No painter of foreign birth has in the past century received more honour at the hands of the French; successive medals in the Salon, a medal of honour at the Universal Exposition of 1878 and a grand prize at that of 1889, had been followed by the cross of Commander in the Legion of Honour in 1890. From the first, the dealers had fought for his pictures, and marriage had increased his wealth and social position.
|"The Artist's Studio" by Mihaly Munckacsy|
|"Paris Salon, the Wife of the Artist" by Mihaly Munckacsy|
|"Woman Carrying Faggots" by Mihaly Munckacsy|
The artistic appreciation of Munkacsy had hardly kept pace with his popular and material success, however, and artists and critics, once loud in his praise, had for a number of years looked coldly upon his work, and each successive Salon no longer marked a triumph at the time when, by chance, I met him one morning as I was on my way to my studio at Dubufe's.
Crossing the boulevard I saw that a tall stranger had dropped a portfolio, whence had escaped a number of drawings which he was now stooping to recover. As I came nearer and he rose before me, face to face, I recognized Munkacsy. I asked him if he remembered me. He looked at me intently with a puzzled air until I mentioned my name and that of Barbizon and then, true to his impetuous nature, he almost embraced me.
He returned again and again to dwell upon the clarity and lightness of tone of my work, and more than once he repeated, "Yes, I remember you were painting much lighter than the other men at Barbizon when you were there. It is evidently easy for you while I, I paint black. My work is heavy, it is the bitumen. Bitumen has been my ruin, everyone tells me so."
"And now you must come with me." Munkacsy's studio at Neuilly was, if possible, even larger than the one that I occupied, fitting with hangings of the most expensive nature, and the whole aspect was fairly palatial. A well-trained servant stepped forward to remove our coats, and drawing forward chairs, we seated ourselves.
|Mihaly Munkacsy in His Studio|
|"The Hungarian Conquest" by Munkacsy|
"I am reproached for my bituminous tones. Everyone is painting light for the Salon. Oh, much more than they used to do. No, I must paint light." Suddenly he broke out in a tone whose memory still haunts me, so dejected and hopeless it seemed to be, to come from one so favoured by fortune, so visibly surrounded by the evidence of his long-sustained success.
"You don't live in Paris. You have never known a Salon success. You are fortunate. It is pleasant, everyone praises you. It is "cher maitre" here, and "cher maitre" there, and year after year it goes on until it becomes a necessity of your existence. Then they begin to pick flaws. My Hungarian pictures bored them, so I gave them Parisians - and then they called my work upholstery and said that I was a creature of the dealers and incapable of affronting "la grande peinture."
Then I did my "Christ before Pilate," a real success with the public at least, and with the artists too, though some hung back. And then they began to reproach me with painting dark, and since then there has been no peace. It is like being thrown to the wild beasts. For what does it matter if the dealers clamour for my work, they, too, will stay away before the critics get through with me.
|"Ecco Homo" by Munkacsy|
Even now I hear whispers that my painting is only suited to Vienna or Budapest, and some day I may be obliged to retire there when Paris has sucked me dry. But you see I must paint light, or adieu to the Salon." His tone was so weird and unnatural that before he had ended I was convinced that his reason was unbalanced, any not many months after he was taken to a sanitarium."
Munkacsy's Last Years
"The damage to his nervous system from syphilis, which he had contracted in his youth worsened considerably. Because he felt so poorly, he had to leave early from the last great reception organized in his honour. He spent a whole year in Baden-Baden, Germany, where his physicians continued to try the usual hydrotherapy treatments. However, he slowly fell into a state of dementia, and became upset by even the idea of creation. In January, 1897, he had to be transferred to the psychiatric clinic in Endenich, Germany.
Munkácsy died after a long illness and suffering in a state of unconsciousness on May 1, 1900. On May 6th, his body was delivered to Budapest where it laid in state in the Art Gallery. A cordon was set up around the building and the catafalque could be visited only with an admission ticket. The burial took place on May 9th in the Kerepesi Cemetery. The outstanding figure of the Hungarian and European painting, the painter prince, was accompanied by hundreds of thousand of people at this end of his life’s journey. The farewell speech was made by his fellow painter, Károly Telepy."
(These last two paragraphs are from an excellent site devoted to Munkacsy: http://munkacsyalapitvany.hu/en/the-life-and-work-of-mihaly-munkacsy )
(Also what Will Low did not know, or did not share in this account, was that Munkacsy had had an exceedingly difficult childhood as described in this very interesting article by Cathy Locke: https://musings-on-art.org/munkacsy-mihaly-munkacsy)