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Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900)

Mihály Munkácsy is the most well known artist in Hungarian history of art both at home as well as abroad. His reputation was based on his unprecedented international success and his near-romantic biography. The poor, orphaned joiner’s assistant, became the prince of art in Paris when made a Chevalier of Legion of Honour and then received a title of nobility from the king. He always happily went to his homeland, where already in his lifetime he achieved a cult-like status, and even in Paris he remained just simple Miska. This influence still lives on today, the art of Munkácsy, the Munkácsy-phenomenon is still very much part of current art historical discourse.

Mihály Munkácsy’s family (born Lieb) is of Bavarian origin but moved to Hungary in the 18th century, and he was born in the town of Munkács (in current day Ukraine). By 1850 he became orphaned and was raised by his uncle in Békéscsaba (Hungary), where he learned the craft of joinery. In 1861 he met the painter Elek Szamossy who took him on as an assistant. His first original compositions were painted around 1862-63. He moved back to Pest in 1863 and with the support of the National Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts he started his studies in 1865 at the Academy in Vienna, however after half a year he moved back home for financial reasons. In 1866-67 he studied in Münich and he created his first serious works during these Münich years. At the end of 1868 he went to Düsseldorf, to become a student of Ludwig Knaus. And it was there that he painted the Last Day of a Condemned Man (Siralomház) for which he won the gold award at the Paris Salon. International recognition soon followed and at the turn of 1871-72 he moved to Paris, where the Baron de Marches became a generous supporter. The Baron invited him to his castle in Colpach, and the year following his death in 1874, Munkácsy married his widow. From this time onwards the glorious Villa Munkácsy by the Parc Monceau became the centre of lively social events. Munkácsy’s wife considered it important that her husband played the role of an important artist in the eyes of the public as well.

It was the painting Milton (1878) that brought about a major turning point in Munkácsy’s life, as up to this point he had only painted realistic genre pictures. His new art-dealer, Charles Sedelmeyer signed a ten year contract with him, and began to organize world famous exhibitions for his work, the highlight of which was the 1886-87 American winter tour. By this time the artist had received international success with his big Christ pictures (Christ before Pilate, 1881 (Krisztus Pilátus előtt), Golgotha, 1884). In the 1880s he was painting upper middle class salon genre paintings, 17th century’s historical subjects, as well as numerous portraits on commission.

Munkácsy’s landscapes were painted in the early 1870s in Barbizon, where he spent a great deal of time with his friend László Paál. Later he preferred to paint landscapes surrounding Colpach in Luxembourg.

After the death of his friend, Hans Makart, Munkácsy received an assignment to paint the ceiling of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the wall painting was finished by 1890, The Apotheosis of Renaissance (A reneszánsz apoteózisa) shows Munkácsy in a new and unknown role as an academic painter. His last big commission was a 60 square meter composition about the Magyars’ Conquest for the still under construction Hungarian Parliament. In 1896 he finished the third part of the Christ Trilogy, the Ecce Homo, but after this due to illness he couldn’t paint anymore. In 1900 he died at the Sanatorium in Endenich. His funeral in Budapest is still considered to be the biggest and most ceremonial for any Hungarian artist.