Hungarian Impressionism: A Counterpoint

In my previous post I discussed three artworks that share the motif of the lark, musing on the local rootedness of art and the cross-cultural understanding of deeply ingrained cultural tropes. One of the works was Skylark by the painter Pál Szinyei Merse, an artist often associated with Impressionism. In the post I argued that although Szinyei’s landscapes share with the French Impressionists a modernist search for new modes of expression, this in itself does not make them impressionist paintings. Given that he had never travelled to Paris, Szinyei had not encountered impressionist painting, and consequently could not emulate impressionist painting techniques. ‘In his pictures, shapes remained well defined and colours remained solid, even if more nuanced, more saturated with light, than in traditional academic painting.’

After publishing the post, I had a really interesting conversation with an art historian friend, which has left me wondering.* As my friend pointed out, we rarely have an accurate idea of what artists really knew about; we just pretend we do. Yes, we read their letters, diaries, we try to track their travels. But do we have access to all the conversations they had, all the bits of info they overheard at the pub, all the little pieces of news they read and made a mental note of? Of course not. What if Szinyei had heard about the Impressionists from someone who had been to Paris? Indeed, in an autobiography he remembered how artists who had been to the Paris World’s Fair of 1867 had described, with much excitement, the new modern French landscapes they had seen. Hearing about the fresh colours, the effortless compositions he had never seen, seemed to confirm, “ab invisis”, his own artistic goals.** Conversations such as these must have happened every day, many of them unrecorded. For instance with his close friend, the German painter Wilhelm Leibl, who had met Manet in the French capital in 1870. What if Leibl described some interesting new paintings to him? What would he have made of that?

Pál Szinyei Merse: Picnic in May, 1873 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons
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