An Innocent Young Painter, His Ambitious Wife, and the Greedy Art Dealer: Mihály Munkácsy and the Munkácsy Question

In the second half of the 19th century, Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), a Hungarian artist who lived in Paris and sold his pictures to wealthy collectors in Europe and America, was an internationally known celebrity. Today, there are paintings by him in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Milwaukee Art Museum, but his fame has declined, washed away by the modernisms of the early 20th century. In Hungary, however, Mihály Munkácsy is still the default choice for blockbuster exhibitions. Reproductions of his paintings decorate the walls of many homes, and his works fetch record prices at auctions. The ‘reemergence’ and sale of a Munkácsy painting always makes a good news story, but the artist himself remains hidden, veiled in the myths that have surrounded his person ever since his first biographies were published around 1900. Munkácsy is the saddest Hungarian victim of the tendency to mythicise ‘famous’ artists and their ‘valuable’ paintings at the expense of a deeper understanding of their work and the art historical questions involved. Even scholarly discussions tend to evolve into endless debates on the attribution of certain works – that is, on whether they had effectively been touched by the one and only genius -, although it is well known that the ‘Munkácsy’ paintings of the 1880s and 1890s were produced in close collaboration with his students.

While Munkácsy’s paintings are immensely popular with the general public, many (art lovers and professionals alike) have their reservations. This is partly due to an aversion towards the blockbuster mentality. Another reason is, however, a tendency to measure Hungarian art history to the usual narrative of modern (French) art, with Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, etc. following each other in a distinct genealogical line, each overriding the previous one in its ‘modernity’ and ‘progressivity’. Munkácsy finds no place in this mythical family tree. It has been stated many times that – even though he lived in Paris – the painter had ‘failed’ to recognise the importance of Impressionism.

Mihály Munkácsy: Paris Interior, 1877 (Hungarian National Gallery)

It is also hard to come to terms with the fact that the ‘greatest Hungarian painter’ had spent almost all of his productive years abroad. After studying in Vienna, Munich, and Düsseldorf, he settled in Paris, got married, and lived there (and in his wife’s villa in Colpach, Luxembourg) all his life. He was wealthy, resided in a palace and entertained distinguished guests regularly. The change in his lifestyle seems to have been reflected in his art too: in the late 1870s, his pictures of the rural and metropolitan poor gave way to scenes set in elegant Paris salons. His earliest biographers forged these facts into a narrative where the innocent, talented Hungarian country boy is corrupted by big city life, giving up his artistic ideals and contenting himself with painting for money. This narrative is still widely accepted by the public, and has had a profound influence on the perception of Munkácsy’s art. His early genre paintings – like his first great success, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, for which he won a gold medal at the Paris Salon, or his Woman Carrying Brushwood (Hungarian National Gallery) – were commonly believed to be depictions of Hungarian peasants and added to the narrative of Hungarian art without any problems, even though Munkácsy had clearly painted them in the manner of the Düsseldorf school. His salon genre pictures, on the other hand, were considered alien to Hungarian art and mere commercial products. They were given little importance in narratives of Munkácsy’s art and virtually none in the story of Hungarian painting. The story of Munkácsy’s corruption by the foreign metropolis is just like a novel (as one art historian put it, a ‘reverse Bildungsroman’*). It even has its own villains: Munkácsy’s wife, Cécile, and his art dealer, Charles Sedelmeyer, who were accused of forcing him to sell out.

Mihály Munkácsy: The Last Day of a Condemned Man, 1869-1870 (Hungarian National Gallery)

In recent years, partly in connection with the retrospective organised at the Hungarian National Gallery in 2005, scholars have made much effort to reconsider this narrative and reevaluate Munkácsy’s art.** An unbiased look at the course of the painter’s career reveals that he had simply walked the path set for young, talented painters like him in the international art world of the 1870s and 1880s. His success began in 1869. At the time, Munkácsy was living in Düsseldorf, on a stipend that had been granted to him by the Hungarian state but was always sent with huge delay; he had run out of money completely and depended on the goodwill of his creditors. Instead of a fairy godmother, he was saved by a chubby little Englishman: an art dealer who, having examined his large, unfinished painting, The Last Day of a Condemned Man,offered to buy it for a huge sum of money – a sum so large that Munkácsy could hardly believe it. In his letters home, the young painter described this event as a surprise akin to a divine intervention, but considering the circumstances it was probably not so uncommon; in fact, Munkácsy must have been waiting for something like this to happen – otherwise why would he have started a large-scale painting instead of something small he could have sold immediately? Art dealers like Munkácsy’s Englishman were constantly investigating studios to discover new talents and paintings for the flourishing exhibition and art trade. New names could create great sensation and bring great profit. The English dealer told Munkácsy that he was going to show the painting at the Paris Salon – obviously to make Munkácsy’s name known and thus raise the value of the piece. The plan worked out: the painting was admired by the public and won a gold medal. Judging from his letters, Munkácsy understood this system very well and – just like most of his contemporaries – saw it as the normal career path for an artist. The triumph at the Salon landed him a contract with Adolphe Goupil, one of the most prominent art dealers, and he went on to paint his dark, somewhat theatrical scenes of misery for him. Besides selling the paintings themselves, Goupil also published them as prints, which not only provided both of them with an additional source of income, but also promoted Munkácsy’s work.

Mihály Munkácsy: The Artist’s Studio, 1876 (Hungarian National Gallery)

In 1878, Munkácsy painted a masterpiece which epitomised the new direction in his art: The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to His Daughters (today at the New York Public Library). The picture showed a scene from the past, set in a lavishly furnished room. For unknown reasons, Goupil did not wish to purchase this painting. Their collaboration was over, but Charles Sedelmeyer (Villain No. 1) arrived at the scene at just the right time. He paid for Milton and signed a ten-year contract with Munkácsy. This contract brought the painter worldwide fame, wealth, and security. It did not prescribe what and how Munkácsy should paint – he was only required to offer each painting to Sedelmeyer first. And he had another obligation. In the course of the ten years, he had to paint a colossal painting of a well-known historical subject, which Sedelmeyer could then take on a worldwide tour and exhibit as a spectacle, sharing the revenues with the artist. Eventually, Munkácsy and Sedelmeyer decided on the exact topic too: a scene from the Passion of Christ. Munkácsy finished his painting of a gigantic size, Christ before Pilate in 1881. As promised, Sedelmeyer took care of its promotion and organised shows which proved to be hugely successful. That is no surprise. With its emotionally charged figures that seem to step out of the picture, the painting was designed to grasp the beholder’s attention. What’s more, it was exhibited in a dark space, without a frame, illuminated by candles. Imagine the effect on viewers who lived before the invention of cinema! Christ before Pilate was a sensation; it was what everyone in Paris was talking about – it even features in Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami. The painting went on to tour Europe (of course, Budapest was included among the destinations) and the USA. In 1884, Munkácsy finished the sequel, Golgotha, and the two pictures were subsequently bought by the American department store owner John Wanamaker, who displayed them in his Philadelphia store every Easter. Completing Ecce Homo in 1896, Munkácsy created a trilogy. Today, all three paintings have different owners, but they are exhibited together at the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary.

Mihály Munkácsy: Christ before Pilate, 1881 (Hamilton Art Gallery, on loan to the Déri Museum, Debrecen)

Given Munkácsy’s reputation as ‘the greatest Hungarian painter’, the Christ trilogy inspires general awe. In the light of the above facts, however, it would be hard to deny that the paintings were essentially created as a business venture. From an avant-gardist or l’art-pour-l’art point of view this may seem as a betrayal of ‘pure art’, even of artistic integrity, but in the mainstream art world of the 1880s it was completely normal. Paintings that were meant to be displayed as a spectacle and were often also popularised in the form of prints had been usual since the late 18th century. Today we think that a true artist has to reject the expectations of the public, a myth we see embodied by Munkácsy’s avant-garde contemporaries, the Impressionists or Van Gogh. But at that time, these avant-gardists were just that – a barely influential avant-garde. In the eyes of most people, Munkácsy’s financial success did not contradict artistic value. Munkácsy was not a cynic who only painted to make money; just like the Impressionists, he was tackling artistic problems, albeit different ones. He worked hard to recreate the milieu of the first century, experimenting with costumes and figures. He strove to produce an effective composition that grabs the heart. Ecce Homo, the peculiar last painting, stands out in its strange expressiveness and disharmony – in those years, Munkácsy was battling with severe mental illness, and the painting – certainly not an empty commodity – seems to reflect his struggles.

Mihály Munkácsy: Ecce Homo, 1896 (Déri Museum, Debrecen)

Maybe grudgingly, but the qualities of the Christ trilogy were acknowledged even by those who accuse Munkácsy of selling out. It would be impossible to negate its significance in his oeuvre. Seen as proofs of his decline, his so-called salon genre pictures have received much harsher treatment. This is also reinforced by the assumption that the luxurious lifestyle shown in the paintings is the same as the lifestyle led by Munkácsy and his wife, Cécile (Villain No. 2). Cécile, the wealthy widow of a baron from Luxembourg, was used to living in sumptuousness and – according to Munkácsy’s early biographers – the painter was forced into incessant labour to be able to satisfy her demands. The fact is, however, that the larger part of the Munkácsys’ fortune had originated from Cécile in the first place – she had enough money to finance her soirées and luxury goods herself. It is also important to stress that the famous parties hosted by Cécile Munkácsy and frequented by members of the Parisian élite were crucial to Munkácsy’s career: they presented excellent opportunities for networking, both for him and his students. Moreover, the extensive correspondence between husband and wife (preserved at the Hungarian National Gallery) reveals that Cécile had often tried to persuade her husband – who had stayed in Paris – to take a break from work and join her at the family villa in Colpach. It is sadly a commonplace to cast strong-minded, self-sufficient women as femmes fatales who destroy men, but evidence actually shows that the marriage between Munkácsy and Cécile was founded on passionate love that later evolved into mutual respect and affection.

Mihály Munkácsy: Father’s Birthday, 1882 (Collection of Imre Pákh)

The idea that Munkácsy’s art had declined due to his financial success implies that the salon genre paintings are for some reason less worthy and ‘artistic’ than the early genre pictures depicting the miseries of the poor. The former are also seen as inferior to the paintings of the contemporary avant-garde, the Impressionists. In the catalogue of the 2005 Munkácsy exhibition, Judit Boros attempted to reevaluate these paintings by placing them into the context of contemporary French art. Today, if we think of French painting of the 1870s and 1880s, the Impressionists are the first who come to mind, but at that time they only represented the far end of a varied spectrum, ranging from oldschool academic art to the rebellious avant-garde. The most populated part of the spectrum was of course the middle – the so-called juste milieu. This term refers to artists who held an equal distance from academism and Impressionism. Apart from this characteristic, their works are quite varied; the juste milieu is not a style, but rather an artistic attitude. Seen through this lens, Munkácsy’s salon genre paintings start to show their values. Just like the Impressionists, Munkácsy paid much attention to the surface and texture of his paintings, building up his motifs from lively, loose brushstrokes. A close look at the details reveals dashes of unexpected colours, as if the artist had taken greatest enjoyment in creating these abstract forms without any agenda. (I especially love the ‘tapestries’ – actually colourful brushstrokes whirling freely and not representing anything – on the walls in the background of several paintings.) This attention to the surface, coupled with the subject matter – lavishly furnished interiors – relates Munkácsy’s art to that of the protagonist of my previous post, József Borsos, and to the tradition of the Rococo revival. As we have seen, Borsos was often scolded by critics for the ‘superficiality’ of his paintings, which essentially meant the lack of a moral message. Borsos and Munkácsy both exalted the surface, although in a different way: while Borsos carefully articulated all the details, conforming to the illusionistic traditions of still-life painting, Munkácsy applied his brushstrokes freely, breaking up the surface and showing off the painting’s essentially painted nature. But is this conscious rejection of so-called deep meaning not similar to the l’art pour l’art of the avant-garde? After all, showing that the canvas is not a window on reality but a painted surface was one of the features of Impressionism. As characteristic products of the juste milieu, Munkácsy’s genre paintings assimilate the novel ideas of the avant-garde, taming them to appeal a more conservative bourgeois taste.

Mihály Munkácsy: Father’s Birthday, 1882 (detail)

As one of the objections against Munkácsy was that he had not taken the route of the Impressionists, it is no wonder that art historians have tried to find traces of the most ‘progressive’ tendencies in his work, which then provided an even greater reason to lament the fact that he had not gone all the way. One of the paintings often mentioned in this context is Dusty Road, possibly painted in 1883. (There are two versions of this painting; the other, now in a private collection, was probably painted in 1874.) This painting, however, does not necessarily presuppose a knowledge of Impressionism; it is more reminiscent of Turner’s work from the early 19th century. But the most important point is that even if it is so, it does not entitle us to label Munkácsy’s art as backward and the painter himself as a troglodyte. He was simply reaching back to a different tradition. The example reminds us that the usual narrative of the avant-garde is only one of the several storylines along which the story of 19th-century art can be told.

Mihály Munkácsy: Dusty Road II, 1883? (Hungarian National Gallery)

Let this suffice now as a sketchy introduction to the Great and Overwhelming Munkácsy Question of Hungarian art history. It might be evident by now that what lies at the heart of the problem is the fact that Munkácsy – the Greatest Hungarian Painter – had not lived and worked in Hungary. How can his art be connected to the history of Hungarian art? And if it can’t, why doesn’t it at least fit into the mainstream narrative of modernism? How can we be proud of Munkácsy, if he is neither a Hungarian painter, nor one of the greatest French painters? These questions are never articulated so bluntly, but they lurk under the surface. And even deeper, there is the question of whether Hungarian art can be defined at all – either based on the ethnicity of the artist, or on his geographic location. I plan to discuss this problem in my next blog post.

Mihály Munkácsy: Grazing Cows, 1882 (Hungarian National Gallery)

* Ferenc Gosztonyi, “Két fejezet a Munkácsy-recepció történetéből” [Two Chapters from  the History of Munkácsy's Reception], Enigma, 2005, No. 44–45, p. 70.

** See the bilingual exhibition catalogue: Munkácsy a nagyvilágban. Munkácsy Mihály művei külföldi és magyar magán- és közgyűjteményekben / Munkácsy in the World. Mihály Munkácsy’s Works in Private and Public Collections at Home and Abroad. Exhibition catalogue, ed. Ferenc Gosztonyi, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery – Szemimpex Kiadó, 2005. I am especially basing this blog post on two essays in the catalogue: Judit Boros, “A Hungarian Painter in Paris: Mihály Munkácsy’s Career between 1870 and 1896,” pp. 33-60; Katalin Sinkó, “Munkácsy’s Religious Painting and the ‘Sacred Realism’ of the Fin-de-Siecle,'” pp. 61-86.

5 thoughts on “An Innocent Young Painter, His Ambitious Wife, and the Greedy Art Dealer: Mihály Munkácsy and the Munkácsy Question

  1. It’s a little frustrating to be too uneducated in this area to discuss the topic intelligently, but I was struck by one similarity to the literary world. Often authors who achieve popular success are denigrated as “less than” by the literary elite (or at least those who aspire to be in this group.) I imagine there are artists who “sell out” and neglect their art for the sake of art, but it seems to me that for many monetary success might just free them to pursue their art. Just as marrying well can free an artist from worrying about financial success. On this note though, it’s nice to hear that his marriage was genuine.
    As always a great read. Thank you!

  2. I just visited the Hungarian National Gallery today and saw their “Milhaly Munkacsy” collection, which was fabulous! My husband and I are visiting our son in Budapest (we live in California) and this was our first exposure to Munkacsy’s art. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, because it gave me much greater insight into the artist’s life and work. Now I want to visit the Deri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary to see the artist’s “Christ Trilogy” paintings.

    • Thank you very much for your kind comment! I am glad you enjoyed your visit to the National Gallery. I can certainly recommend you visit the Déri Museum in Debrecen. Unfortunately, only two of the three paintings are on view now, but it is still impressive and well worth a visit.

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