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The Beginnings of the Fine Arts

The creation of institutions of art, science and culture in Hungary in the first half of the 19th century was motivated by an intention of catching up with other civilised nations in Europe. With the foundation of the Hungarian National Museum (1802) and the Hungarian Learned Society (1825; the predecessor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) art also came to occupy its rightful place within an interrelated system of knowledge. Rich in symbolism, allegories of the Academy painted by Pál Balkay and Johann Ender articulated this intention.

The revival of Hungarian art became a subject matter of artworks in a more indirect manner as well. István Ferenczy's Young Shepherdess was a symbol of the urgent need to create independent, national art. The ancient legend of a girl drawing a portrait of her sweetheart in the sand was in fact a narrative of the invention of fine art, which is also shown by Ferenczy's original title The Beginnings of the Fine Arts. Due to its reception in Hungary, and especially to the enthusiastic welcome extended by the greatly respected author Ferenc Kazinczy, the statue came to be perceived by contemporaries and later generations as the first great achievement by a Hungarian artist and the symbol of the birth of Hungarian fine art. On the other hand, the Portrait of Mihály Csokonai Vitéz was intended by the sculptor as an initiative to establish a national pantheon comprising portraits of highly respected Hungarian greats: it proclaimed the greatness of the poet and the sculptor alike.

Károly Markó's Visegrád embodies the start of Hungarian historical landscape painting-a genre which was to come to great prominence later on during the 19th century. Another painting by Markó, Pearls of the Sacred Days of Yore, made reference to the circle of literati who were also working to facilitate the establishment of art institutes, and the rise of a new generation in literary circles. The work was an illustration of an epic poem written in German by the Archbishop of Eger, János László Pyrker, and subsequently translated into Hungarian by Ferenc Kazinczy, who thereby triggered a fierce controversy. During the so-called "Pyrker Debate" Ferenc Toldy attacked Kazinczy, criticising not only the latter's translation but Hungarian aristocrats in general, who were using German as the vehicle of their thoughts in writing. What was at stake was in fact the leading position in the Hungarian literary scene; the arguments however were about the mother tongue and national characteristics.