At one end of the sphere, his works often capture the earthy but spirited vigour of Hungarian peasant life. At the other, there were the highly refined and delicate “salon scenes” celebrating the splendid surroundings of the wealthier classes. But binding these together are his distinctive focuses on the inward facial expressions of the characters in each scene: his works are marked by sharp human observations with an almost stage-like array of characters.

Munkácsy himself rose from modest beginnings as a carpenter's apprentice to a highly acclaimed artist who went on to host nobility at his luxurious house in Paris. This distinguishes “a Munkácsy” so definably because he had clearly been there, knew what it was like from all sides and immaterially “captured all” through his own works.


Certainly he welcomed prosperity and was happy to be the successful artist. But underneath, his was a searching spirit with an affinity for those far less fortunate. While often plagued with self-doubt, creativity prevailed and saw him through. His final recognition elevated him to equal stature with other major European artists such as Monet, Degas and other celebrated painters of the end of the 19th century.

He adopted a pseudonym in 1863, in tribute to his original home town, for Munkácsy was born Mihály Leó Lieb in 1844 to a Bavarian family in Munkács, now known in post-Trianon terms as Mukachevo in today’s Ukraine. But the family’s time in Munkács was short-lived, as they had to flee when the 1848 revolution swept across the region.

After spending much of his early life on the move, Munkácsy finally left this region and studied art in Vienna, Munich and Düsseldorf. He finally settled in Paris, where he became influenced by contemporary French art movements, without losing his own personal touches in style and theme.

In his early career, Munkácsy painted mainly scenes from everyday life showing labourers and poorer people. At first he followed influential styles of contemporary Hungarian painters, such as Károly Lotz and János Jankó, with works such as “The Cauldron” (1864) and “Easter Merrymaking” (1865).

A little later Munkácsy started to paint his famous wild, sweeping landscapes such as the symbolic “Storm in the Puszta” in 1867. This shows a highly dramatic Hungarian whirlwind setting on the sweeping central flatlands (the “Puszta”) just as a storm is breaking, on what must have been a stifling, high summer's day.


In 1869, Munkácsy painted his much-acclaimed work “The Last Day of a Condemned Man”, often considered his initial masterpiece. Although atmospherically bleak, it also suggests moral uncertainty, overcoming an ordeal and some kind of impending doom. This work captures Munkácsy at his most compelling. Around this time, he received the Order of the Iron Crown from the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Franz Joseph I.

Although he continued to paint genre pictures such as the “Woman Gathering Brushwood” in 1873, Munkácsy also completed a memorable portrait of Hungarian pianist Ferenc Liszt, a renowned public figure on the same social scene.

In 1878, Munkácsy painted “The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughters” – a new milestone in his oeuvre. This picture was bought and sold by an Austrian art dealer, Charles Sedelmeyer, who not only offered Munkácsy a 10-year work contract but finally established him as a highly-esteemed member of the Paris art world.

Sedelmeyer wanted Munkácsy to paint large-scale Bible pictures. In 1882, Munkácsy painted “Christ in Front of Pilate” followed by “Golgotha” in 1884. The trilogy was completed with “Ecce Homo” in 1886, and they were taken on a successful tour across Europe and the US. These depictions continue to be admired today.


At the height of his fame, Munkácsy did not abandon genre paintings but his settings began to change; he started receiving commissions for fanciful “salon delights” set in lavishly furnished settings. His most ordinary subjects were images of motherhood, such as “Baby's Visitors” in 1879, a title that speaks for itself, alongside other happy moments of domestic life such as “The Father's Birthday” in 1882.

Enchanting pictures such as “In The Palm House” belong in this category. Elegantly dressed young women also appear in landscape settings such as the “Three Ladies in the Park” in 1886. Though marking a major contrast to his other works, these paintings were also highly praised and sought-after.

In addition to his urban commissions, Munkácsy continued to show a strong fascination with intensely emotional rural landscapes such as the unmistakable “Winter Road”, another scene from the Hungarian Puszta, or “Alföld”, region. It shows a warm glowing sunset breaking over otherwise chilly countryside.

Towards the end of his career, he painted two monumental works, “The Hungarian Conquest” for the Hungarian Parliament and the fresco “Apotheosis of Renaissance” for the ceiling of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

Although Munkácsy remained loyal to his origins, he was clearly a celebrity. Nonetheless he had a neurotic side as he often doubted his abilities.
By the 1890s, depression had turned into severe mental illness; resulting in a final few troubled and bizarre pictures, such as the bewildering “Victim of Flowers” in 1896.

Munkácsy's health rapidly deteriorated. He collapsed and died on May 1, 1900. Eight days later his body was laid to rest at Kerepesi Cemetery in the Józsefváros district of Budapest.

Neither 19th-century visual art nor Hungarian history is complete without mentioning Munkácsy. His repertoire marks the apogee of national painting as he is one of a few whose colour techniques reached the most powerful forms of expression. In homage to the great painter, various symbolic locales are to be found, such as street names, schools and museums dedicated to his memory – most obviously the Munkácsy Mihály museum at Békescsaba.

In 2005, the Hungarian National Gallery organised an all-encompassing exhibition of his paintings, which by then were spread among collections all over the world. As many as 120 pieces were rounded up from different institutions, museums and private collectors for this event. The exhibition, titled “Munkácsy a Nagyvilágban” (Munkácsy in the World), was a proud moment for Hungarians and admirers of the painter alike, allowing them to finally see his works assembled together at this all-important venue.

I personally had my first Munkácsy sighting with the charmingly painted “Promenade in Parc Monceau,” at an exhibition in 2007, in his original home town. This particular painting – well, a poster – has decorated my family’s kitchen wall ever since.

Munkácsy exhibitions are hosted not only at the National Gallery, Budapest, but occasionally around the country. Very recently there was an excellent show at Balmazújváros, a small town near Debrecen. For further details, contact the tourist information board. For more specialised information, see the “Munkácsy Alapítvány” ('Munkácsy Foundation) online.

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