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The Life and Work of Mihály Munkácsy - Trip to America and the final drama

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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
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Trip to America and the final drama



1886 marks a number of important events in the life of Munkácsy. Although criticism became stronger with the presentation of the Death of Mozart, the painter became increasingly occupied with social life.

One of the most important events was the evening party on March 23rd, in honour of Ferenc Liszt (1811-1886). Cecile wrote about the splendid celebration in one of her letters sent to her parents: “How wonderful it was to see this great very old man, with his long white hair at the piano, through which he enchanted the whole world. The whole hall stood up, the enthusiasm was indescribable. Miska and Liszt embraced each other with deep  affection [...] This was the triumphant celebration of two great Hungarian artists."

The couple spent every evening with the composer. The papers reported on the evening party and published photos in which, next to Liszt, notables of the French music life can be seen, e.g., Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Charles François Gounod (1818-1893). The Mass of Esztergom of Liszt was presented in the church Saint Eustache on the 25th March. Later, 7000 people celebrated the performance of the Legend of Saint Elisabeth and its composer. The last great concert of Liszt was in Brussels on the 19th July. Two weeks later the composer died in Weimar.

The Munkácsy couple spent the summer in Colpach where, in addition to Liszt, they also invited Lajos Haynald, archbishop of  Kalocsa. Munkácsy had previously painted his portrait (Picture No. 176.) in 1884. In her letters, Cecile mentioned that her husband was working on the Portrait of  Ferenc Liszt (Picture No. 175.), which he made in two copies. These two portraits are outstanding examples of the character-painting skill of the artist and his sense for monumentality and representation.

1886 held one more important event for Munkácsy, one that changed his life and greatly influenced his work.  In the summer of that year, Sedelmeyer visited his atelier with American art dealers in connection with the American tour of the Christ pictures and of other works made later. About this he reported to the press, “... an obligatory gratitude is due to America, the patrons of art of which country recognized the first the genius of the artist. If we consider Hungary his native land, and France his artistic home, America be will more and more the permanent home of his works."

The expectations in connection with America were clearly realized, as Munkácsy’s name was already well-known by patrons of art and the art-collecting public, though his pictures also played a role. As noted above, the Condemned cell (Picture No. 28.) had been in America since 1870, and the Milton the Real (Picture No. 82.) since 1878. Beginning in 1877, with the help of Sedelmeyer, his paintings have continuously been acquired by such famous American art-collectors as A. J. Antelo, William Astor, Henry G. Marquand, Jay Gould, August Belmont, Henry G. Gibson (Philadelphia), H. B. Hurblut (Cleveland), Russel A. Alger (Detroit), and Potter Palmer (Chicago). The study of John R. Tait published in The American Art Review in April, 1881 played an important role in making Munkácsy known in America. In the study, he described the life of Munkácsy and published the list of his works to be found in America. Articles were published about him in the columns of Baltimore Sun, The New York Herald and among others in The American Register.

Munkácsy arrived in America on November 15th, 1886 and was welcomed as a prince. He was received on the French ocean liner by a welcoming committee, who went by chartered steamship to greet him and avoid the artist’s entry into the crowded harbour.  Two days later, in the Old Tabernacle Auditorium, Munkácsy opened the exhibition of Christ before Pilate (Picture No. 128.). On the evening of November 23rd, the city gave a banquette in Munkácsy’s honour in New York’s best restaurant, Delmonico’s. In attendance was Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911); the Hungarian owner of New York World; and next to him, Abraham S. Hewitt, the Mayor of the New York City. In his congratulatory speech, Pulitzer said, ”You are heartily welcome, Dear Sir, since we, as true Americans, where aristocracy does not exist, are ready to respect in you the aristocracy of the virtue and the dignity of spirit". Other notable speakers included the most famous preacher in the United States at that time, Henry Ward Beecher; Senator Chauncey M. Depew; and the plutocrat Cyrus Field.

After two weeks in New York, Munkácsy travelled to Washington, where the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), received him in the White House, and a banquette was organized in honour of the artist.

Munkácsy also worked during his stay in America, painting portraits of Pastor, Dr. James McCosh (1811-1894), the President of Princeton University (picture No. 214.), the financial expert, Henry G. Marquand (1819-1894), and the wife of Pulitzer, Kate Davis. On New Year’s Eve, a farewell party was organized in Munkácsy’s honour and then, in a spectacular ceremony, he was sent off by a Munkácsy-march composed by a Hungarian Gypsy band as he embarked in the harbour. In January, 1887, he returned to France.

The other Christ picture, Golgotha (Picture No. 151.), as well as the Death of Mozart, were enthusiastically received by the press and the public in America that same year. Sedelmeyer’s judgement in connection of the value of the Christ pictures proved astute, as both were purchased by John Wanamaker (1838-1922), the pioneer of the modern trade and advertising and, as a multi-millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time. His career, like Munkácsy’s, started with difficulties and hardships; as a child he had to work in his father’s brick-works in Philadelphia. The Christ pictures sincerely touched the deeply religious businessman. In 1887, he bought Christ before Pilate (Picture No. 128.) for $160,000, then Golgotha (Picture No. 151.) in 1888 for $175,000, making Munkácsy the highest paid painter of Europe. These large-sized works were exhibited in Wanamaker’s house near Philadelphia, in Lindenhurst, and he kept them there until 1907. When fire broke out in the house, first the two Munkácsy paintings were rescued. Later, in 1911, the billionaire installed the pictures in a new department store bearing his name in Philadelphia.

A number of Munkácsy’s major, spectacular productions can still be found in America today, in various public institutions and private collections: Milton the Real (Picture No. 82.), Death of Mozart, Pawn office, as well as an unknown number of landscapes, still lifes and salon pictures. Christ before Pilate (Picture No. 128.) is in the Hamilton Gallery, and Golgotha (Picture No. 151.) was for some time in the Pannonia Gallery; today, however, it is owned by the American Hungarian art collector, Imre Pákh. Since 1995, both paintings can be seen as temporary exhibits in the Déri Museum of Debrecen, Hungary.

The last creative decade brought many orders for Munkácsy. Hans Makart, the Austrian painter and prince, died in 1884.  In 1886, Munkácsy received an official order to paint the ceiling picture for the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. In all probability this order was issued by Franz Joseph, the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, who gave an award to the artist after the exhibition of each of his major paintings. Munkácsy was to paint based on the theme of the apotheosis of the Renaissance. The work was not a small task for Munkácsy, since he had never painted a wall picture, and he had to create numerous pre-studies. For the first one, in 1884, two years before the official order, he later planned more colour sketches. Finally, in 1889, he completed the great 4x4 meter composition sketch. The grandiose composition, depicting the great artists of the Italian Renaissance -- among others, the architect Bramante and the painter-sculptor Michelangelo – was installed in September, 1890, in the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it can be seen today. With this painting, Munkácsy had created an eclectic work of academic spirit in tune with the demands and tastes of that time, and of the Austrian capital, which assimilated elements of the Renaissance and Baroque.  The quality of the painting ranked with similar, monumental works of art of the end of the century.

After finishing the ceiling painting of Vienna, Hungarian art policy shifted in a more serious direction. In 1890, Munkácsy was asked to paint the Conquest, the entry of the conquering Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin. The painting was planned for one of the Parliament’s Conference halls, which was under construction. The composition tells the story of the conquest described by Anonymous, the chronicler of King Bela III. Svatopluk, leader of the Slavs living in the Carpathian Basin, sends via his delegates earth, grass and water to the Hungarians as a present in exchange for the white horse, on which Arpad is sitting. With this symbolic present, the Hungarians obtained their new homeland peacefully; they could settle in the basin surrounded by mountains, where they are living still today. Munkácsy portrayed in a versatile way those in the legend: the leader Arpad, the tribal leaders, the Slavs standing in the middle and rendering homage, and the figures of the crowd on the left side. He tells the scene with movements, gestures and facial expressions. The historical theme, at that time unknown to the painter, was a challenging task for him, so he made thorough preparations for the painting. He discussed it with archaeologists and historians, and took photographs of peasants to ensure an authentic presentation. He travelled the country with his secretary, who photographed the settings of the scene.

The painting was completed by 1893 and was displayed in the Gallery of George Petit in Paris. This time, however, the reception was not as enthusiastic as before. The main reason for this could have been the general proliferation of more modern painting approaches, in the light of which Munkácsy may have seemed conservative. The critical tone was also taken by the Hungarian press although, for the 1000-year anniversary of the Conquest in 1896, numerous historical paintings were in preparation and Munkácsy’s fit well with the abundance of historical paintings at the end of the century. Finally, his critics claimed that the Conquest  (Picture No. 208.) was not placed as originally planned, in the great Conference Hall of the Parliament, but in a much smaller hall, where the grandiose painting can be viewed even today only from a significant distance.

At the beginning of the 1890s, Munkácsy embarked on a last great task. He had been planning for a long time to broaden the Christ subject into a trilogy.  As early as 1884 he had written about painting the Resurrection as the third picture. After 10 years, perhaps influenced by the changing social and political conditions or by the writer Anatole France (1844-1924), a frequent guest, the painter chose other subjects.

In his short story, The Governor of Judea, France dealt with the problems of his age, the ongoing Dreyfus lawsuit, which he along with Émile Zola (1840-1902) deeply condemned. Perhaps this made an impression on Munkácsy, who had expressed his sense of justice in his paintings of the second meeting of Christ and Pilate and the two earlier Christ pictures. The Saviour appears as a tormented God-man, still with dignity.  His fate raises emotions and angers the crowd, as expressed through the great emotional intuition of the painter.

Munkácsy’s critics spoke of his powerlessness and the exhaustion of his dramatic skill, but a completely opposite view came from the writer James Joyce (1882-1941), who saw the three Christ paintings in his homeland of Ireland in 1899. He wrote enthusiastically about the Ecce Homo (Picture No. 216.): “The whole picture is wonderful, it is filled with deep dramatic character and it can liven, can become real and can burst out in a conflict by a magic touch. The picture reveals the mean human passions being characteristic of both genders with such realism [...] that all words are not enough for its characterization [...] also through all these it is obvious, that the attitude of the artist is human, deeply shockingly human."

Joyce’s sentiments were reflected by the Hungarian public, which went on a virtual pilgrimage in 1896 to an exhibition featuring the painting in the nightclub Belle-vue, at the end of Andrássy street. That summer, an estimated 315,000 visitors viewed the painting.  Afterwards, the work went on a European tour, but not organized by Sedelmeyer – with whom Munkácsy terminated his contract in 1888 – but rather by Gábor Kadar, a businessman and former printer. The painting was also taken to America, but Wanamaker did not buy it.  Returning to Europe, it was purchased by an English-American consortium and later, to Frigyes Déri, a Hungarian silk manufacturer living in Vienna, who donated it to the Museum in Debrecen named after him, where it can be seen today. 

In his last creative decade, Munkácsy produced not only monumental works, but also salon pictures, still lifes, portraits and landscapes. Toward the end of the 1880s, his relationship was deteriorating with Sedelmeyer, who paid less and less for the artist’s pictures while demanding more and more work. In 1887 and 1888, at Sedelmeyer’s request, Munkácsy painted a number of fine-quality, Dutch-style salon pictures, including the Ballad (Pictures No. 202. and 204.), the Story of the young captain (Picture No. 205.), the Excitement of the moment, and the Embroidering girl (Picture No. 191.).  In 1888, however, Munkácsy terminated the 10-year contract, as he felt the merchant was exploiting him. Nevertheless, he continued painting salon pictures, including, among the best known in that period, the Sleeping little child (Picture No. 201.), the Musing woman (Picture No. 148.), the After lunch (Picture No. 207.), the Declaration of love,  the Herald (Lady reading a letter), thePiano lesson (Picture No. 198.), and the Puppy dogs.

Munkácsy continued to paint pictures for orders as well. Most were portraits of women, including the Princess Soutzo (Picture No. 222.), the Sisters Sedelmeyer, and the Portrait of Ms. Pulitzer.  He also painted portraits for pleasure, for example, of his wife; and of his intimate friend, Mme Chaplin, and of her husband, Robert Chaplin. He also relaxed and enjoyed making sketches of his great works and painting landscapes. He painted the “washerwomen” motive in different variations: Washing women (Picture No. 212.),the Landscape with washerwomen, and Washerwomen on the outskirt of the forest.  Colpach and the scenes where he vacationed, mainly Jouy-en-Joses, served as the subject of many landscapes, including the Alley with storied house (Picture No. 145.), the Landscape with river (Picture No. 102.), and the Sunset (Picture No. 165.). The gems of his late landscape paintings are the Winter road (Picture No. 110.), At the stream (Picture No. 174.), and the Evening variant of the Park Monceau (Picture No. 197.).

During the exhibition of Ecce Homo (Picture No. 216.), Munkácsy was splendidly celebrated once again, for the last time. The painter at that time was in a semi-conscious state, with death looming. In his letter to Ms. Chaplin, he described not only the long series of balls, receptions and evening parties, but also mentions his impaired health condition. This time, however, it was not merely a typical complaint about a temporary malady.  The damage to his nervous system from the syphilis illness he contracted in his youth worsened considerably. Because he felt so poorly, he had to leave early from the last great reception organized in his honour.  He spent a whole year in Baden-Baden, Germany, where his physicians continued to try the usual hydrotherapy treatments. However, he slowly fell into a state of dementia, and became upset by even the idea of creation. In January, 1897, he had to be transferred to the psychiatric clinic in Endenich, Germany.

Munkácsy died after a long illness and suffering in a state of unconsciousness on May 1, 1900. On May 6th, his body was delivered to Budapest where it laid in state in the Art Gallery. A cordon was set up around the building and the catafalque could be visited only with an admission ticket. The burial took place on May 9th in the Kerepesi Cemetery. The outstanding figure of the Hungarian and European painting, the painter prince, was accompanied by hundreds of thousand of people at this end of his life’s journey. The farewell speech was made by his fellow painter, Károly Telepy. 


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