The exhibition has been organized by the State Hermitage in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest and Imre Pakh (New York). This is the first time that a large-scale retrospective of the artist, presenting over 60 of his works, will be held in St Petersburg.
The oeuvre of Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900) occupies a unique place in the history of Hungarian and world art. It combines in a harmonious manner a variety of tendencies and genres. The triumphant dignity of his monumental works, the naturalness of his salon scenes and the realism of his portraits represent an artistic treasure comparable with the creations of the best-known European artists. The painter’s personages reflect his own sufferings and struggles in life. His realistic genre paintings make up a mosaic of scenes from the life of the Hungarian peasantry, while his salon art, on the contrary, depicts an ideal, carefree urbane existence.
Mihály Munkácsy’s works were rated highly by the critics, collectors and his fellow artists. Ilya Repin called him a superb colourist; Vladimir Stasov noted his “merciless realism”: “Munkácsy is one of the most resolute, indomitable realists in Europe… He is bold, incisive, misguided, yet profoundly truthful and expressive: the creators of new schools and tendencies are always like that.”
One of the reasons for the exceptional interest in Munkácsy’s art is his rich biography, which includes both dizzying ascents and falls, darkest misery and dazzling luxury, bitter loneliness and a hectic social life.
Mihály Munkácsy’s real name was Michael Leo Lieb. He was born in the small town of Munkács in the Hungarian part of the Habsburg Empire (today it is Mukachevo in Western Ukraine) into the family of an official of Bavarian origin. Munkácsy stressed his ties to Hungary throughout his life and chose the name of his birthplace as his pseudonym. After losing his parents at a young age, he was brought up in his uncle’s family. On his uncle’s advice he began an apprenticeship as a joiner, but the hard work made him ill and he was obliged to give it up. At that same time, Munkácsy took up art and received his first lessons in painting from the itinerant artist Élek Szamossy. On his recommendation, Mihály Munkácsy set off to Budapest, where he continued to study art. He later pursued his training in Vienna and Munich. In 1868 he became a pupil at the academy in Düsseldorf of Ludwig Knaus (1829–1910), a master of multi-figure compositions and a gifted landscape painter. In 1967 Munkácsy had visited Paris, where an acquaintance with the works of the French artists Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet made a powerful impression on him. Works from Munkácsy’s early period include Tipping Hay Cart (1867) and Yawning Apprentice (1868–69). The former was the first step on the way to a new style – realist genre painting; the latter a recollection of the hard trials of his youth. A sort of summing up of this period is the painting The Condemned Cell or The Last Day of the Condemned Prisoner. When he showed it at the Paris Salon in 1870, the picture brought the artist a gold medal and popularity.
A key moment for Mihály Munkácsy’s destiny was his meeting with Baron Edouard de Marches and his wife Cécile (née Papier). The couple became a tower of strength for an artist who was constantly tormented by doubts about his own talent and a fear of lack of recognition. With their assistance, in 1871 Munkácsy moved to Paris and then he worked at Barbizon. Such realistic scenes as Corner of a Forest with Two Figures (circa 1873). Gypsies on the Edge of the Forest (1873) and Woman Carrying Brushwood (1873) were painted under the influence of the Barbizon school.
Then the artist’s life took another abrupt turn: his patron, Baron de Marches died and, after a period of mourning, Mihály Munkácsy married his widow. In the second half of the 1870s, the character of his works changed. He started to paint compositions showing elegantly dressed young ladies conversing, reading or making music, young children and cute domestic animals, in bright, cosy interiors settings. The first of his genre pictures, depicting life in society drawing-rooms or salons was Paris Interior. Reading Woman in 1877, followed by At the Piano (1878), Two Families in the Salon (1882), The Little Sugar Thief (1883) and more. For each of them he produced a large number of sketches and painted studies.
At that same time the artist was in constant search of new subjects. In the mid-1870s he became interested in the life story of the 17th-century English poet John Milton, in whose fate Munkácsy found parallels with his own. In 1878 the artist painted Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters. Thanks to the successful choice of subject, the elegance of the composition, the fine way the character of the personages is conveyed and the original painterly treatment, this work brought Munkácsy worldwide fame. For the picture he was awarded the Order of the Iron Crown and elevated to the nobility by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef I. At the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the jury awarded the work a gold medal.
The exhibition also includes two tremendous canvases from the artist’s celebrated trilogy devoted to Christ’s Passion – the superb multi-figure compositions Christ before Pilate (1881) and Golgotha (1884). For the first work the artist painted 35 sketches, the second was accompanied by the appearance of 15 studies, including Executioner with Ladder (1882) and Figure of a Man Climbing a Hill (1882).
The portrait was one of Mihály Munkácsy favourite genres. The artist possessed the ability to subtly sense the mood of his models and that allowed him to produce some superb images. Among his best is the Portrait of Franz Liszt, the outstanding Hungarian pianist and composer, painted in 1882. The exhibition also includes his Portrait of Madame Munkácsy (1875), Portrait of a Girl (1874) and Self-Portrait II (1881).
Throughout his life the artist also painted landscapes. Among the examples featured in the exhibition, a special place is taken by Dusty Road II (after 1874), which presents the effect of sunlight piercing through a cloud of dust raised by a passing peasant cart. Sky and ground merge, while the wreathes of pinkish-yellow dust, passing smoothly into the band of cloud in the sky turn a mundane landscape into a fabulous rainbow vision recalling the works of the British artist William Turner.
One of the major projects in the last decade of the artist’s career was a commission for the ceiling painting above the grand staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A large number of studies were produced for that huge work, including the colour sketch Apotheosis of The Renaissance (1882–86) – the fifth in the surviving series of painted studies – that appears in the exhibition.
In his relatively short life, Mihály Munkácsy managed to accomplish a great deal. His main purpose always remained his creative work. Devotion to his vocation demanded strength and courage, but doubts about his own talent forced the artist to constantly prove its existence and at times made his life unbearably hard. Those contradictory feelings manifest themselves in the combination of strength, simplicity, emotionality and realism found in his paintings, which are unusual for their time.
A scholarly illustrated catalogue in Russian has been brought out for the exhibition (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2018). The exhibition curators are Mikhail Alexandrovich Anikin, Candidate of Art Studies, senior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art, Mariann Gergely and Edit Plesznivy of the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery (Budapest).