Monday, August 28, 2017

Mihaly Munkacsy

(from "A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900" by Will H. Low)

Mihály Munkácsy

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
Having known Mihály Munkácsy almost upon a footing of intimacy in my early sojourn at Barbizon, I had followed his career with interest. Fortune, artistic and material, had smiled upon him. He had a magnificent house with a studio that was one of the show places of Paris, and in every way he seemed marked as one of Fortune's favourites. Stories were told of visits to Budapest, the populace unharnessed the horses and drew his carriage through the streets in a burst of enthusiasm for their compatriot of world-wide fame.

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.

I gave him a brief account of myself and then told him that I was at work nearby on a ceiling for a new hotel in New York. "May I come and see ?" he asked. He tone seemed almost eager. "Now may I accompany you?" Of course I assented, very sincerely flattered, yet not a little puzzled by the strange insistence of his tone. We shortly reached the studio where my work was nearly completed. There was the most simple sincerity in his expression as he lavished his extravagant praise.

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 work on which Munkacsy was engaged was a frieze for the Parliament house in his native country. It was about sixty feet in length by probably fifteen feet in height and stretched diagonally across the immense studio. Munkacsy began at once. "I have been ill, very ill, but I am determined to make this my best work, and above all to make it light in tone." Then calling two servants he directed them to set up the sketches for the work.

"The Hungarian Conquest" by Munkacsy
There were three and painted to quarter-scale, each fifteen feet long - formidable canvases in themselves. "There" he resumed eagerly, "that is the first sketch. It is like mahogany; and then I made the second one there. That is lighter, is it not? But it was not light enough, so I've made a third still lighter. And I hope that the big canvas may be yet lighter."

"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: )

(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:

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