to portray God appearing as a human figure”. The picture achieved success among the public and art experts alike. Munkácsy was described as the greatest living artist, a master ranking with Michelangelo and Rembrandt. On June 22, 1881 a banquette was organized in the honour of Munkácsy in the Hotel Continental of Paris; many painters, sculptors and the notables of the musical world appeared. The picture was viewed by three thousand people through October that year.

Toward the end of 1881, Sedelmeyer prepared for a European tour, and from 1882 to 1885, the work was exhibited in Vienna, Budapest, various cities in England and Germany, Warsaw, Brussels and Amsterdam. It achieved enormous success everywhere it appeared. Franz Josef ennobled Munkácsy in Budapest with the Stephan small cross. In February 1882 a series of celebrations began in his honour in Budapest. The picture was exhibited in the former Art Gallery of Pest, which was transformed into a real church. At the dinner organized in the ceremonial hall of Hotel Hungaria, the painter received an ovation together with Ferenc Liszt.  Munkácsy, who often and with pleasure whistled in friendly society, here performed it with well known Hungarian songs – for which he was praised also by Liszt. The evening party was in the banquet hall of the Art Gallery, where participants appeared in elegant dress. Munkácsy wore a copy of the costume of the famous painter, Peter Paul Rubens. In the course of the celebrations, the artist was awarded honorary citizenship of Budapest; he received this later from the city of Munkács, too.

In 1881, Munkácsy began to continuously work on his second Christ picture, Golgotha (Picture No. 151.).  In all likelihood, Arnold Ipolyi (1823-1886) and Lajos Haynald (1816-1891), archbishop of Kalocsa, persuaded him to continue the theme. He prepared sixteen studies for the picture, among them one about the dead Christ and the Pharisees, which he titled Shocked. Some of the studies can be accepted as individual pictures.

Golgotha (Picture No. 151)continues the basic concept of Christ before Pilate (Picture No. 128.). Christ is the martyr of passionately seeking truth, and accuses also in his death. The stirred up sentiments are represented expressively by the mourners and the crowd. The faces, gestures and the movements demonstrate real drama and true tragedy. The crowd offered the painter the opportunity to show a variety of characters. For the scene, which takes place in the open, he created an emotional element in painting the sky. The figures are connected to each other with movement and gestures, strengthening the dramatic total effect. One of the greatest virtues of the picture is the multitude of expressive emotions and sentiments. A. Wurzbach wrote in the paper, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, ”[...] since the Nightly patrol of Rembrandt the Crucifixion, or rather Golgotha it is the most exceptional artistic work and for 222 years art has never produced such a third picture, which could be compared to these two ones, maybe just with the exception of Christ before Pilate of Munkácsy."

In working on the painting, Munkácsy hired models for the characters, and had them dressed up and photographed. Since he could not find a model for the figure of the crucified Christ, he had himself bound up onto a crucifix and photographed.  He gathered weapons, dresses, and even obtained a stuffed horse for painting the mounted figure. As one of his biographers, Dezső Malonyai  (1866-1916), wrote: “He got down to work with glorious preparations [...] he gathered a whole stock for the painting of the suits [...]. the press of Europe and America followed what he was doing. His models were interrogated hastily."

The show organized in Sedelmeyer’s palace in April 1884 was not less spectacular. All this was such a great sensation that even Maupassant (1850-1893) immortalized the event in his novel Beau (Szépfiú), using a pseudonym.  “At that time the whole city streamed towards the great painting of a Hungarian painter Károly Markovics, which was exhibited at the art expert Jaques Lenoble and which showed Christ walking on the waves. The most enthusiastic critics recognized this canvas as the most magnificent masterwork of the century." The display of the picture in the Art Gallery of Budapest was a great success as well.

Between 1882 and 1885, Sedelmeyer exhibited the two Christ pictures in various European cities, and was especially well received in England. The papers wrote particularly about the exhibition in Manchester, where a parish also preached. The profit was so great – although both the Austrian and French governments offered $100-150,000 for the pictures – that Sedelmeyer did not sell them, hoping for further profits. Of course, Munkácsy also benefited from the income, both from the purchase price and a percentage of the entrance fees.

For Munkácsy, the Biblical theme not only represented a new approach, but also a production that dazzled his public. Sedelmeyer – his manager and art dealer – also promoted both the preparation and presentation of Munkácsy’s work as events. Based on discussions and assessments, another new theme was born, the Death of Mozart, which was finished in 1886.  In finding the theme, Munkácsy was inspired by the enchanting music of Mozart. He wanted to perpetuate the well-known Mozart legend, according to which the composer breathed his last during the rehearsal of Requiem. The idea also came from the composition of an American painter, Thomas W. Shiedels (1849-1920). In the figure of the composer, Munkácsy wanted again to portray the figure of the suffering man, struggling with illnesses and death, being full of creative energy but no longer capable to develop his talent. All these can well be seen in the composer’s figure, faint posture and the tragic expression of his face. The interior and especially the bright colours remind us of the colourful world of the salon pictures.

The work, like all of Munkácsy’s greater compositions, was preceded by numerous smaller pencil and colour studies, as well as thorough preparations. Munkácsy bought furniture specifically for this purpose, with which he furnished one of the corners of his atelier. A small orchestra and singers were hidden behind the painting and were singing Motzar’s Requiem. The critics however, condemned the idea and thus the picture as well. But the real reason for the poor reception was the breakthrough of modern painting trends. The public began to turn away from artists of the romantic-historical approach. After its completion, the painting went to America and can be found there today.

The extraordinary work capacity and activity of Munkácsy is evidenced not only the exceptional painting productions – which sometimes engaged him for almost a complete year – but also by his work in other artistic fields. His landscapes at this time can even be regarded as relaxations, bright evidence of his realistic way of seeing things mixed sometimes with romanticism, and of his talent.  His wife’s estate in Colpach served as a theme for his numerous landscapes. The pictures Moonrise (Picture No. 143), Homewards (Picture No. 142), and Landscape at twilight (Picture No. 107.) were made there. The most spectacular and having the greatest variety of colour is Grazing cattle (Picture No. 141.), which was made for the Golgotha as a study. Also, his two landscapes considered as main works, the Park of Colpach (Picture No. 183.) and the Alley (Picture No. 190), were made during his work on the Death of Mozart, in 1886.

Both are wonderful expressions of impressionism – with all the beauties of the realistic, naturalistic vision and also the portrayal of plain air.  Munkácsy achieved all this by presenting light glimmering through the dense foliage, then glittering on the trunk of the trees. While he painted the landscapes mainly for his own pleasure or as studies, the salon pictures served invariably as a source of income. The Small sugar thief, Small pianist, Honeymoons, Toilette of Venus, Sleeping Grandpa (Picture No. 179.) and Greyhound (Picture No. 147.) are considered as the most spectacular scenes in the usual interior, while the Three ladies in the park (Picture No. 182) and Chat in the forest are examples of the social pictures placed into the landscape.

As a “by product” to the salon pictures, numerous still lifes were made as independent works. Among them, Still life with flower  (Picture No. 121.) and Flower piece with jug (Picture No. 200.), were painted in Colpach in 1881. These paintings excel with their spontaneous picturesque and natural scenes. In addition to these, he continuously made autographed copies of his former pictures to meet market demands. Reproductions were made of the Hero of the village (Picture No. 72.), Pawn office and the two Christ pictures.


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